At the beginning of almost every season, there are a handful of teams on the verge of making a coaching change. Some of them maybe should have just done it at the end of the previous year but wanted to give the team and coach one last chance to prove themselves. Others are more of a reactionary move to a bad start. This season is no different. Most of the necessary coaching changes were made by the end of last season, so there is only one major candidate in the first category. In the second category there are a few teams who are having difficulty taking their game to the next level. With the windows for winning being absurdly small in the NHL, teams cannot afford to plateau well before their shot at the Stanley Cup.
With that, we take a look at five NHL coaches on the hotseat (or damn near it) as we begin the 2019-20 season.
1) Bruce Boudreau
Bruce’s seat is, in my opinion, the hottest in the league. The Wild are a perennially mediocre bordering on good team that was never able to make it to the next level and whose Cup window has now closed. Previous general managers brought Bruce in to try and find the right guy to take this team to the next level, and unfortunately, he was only able to accomplish regular season success.
Boudreau is in his fourth year with the Wild. Despite a 19-point jump in his first season, the team has declined in points every year since, down to 83 in 2018-19. The Wild are not projected to be anywhere near a playoff spot this season, signalling another likely decrease in points. With Minnesota off to a soaring 0-2 start, Bruce’s short leash may be getting shorter very quickly.
Despite new GM Bill Guerin publicly giving Bruce a vote of confidence when he joined the Wild organization, it is common and expected that a new general manager will want to bring in his own coaching staff to both match their plan for the team and put their stamp on the franchise. Additionally, with the Wild’s performance now being on the downswing and entering rebuild territory, changes will inevitably be made. The coach is almost always the first to go.
There may not be a rush to replace Boudreau mid-season, however, giving him a little bit more leeway for the remainder of the year. With Boudreau’s contract expiring at the end of the season and the Wild not expected to compete for a playoff spot, Bill Guerin may just ride the year out and choose not to offer Bruce a new contract this offseason once he has a chance to fully evaluate the state of the franchise and begin implementing his plan.
2) Peter DeBoer
San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson is an absolute mastermind in what he has been able to acquire and accomplish in his position. This team has only missed the playoffs once in the last 15 seasons, and (on paper) are poised to yet again make the playoffs and compete for the division title.
Under DeBoer, the Sharks have managed to post four seasons with increasing point totals. Each year they have improved by one point in the standings, 98-99-100-101. Which I think is enough of an accomplishment on its own, personally. San Jose also made their first Cup Finals appearance in DeBoer’s first season with the team.
That is, unless the team has an incredibly slow start and feels the need to make a coaching change. I did not expect to be putting DeBoer on this list until watching the Sharks’ first four games (and first four losses). San Jose has more resembled a team that would have trouble keeping up with the Senators so far than challenging for first in the Pacific. They have been slow, sloppy, and uninspired early on this season. Granted, their first two games were against the dominating Golden Knights, a difficult challenge for any team. But, game three against the Ducks was barely any better.
The flaws in the Sharks’ game so far have been the type of rust you would hope has been shaken off through training camp and the preseason. I cannot pinpoint exactly where in the preparation process this went wrong, but some of this has to be placed on the coaching staff having trouble getting through to the players and motivating them. The Sharks did lose a couple key players this offseason, including former captain Joe Pavelski, but most of the team has returned and it is baffling to me how little chemistry they seem to have on the ice.
It is still very early (four games at the time of writing this) so things could very realistically turn around by game 10. But if the Sharks are still struggling come that time, Wilson may begin looking to make a coaching change to salvage the year.
3) Paul Maurice
Make no mistake, if Paul Maurice gets fired in Winnipeg, it is very unlikely to be his fault and more likely to be just to make a change. The roster he is leading this season is decimated compared to the seasons prior and due to this, the Jets went from Cup contenders to being written out of the playoffs in early season predictions. And, in the Jets’ most successful season under Maurice, the trip to the Conference Finals in 2017-18, a major reason why they lost to the Golden Knights was due to the fatigue of a gruelling seven game series versus the Predators. Nothing to do with Paul, directly, anyways.
