The National Hockey League has become a revolving door for head coaches. This year, seven teams are in training camp with a new head coach. Three of the new guys are replacing coaches who were new to the position just last year. Last year, the season began with 11 new head coaches.
How many of the 31 NHL head coaches have been with their current team at least seven years? Answer – none.
Jon Cooper, head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning was hired in March of 2013. That makes him the longest tenured, currently working head coach in the league. Half of the remaining 30 head coaches have less than two years on the job.
This trend toward short-lived head coaches is new to the NHL. The question is – why?
The short answer is, of course, losing costs a coach his job. But how can there be so many losing coaches? Doesn’t someone have to win those games too?
Is It Possible to Have Too Much Parity?
The common belief is that professional leagues in every sport strive for parity among their teams. Yet, the fans love a dynasty. They like to see it rise, and they love to see it fall. But the National Hockey League has achieved the dubious position of actually having parity almost across the board. Only Tampa Bay were run-away division winners last year, and they got swept out of the playoffs in the first round by wild-card qualifier, Columbus.
When seemingly every game — every single point — is critical to making the playoffs, any faltering inevitably leads to a coach being fired. The 2018-2019 season had several incredibly close races, but getting close doesn’t count.
Eastern Conference 2018-2019
Each conference qualifies three teams in each of its two divisions. Last season in the Eastern conference, the six leading teams and the two wild-card qualifiers looked like this:
Tampa Bay Lightning 128 pts.
Boston Bruins 107 pts.
Washington Capitols 104 pts.
New York Islanders 103 pts.
Pittsburgh Penguins 100 pts.
Toronto Maple Leafs 100 pts.
Carolina Hurricanes 99 pts. (wildcard)
Columbus Blue Jackets 98 pts. (wildcard)
The Montreal Canadiens finished with seven wins and one tie in their last 10 games, only to miss the playoffs with 96 points. Eight teams missed the Eastern conference playoffs. Four of those fired their head coach:
Florida Panthers 86 pts.
Philadelphia Flyers 82 pts.
Buffalo Sabres 76 pts.
Ottawa Senators 64 pts.
For the Flyers, this is their second consecutive year with a new head coach. In the East, the head coach was a 50/50 chance to lose his job if he missed the playoffs. The Detroit Red Wings took a different path this season — they kept their coach, fired their GM, and brought back their Hall of Fame captain, Steve Yzerman, to take over the front office.
Western Conference Merry-Go-Round
Central Division (Western Conference)
The Nashville Predators won the Central division with 100 points. In second and third place were the Winnipeg Jets and the St. Louis Blues, both with 99 points. The last two weeks of the regular season saw Winnipeg fall out of first place, and St. Louis vault out of a tight wild-card race. That final regular season push served the Blues well — they went on to win their first Stanley Cup since they came into the league in 1967.
Parity probably saved several head coaching positions in the Central Division, but at least two coaches are already on high alert as the new season approaches. The Chicago Blackhawks and the Minnesota Wild could be on early season lookout for new bench general.
Pacific Division (Western Conference)
Calgary had an easier time taking down the Pacific division with 107 points, followed by San Jose (101), and the Las Vegas Golden Knights (93). The Golden Knights edged out Dallas (also 93) for third place, leaving the Stars in a wild-card slot.
The real action in the Pacific division came at the bottom of the standings. The Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers, and Anaheim Ducks finished last, next to last ,and dead last. All three teams missed the playoffs and fired their head coaches.
Longest Lasting NHL Head Coaches
Has something really changed in the NHL coaching ranks? Are head coaches being fired more often today than in the past? Only one current head coach has been at his job longer than six years. Half have yet to see a third season with the same team. This isn’t like the old days in the NHL.
Scotty Bowman is the dean of NHL head coaches in terms of longevity. He was behind the bench for 2,141 games with five teams. He coached Detroit in more than 700 games, and was with Montreal for another 600+.
Another 27 head coaches have over 1,000 games coached. Many of those were in the days where the teams only played 50 games a season.
But today, the rule seems to be playoffs-or-your-fired. And teams are no longer waiting for the offseason to hand the coach his walking papers. Expect at least one coach not to make it past the holidays this year. Wonder what the odds are on that?