Being a head coach in any professional sport is a good way to experience meager job security. But even relative to coaches in other sports, hockey’s bench bosses have it especially tough. According to research Peter Tanner conducted for FiveThirtyEight a few years ago, the average NHL coach stayed in his post for 2.4 seasons, which was roughly the same as the average for the NBA (2.3) and much shorter than the typical coaching tenures in the NFL (3.6) and MLB (3.8).
And that was before this season’s carnage on the ice.
After the Minnesota Wild unceremoniously dumped Bruce Boudreau last week, a grand total of eight NHL teams have changed coaches so far this season. That’s in addition to the seven teams that made changes over the previous offseason, meaning 15 of the league’s 31 teams — or 48 percent — have switched coaches since the end of last season.
Suffice to say, that’s a tremendous amount of coaching turnover. Since hockey’s Original Six era began in 1943, there had never been a season with more than 14 new coaches from one season to the next before 2019-20 — so we’ve already seen history made this year with interim coach Dean Evason replacing Boudreau in Minnesota. And this year’s eight in-season coaching changes are in a four-way tie for the second-most since 1943, trailing only 1981-82 (when nine teams switched coaches midseason).
Also, keep in mind that we’re only about two-thirds of the way through the 2019-20 season, so there is still technically some time left for even more coaches to be fired. (Even if, in practicality, the league is quickly running out of underperforming teams that might be poised to let their coaches go.)
The reasons for this season’s bloodbath have been unusually varied, too. Most of the time, a coach is fired either for a poor record relative to expectations, for a lack of recent playoff appearances or because of a sudden shift in front-office politics. And that certainly applies to some of this year’s shakeups: Boudreau, Mike Babcock (Toronto), John Hynes (New Jersey), Peter DeBoer (San Jose), Peter Laviolette (Nashville) and Gerard Gallant (Vegas) were all fired after underwhelming starts to the 2019-20 season, with Boudreau, Babcock and Gallant each being fired by a general manager who hadn’t originally hired them (and Hynes being fired by a GM who himself was let go about a month later).
But the sport was also rocked in November by a scandal prompted in part by Babcock’s firing. Former Calgary Flames winger Akim Aliu alleged that then-coach Bill Peters — a Babcock disciple — had hurled racial slurs at him when both were in the AHL and conspired to get him demoted. Another player, Michal Jordán, then accused Peters of physical abuse. Peters stepped down several days later, and the ripple effects extended further throughout the hockey world, with several other high-profile cases of abuse coming to light. Perhaps as part of the overall climate of reckoning, the Dallas Stars fired coach Jim Montgomery for “unprofessional conduct” in December, which was later revealed to be related to alcohol abuse.
All of those factors have come together to make this arguably the toughest 10 months ever for hockey coaches at the game’s highest level. And while it’s hard to muster any sympathy for Peters or (to a somewhat lesser extent) Montgomery, there’s a cruel irony around the coaches who were let go for on-ice reasons. ESPN’s Emily Kaplan recently talked about how when a coach is fired, she reflexively looks up how bad the team’s goaltending stats are, since they usually correlate so strongly with an underperforming team — despite being largely beyond the coach’s control (or perhaps anyone’s control, for that matter).
Sure enough, if we measure goaltending by goals above replacement (GAR), which adds up the total net goals added or saved by each skater and goalie based on his box score stats, none of the six teams that fired their coaches for poor performance this season ranks any higher than 23rd in GAR between the pipes:
Many of these teams also had problems extending well beyond shaky netminders, of course. But their sieve-like goaltending didn’t help — the same way a superior backstop could potentially have saved the jobs of other equally mediocre bench bosses across the league. Even basketball coaches have the stability of star players to hold onto in the face of crushing job insecurity. But by relying on streaky goalies and icy puck-bounces as much as they do, hockey coaches are at the whims of near total randomness.
In fact, this season’s coaching carousel has delivered perhaps the most comical examples of the profession’s chaotic ups and downs. DeBoer and Hynes were both let go by their season-opening teams before New Year’s … only to both be hired by new teams by mid-January! How could not one but two teams’ coaching trash be two other teams’ treasure? That could only make sense in a world where coaches are largely hired and fired on the basis of factors beyond their control. And if this season has proven anything, it’s that NHL coaches do not have control over much — most especially their employment status.