In times of struggling, the coach is often the first to go to try and give the team a jump start for short-term gains.
However, this is not the entire story. The Jets have been surprisingly inconsistent during this stretch with most seasons having at least a 10 point swing in the standings compared to the prior year. In 2018-19, when the roster was at its strongest and expected to be a powerhouse in the Central, they had a mediocre final two months of the season and were quickly dispatched by the Blues in the first round of the playoffs.
As I said, Maurice would only get fired as a tool for Kevin Cheveldayoff to use to try and give the team a boost, not really for his performance. With how much of a hit the defense has taken over the offseason, it would not be the least bit surprising to see the Jets miss the playoffs. But the inconsistency of the team during his tenure and inability to push the roster to the next level may signal the need for a change sooner rather than later. If the Jets get off to a rocky start, Maurice may be a candidate for replacement by mid-November.
4) Jon Cooper
Why is the coach of the best team in the NHL on this list, you ask? Because the team has not been able to win the ultimate prize in his time with the Lightning, which includes a stretch where Tampa Bay made the Conference Finals three out of four years, including a Cup Final loss, with no Cup to show for it. Instead, what we have now is a team that was just shockingly swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets after a record-tying regular season looking to exact some revenge on the league.
But, one major reason why Jon Cooper may find himself on this list is the actions of his captains and leaders, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, during the difficult playoff series’. In each of the last two seasons, both of these players have gotten visibly frustrated near the time the Lightning got eliminated. People have emotions, go figure. But, it is not simple frustration that is the issue. It is how it is expressed on the ice.
This culminated in a one-game suspension for Kucherov after boarding Markus Nutivaara in last year’s series with the Blue Jackets. In addition to this play, you will find the two of them getting outplayed and off the scoresheet, taking out frustrations with slamming sticks, slashing, and sucker punching in times of adversity. When a coach sees this, they need to get through to the players and help them channel that frustration in better, more productive ways. Cooper has failed to do that thus far.
You can only try and fail at the same thing so many times before it becomes painfully obvious it is time for a change. If the Lightning make another lengthy playoff run and once again fail to win the Stanley Cup, a change at head coach may be necessary. Or, if the team has trouble getting into the season (as they have thus far with a 1-1-1 start), Cooper may have a fire under his chair very quickly.
5) Mike Babcock
Yeah, yeah we saw the articles all summer confirming that the working relationship between Leafs GM Kyle Dubas and coach Mike Babcock is perfectly fine and he won’t get fired. But we also saw how that has played out in other markets (say hello to Michel Therrien for us) so who knows what to believe.
Regardless, we find ourselves with another coach who is struggling to take his team to the next level. The Maple Leafs have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, including two at the hands of the Boston Bruins. It’s not all on the Leafs, though, since Boston just has a damn good team that knows how to win. There comes a time, however, where the change in head coach becomes necessary to push the team past their apparent plateau.
Toronto’s Cup window is now and they cannot afford to max out at mediocrity (literally, their cap situation is quite concerning at the moment). We already know that Timothy Liljegren only made the opening day active roster because of his cap hit maximizing LTIR savings, not necessarily because he was good enough to.
One last point of note is the team that is being put together for Babcock. We know he is a coach who fawns over the gritty guys and gives them more ice time than they maybe deserve (at the expense of some of the more skilled players). So what does Kyle Dubas do? Remove a number of players who fit Babcock’s style and stuff the roster with skill guys.
This is not being insinuated as conflict between coach and GM, but I do question whether Dubas may be interested in a coach with more focus on skill to better suit the team on the ice. I do not foresee this being a thing now or during the season, but if the Leafs fail to make it past the first round yet again, we know that Babcock’s name will be added to the hotseat, especially in Toronto media circles.