Saturday, January 2, 2010

What Really Puts a Coach on the Hot Seat?

The notion of winning and losing in the National Hockey League is always at the forefront when it comes to the job security of head coaches and their staffs. At the end of the day, when losses pile up, the easiest route to take is to blame the bench boss.

Since the lockout, the advent of the salary cap has essentially handcuffed General Managers when it comes to trades and bringing in new player personnel. Attendance revenues are down across most of the league, which only adds more pressure to win games in a tough economy.

Expectations

This morning, the St. Louis Blues fired head coach Andy Murray. The Blues were 12th in the Western Conference with a record of 17-17-6, but a terrible home record of 6-13-3 and an anemic offense full of young talented players left no choice for President of Hockey Operations John Davidson. Murray and his intense style had simply lost the dressing room in St. Louis.

Last year, the Blues were the feel-good story in the NHL. Murray led this inexperienced squad from last place in February, to the #6 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. With most of the team returning for the '09-10 season, expectations were high and John Davidson exercised an option to keep Andy Murray around for another season.

Last year's improbable run may have been what cost Murray his job this morning. When the team is expected to follow in the footsteps of other young Cup-contending franchises like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks, .500 hockey isn't going to get it done. The demands simply were not being met by the Blues players. Andy Murray said time and time again, these guys know how to get the job done; but when you can't trade away all the players, the coach must take the fall. Today, Andy Murray took the fall.

***

A few weeks ago, Philadelphia Flyers head coach John Stevens got the ax in favor of Peter Laviolette. Are we to assume Stevens hit unemployment for being just several points shy of the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference?

His starting goaltender, Ray Emery, had been reportedly playing with an abdominal injury for weeks. 16-year NHL veteran Chris Pronger was brought in over the summer to lead this team to a Stanley Cup. Yet Pronger isn't sure where he fits in the Flyers locker room, especially when it comes to his relationship with current captain Mike Richards:
"[Richards] hasn’t come to me [to] ask me anything, and it’s delicate because at the end of the day, it’s his team. He’s the captain. He needs to show the rest of the players that it is his team. I don’t want to be the guy that has to stand up every day and tell ourselves to look into the mirror and play better and all this stuff.

"I don’t know if he is ‘rah-rah’ type or talkative type. It is a difficult tightrope to walk. I don’t want to step on his toes. Maybe he is evaluating. You can’t just jump into a situation and ranting and raving without understanding what has gone on here in the past, as well.
The bottom line is this team was expected to challenge the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Eastern Conference elite, and that just wasn't happening. Pronger was brought in to lead, yet doesn't feel comfortable doing it. John Stevens was so well liked by the players, that his forgive and forget approach in the dressing room and behind the bench at Wachovia Center left this team without direction. Ultimately, that led to his termination.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Speaking of the Penguins, their Stanley Cup Championship season last year wasn't all roses. Exactly one year ago, this team was in disarray and free-falling down the Eastern Conference standings. I attended a December 23 game between the Penguins and hapless Tampa Bay Lightning, and saw some of the worst hockey I've ever seen in my life. The Legend of Vincent Trembley echoed these feelings at the time:

Rock Bottom

Zero goals.

Fifteen shots.

Against the godforsaken Tampa Bay Lightning.

If Michel Therrien isn’t peeling paint off the walls right now, consider this season over now.

Michel Therrien was the head coach of the Penguins at the time, and his abrasive, disciplinarian approach was taking it's toll on the young and very talented squad. General Manager Ray Shero gave Therrien as long as he could. Perhaps because he had just signed an extension through 2010-2011. Perhaps because he was a finalist for Coach of the Year in 2006-07. But in the end, Shero felt the time was right to bring in a fresh face and take the team in a new direction.

Enter Dan Bylsma. With Therrien out of the picture and the Penguins searching for direction, Bylsma was brought in to take the reigns on an interim basis. At the ripe age of 38, he was the youngest head coach in the NHL at the time. Fans, management, and players knew it couldn't get worse than it was prior to Therrien's firing, but few could have imagined Bylsma would lead the team to an amazing 18-3-4 record through his first 25 games. As the #4 seed in the playoffs, the Penguins rode the momentum to their 3rd Stanley Cup in franchise history.

That unbelievable turnaround will likely have an effect on the job security of head coaches for years to come. Press the 'Fire Coach' button, win a Stanley Cup. Yet what made the Penguins different was they already had the core in place to win a championship. They were defeated by the Detroit Red Wings in the Finals the year before, and knew what it would take to overcome that final hurdle. The Flyers don't have that kind of experience yet. The Blues definitely don't have it either.


Who's Next?

Head Coach Paul Maurice undoubtedly has his hands full in Carolina as the team continues to battle injuries and face adversity for as long as they have. If you look at their lineup on a day-to-day basis, there are difference makers, but are they on the same page as their coach? Is Paul Maurice's second stint with this lowly club wearing thin? It happened once before and it can happen again. What made Carolina so successful last season after the coaching change, was a familiar voice in the dressing room. Players were quick to adapt to the change, but that was then and this is now. This current lineup should win hockey games, but they are losing not just because of injuries, but a lack of communication. Veterans like Rod Brind'Amour and Ray Whitney aren't getting any younger. It's time to right the ship or dismantle and rebuild.

***

The Columbus Blue Jackets are well on their way to the basement in the Western Conference. In fact, they are just about there. One point from there to be exact. With the talent level currently in Columbus and the numbers to show for, there are no excuses from an offensive standpoint. This was a surprising young playoff team from last year that was very similar to St. Louis.

Defensively and between the pipes, the Blue Jackets are struggling, and a horrible sophomore slump for goaltender Steve Mason has not helped matters much. All of this being said, you still have to wonder if Ken Hitchcock plays any type of role in their embarrassing 14th spot in the conference. The answer is simple, he does.

Ken Hitchcock's intense philosophies work best in the initial years of a coaching tenure. The players quickly buy into his theories, and are pushed out of their comfort zone by a strict disciplinarian. All necessary steps to help a franchise grow. But after a few years, the same chirping voice becomes stale. Young players lose complete confidence in their game, and some are pushed away from the team altogether. Columbus' Russian star Nikita Filatov is currently on loan to the KHL, maybe entirely due to an inability to coexist with Hitchcock.

Ken Hitchcock's approach to coaching in the NHL will never change. It's what makes him so appealing to executives around the NHL, and it's what won him a Stanley Cup in Dallas in '98-99. But if the Blue Jacket players are losing interest, as they seemingly have already, it's a no brainer to add Ken Hitchcock to the hot seat.

- Mike Colligan and Darren Coslov





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