The job security of an NHL head coach is tenuous at best, and while that may be unfair, it’s easy to see why. After all, when it comes to fostering change, it’s a whole lot easier to get rid of one guy (or one coaching staff) than 23 players. With last week’s firing of Pete DeBoer and the unlikelihood of a full-scale blow-up, it appears that the Vegas Golden Knights are on the well-traveled path of changing the coach and running it back.
It’s not that DeBoer did anything particularly wrong amidst a disappointing, injury-marred season in Vegas, but any sense that a turn-around is coming probably requires some kind of reset and having a new voice in the room was the easiest way to go. How effective the change will remain to be seen, not to mention what other moves are in store for the roster.
Instead of looking ahead and guessing how things will go (that didn’t work out well for me this past season), let’s look back and explore some recent examples of the “change the coach and run it back” approach in the offseason to see how things panned out for other teams.
(Note: in addition to in-season coaching changes, I’ve also omitted instances where some form of a rebuild is taking place, including recent coaching changes in Anaheim, Ottawa, Arizona and New Jersey.)
Edmonton Oilers (Dave Tippett)
Season Before Coaching Change: 35-38-9, 79 points; missed playoffs (2018-19)
Season After Coaching Change: 37-25-9, 83 points; lost in Qualifying Round (2019-20)
If you’re looking for encouraging trends with regards to coaching changes involving the Edmonton Oilers, you’d much rather look at the remarkable impact of their move from Dave Tippett to current head coach Jay Woodcroft. But the focus here is offseason coaching changes, so the focus is, instead, on the earlier decision to move on from Ken Hitchcock and hire Tippett, Ken Holland’s first major move as general manager (GM).
While the Tippett hiring can hardly be called a slam dunk (he lasted just two and a half seasons), his first season behind the bench was a modest success. The Oilers actually earned more regular-season wins and points despite playing 11 fewer games than the year before. Leon Draisaitl also enjoyed a superstar leap, earning the Hart Trophy after an NHL-best 110-point campaign. However, Tippett wasn’t able to get them over the hump in the Qualifying Round, as Edmonton lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, the lowest-ranked Western Conference team to advance.
New York Rangers (Gerard Gallant)
Season Before Coaching Change: 27-23-6, 60 points; missed playoffs (2020-21)
Season After Coaching Change: 52-24-6, 110 points; currently in Eastern Conference Semifinals (2021-22)
A familiar face for Golden Knights fans, one couldn’t blame Gerard Gallant if he got a measure of satisfaction out of being named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award within days of DeBoer, a bitter rival and his Vegas replacement, being shown the door. Indeed, as he had previously done in Florida and Nevada, the veteran head coach stepped behind the New York Rangers’ bench this season and instantly sparked an improvement in the Blueshirts.
While all-world goaltender Igor Shesterkin probably deserves the lion’s share of the credit, Gallant oversaw a 52-goal breakthrough by Chris Kreider, a career-high 96 points from Artemi Panarin and the Rangers’ highest point total since 2014-15. They’ve already won their first playoff series in five years and it remains to be seen how much further they can go with their current second-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes tied at two apiece.
Washington Capitals (Peter Laviolette)
Season Before Coaching Change: 41-20-8, 90 points; lost in the First Round (2019-20)
Season After Coaching Change: 36-15-5, 77 points; lost in the First Round (2020-21)
If you want to get technical, Peter Laviolette saw the Washington Capitals’ points percentage rise from .652% before he came on board to .688% over his first season behind the bench. Beyond that, however, it’s pretty tough distinguishing what impact the coaching veteran of more than 1,300 NHL games has had in the nation’s capital. Perhaps most significantly, Laviolette hasn’t ended a playoff slump that has seen the Caps go 0-4 since their 2018 Cup win.
To kick off his first season in charge, Laviolette oversaw an instant surge as Washington remained unbeaten in regulation over its first nine games of the shortened 2020-21 season. They finished tied for the East Division points lead but went 1-1-1 in the seeding round-robin to earn a date with the New York Islanders, who beat them in five games. Laviolette remains in the role, so there’s still hope for a turn-around under the 2006 Stanley Cup winner.
Columbus Blue Jackets (Brad Larsen)
Season Before Coaching Change: 18-26-12, 48 points; missed playoffs (2020-21)
Season After Coaching Change: 37-38-7, 81 points; missed playoffs (2021-22)
For as cool as it is to see a long-time organizational staffer rise through the ranks all the way to head coach, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ hiring of Brad Larsen last summer did seem a little underwhelming, especially given that he was replacing John Tortorella. Larsen didn’t prove his doubters wrong by overseeing a dramatic turn-around that had Columbus playoff-bound, but he did lead the club to some modest gains even as they shed some notable veteran players.
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While Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen didn’t oversee a full-blown rebuild last summer, he did make significant changes by trading away Seth Jones and swapping out Cam Atkinson for Jakub Voracek. Still, Larsen took a team that had finished in the Central Division basement and elevated them ahead of the Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers in the Metropolitan Division. Furthermore, he was reportedly an integral source of support in the aftermath of the tragic death of Blue Jackets goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks last summer (from ‘In hours after Matiss Kivlenieks’ death, Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen raced to comfort Manny Legace, Elvis Merzlikins,’ The Athletic. 7/07/21).
Carolina Hurricanes (Rod Brind’Amour)
Season Before Coaching Change: 36-35-11, 83 points; missed playoffs (2017-18)
Season After Coaching Change: 46-29-7, 99 points; lost in the Eastern Conference Final (2018-19)
Apart from Mike Sullivan leading the Penguins to two Stanley Cups in just 136 regular-season games behind the Pittsburgh bench, there might be no more shining example of “change the coach and run it back” than Rod Brind’Amour and the ‘Bunch of Jerks’ Carolina Hurricanes. The two-time Selke Award winner took a young, developing ‘Canes team from 12 points out of a playoff spot to the Eastern Conference Final in his rookie season as a head coach.
Under Brind’Amour, Sebastien Aho and Teuvo Teräväinen enjoyed breakthrough campaigns in 2018-19 while new offseason addition Dougie Hamilton and then-rookie Andrei Svechnikov paid immediate dividends in a season most remembered for the rise of the ‘Storm Surge‘. Brind’Amour has sustained that early success, winning the Jack Adams Award in 2021 and guiding Carolina to four straight playoff berths, including an already-promising run this spring.
There’s a reasonable track record of success here, even if none of these recent coaching changes led to a Cup (not yet, anyway). Whoever takes over the Golden Knights will have a salary cap boondoggle and a litany of long-term, big-money contracts on their hands, but also a deep, talented and playoff-tested roster that knows how to win. I guess it could be worse!
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.