Bruce Boudreau and Paul Maurice were both fired today, by the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes respectively, as both franchises attempt turn around their seasons. The timing of these firings isn’t all that surprising considering we’ve just passed the quarter point in the NHL season. The first 20 games are widely considered a litmus test to see where your team is at, and whether changes are necessary. It is also considered a large enough sample size that true evaluations can be made. Fans and media often panic early in the season when a team struggles, but some teams need a little more time to catch their bearings. Remember Boston Bruins fans clamoring for changes after 10 games? How silly do they look now?
Coaches don’t face too much pressure when their teams are struggling through September and October, but when Christmas is around the corner and you aren’t winning, it might be time to contact a real estate agent. Former Devils head coach John MacLean faced the same thing last season. On December 23, 2010, the New Jersey Devils were 9–22–2 and in last place in the Eastern Conference, MacLean was promptly fired. The Devils re-hired Jacques Lemaire and went on a 26-7-3 run that almost got them into the playoffs. The biggest problem for MacLean was that Ilya Kovalchuk, who was signed months earlier to a deal that lasts through 2025, was playing horribly and fans were getting antsy. It is no surprise that a year later, the fates of both Boudreau and Maurice are also tied to under-performing superstars.
In Carolina, Hurricanes captain Eric Staal has 11 points in 25 games and he’s a minus 17. In Washington, the memories of Alex Ovechkin scoring 65 goals are becoming a distant memory, as his goal totals have diminished in three straight seasons, and he’s on pace for a career low 30 goals. What do the stats of Staal, Ovechkin, and Kovalchuk from last year tell us? It says, if you are an NHL coach, your superstars need to perform or you will lose you job.
NHL franchises have so much money tied up in superstar players that they need them to be at their best. The Washington Capitals are paying Alexander Ovechkin $9.5 million dollars for the next decade. For $9.5 million dollars, he needs to be a fifty goal scorer. The Carolina Hurricanes are paying Eric Staal $8.2 million for the next five years. That is an absurd amount of money for a guy that is on pace for 36 points and has been a liability defensively this season.
Some people may say,’Why don’t they trade the under-performing superstar instead of firing the coach?’. Good question, here’s why.
The market value for both Staal and Ovechkin is at an all-time low and the offers from other clubs would be brutal compared to a year or two ago. Even if Carolina or Washington committed to the idea of trading their superstar, the player needs to start producing to increase their trade value. Furthermore, how many NHL franchises can afford a high priced player that isn’t producing? For teams like Nashville, St. Louis, Long Island, Dallas, and Columbus, having a 9 million dollar anchor on the roster would cripple the franchise. A large portion of NHL teams struggle to make money and adding a huge salary without a guarantee of success is a risky proposition.
So the bigger question becomes what are the financial implications of firing a head coach? The answer, not much. Most head coaches make peanuts compared to their players. Firing a head coach is the equivalent of waiving a fourth liner or burying a sixth defenceman in the minors. This is precisely why coaches get fired so often, they are a dime a dozen. Hiring a coach is cheap and because there are only 30 NHL head coaching positions, it’s not hard to find interested candidates, and don’t think the players don’t know that. If you don’t think Alexander Ovechkin knew his poor play would cost Bruce Broudreau his job you are sadly mistaken. He is signed for a decade, Boudreau is signed for a year or two. Ovechkin is making just south of ten million, Boudreau makes pennies.
This is a major problem for coaches at the professional level because it is hard to command respect from the players when they know the franchise has made a greater commitment to them. Imagine if you made more money than your boss at work, wouldn’t that change your working relationship? Imagine if the President of the company paid you ten times what your boss makes, would you still listen to your boss?
It’s hard for a coach to hold a player accountable when the players make more money, and in many cases, can’t be moved. Tons of NHL players have no trade clauses, meanwhile, coaches are basically working month to month or week to week. It is a bizarre scenario that is unique to professional sports. Imagine if your boss was facing a lot of pressure and the possibility of being fired, and you had a contractual guarantee that you couldn’t be fired or moved. It’s crazy!
As far as a player is concerned, they don’t have to start playing better, they just have to wait out the coach.