This past NHL season once again saw a coaching carousel and changes behind the bench.
Head coaches such as the Edmonton Oilers’ Todd McLellan, St. Louis Blues’ Mike Yeo, Chicago Blackhawks’ Joel Quenneville and Los Angeles Kings’ John Stevens were dismissed during the regular season. As soon as the door shut on the year a flurry of firings followed, with the Buffalo Sabres’ Phil Housley and Florida Panthers’ Bob Boughner and Anaheim Ducks’ GM and interim head coach Bob Murray stepping aside.
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Can the same be said for the upcoming 2019-20 season?
There are quite a few coaches that could be on the hot seat – especially if their respective clubs are considered Stanley Cup contenders and have slow starts. Let’s delve into the top six candidates to potentially get the axe first.
(Editor’s note: Coaches who recently signed multi-year extensions like the Flames’ Bill Peters and the Penguins’ Mike Sullivan, and ones reportedly in talks for extensions like the Bruins’ Bruce Cassidy have been left off this list.)
1. Paul Maurice, Winnipeg Jets
The Jets have by no means been horrible throughout Maurice’s tenure as they’ve consistently finished as one of the top teams in the Central Division. Behind a powerful offense featuring Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele, they produced an average of 3.29 goals per game last season. Winnipeg also had the fourth-best power play in the league last year (24.8%).
However, with the defense looking weaker without Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot, there will be higher expectations for Maurice to help maintain the team’s high-grade caliber. Despite the consistent success, Maurice probably has a short leash and could be on the outs if the Jets have a slow start – because another failed playoff run is not an option in the ‘Peg.
2. Travis Green, Vancouver Canucks
Brought on to steer the Canucks’ rebuild, Green has been able to make some progress in his two seasons at the helm. He’s helped to establish a more positive culture with Vancouver while helping the team’s young forwards like Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson ease into the NHL and become stars.
The big negative – this has not been reflected in the standings; the Canucks have yet to be a team to be reckoned with in the Pacific Division or come close to the playoffs under his tenure.
This coming season, the Canucks will have a much stronger lineup with the additions of Micheal Ferland, J.T. Miller, Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn and rookie Quinn Hughes full-time. So, if a team as deep as this one has become, with obvious high expectations, can’t start winning hockey games and climb the Western Conference standings, then Green’s job could be in peril.
3. Mike Babcock, Toronto Maple Leafs
The former Red Wings bench boss has been with Toronto since 2015 and has taken the Maple Leafs from being a non-playoff team to the third-best club in the Atlantic Division.
Yet, despite a roster powered by the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly, the Leafs haven’t gotten anywhere close to making a deep playoff run. They’ve fallen in the first round for three straight seasons, with two of those defeats coming at the hands of the Boston Bruins.
While the offense has been able to thrive, averaging 3.49 goals per game (fourth-best in the league in 2018-19), Babcock could get the hook if Toronto starts slow. With the additions of Alex Kerfoot, Jason Spezza, Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci, who could all add reliability to the lineup – the Maple Leafs are expected to go far in 2019-20.
4. Rick Tocchet, Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes came close to finding success this past season, just missing a playoff spot by four points; however, since Rick Tocchet took over as the bench boss in 2017, Arizona has made little progress in its rebuild.
The only thing Arizona thrived on last season was defense, with the third-best PK (85%) and fifth-lowest GA/GP (2.68). On the flip side, they had one of the weakest offensive units among all 31 teams; Arizona’s leading scorer Clayton Keller finished with just 47 points. A paltry 2.55 GF/GP was fourth-worst in the NHL, coupled with a league-worst 16.3% success on the man advantage.
New acquisition Phil Kessel should help in the scoring department as he reunites with Tocchet, but ultimately the Yotes’ brass hasn’t done much else. Reminder, one scorer won’t change everything.
If the Coyotes again fail to impress, Kessel can’t find his stride and the team as a whole doesn’t take a giant step forward, expect a coaching change – especially with new majority ownership in the desert.
5. Bruce Boudreau, Minnesota Wild
Boudreau has been behind the bench with Minnesota since 2016 and helped the team become one of the toughest competitors in the Central Division; however, the Wild haven’t been able to find much overall success during his tenure. Sure, they made the playoffs twice but fell in the first round both times. This past season, the Wild saw a significant decline in performance, going 37-36-7 and finishing at the bottom of the division.
Overall under Boudreau’s systems, the Wild have been outstanding on defense (2.84 GA/GP, 12th in the NHL last season) and had one of the top-10 penalty kills in the league with an 81.7% success rate in 2018-19. The big hit is Minnesota’s lack of offense. They produced one of the lowest scoring totals in the league (2.56 GF/GP) last year, after being in the top 10 in 2017-18 and second-best in the NHL (3.21) the year before.
As per The Athletic’s Michael Russo, Boudreau was almost fired last season, as now-former GM Paul Fenton tried to dismiss him on multiple occasions, but owner Craig Leipold wouldn’t allow it.
With one of the oldest teams in the NHL, and now a new front office staff, it’s unlikely Boudreau will be kicked to the curb; although a bad start under a new GM looking to make the Wild his own may force this bench boss out of town before the final year of his contract expires.
6. John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets
Okay, hear me out on this one. Tortorella has been able to work wonders with the Blue Jackets, helping them go from a constant non-playoff contender to a solid competitor in the Eastern Conference. He’s been able to benefit from a star-studded offense in players like Cam Atkinson, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, while also having a strong defense anchored by blueliner Seth Jones and Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky.
That’s all changed now with Panarin, Duchene, Bobrovsky and Ryan Dzingel leaving town. Sure, because they’ve now lost all of these players, there’s a bit of leniency if they start slower than expected, but there’s still the possibility Torts is on the hot seat.
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Columbus hasn’t been able to find much success in the postseason. They’ve only won one playoff series in his tenure – granted, that series victory was against the Cup favorites, and NHL-best, Tampa Bay Lightning, but they barely made that meeting despite going all-in with an All-Star roster.
This coming season, Tortorella will have to work on utilizing his systems following the departure of, well, everyone. He’ll probably have a grace period, however, if those systems again can’t push the Blue Jackets towards the top of the standings, the long-time coach may have to pack his bags.
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