The start of training camp seems to be a good time to judge which NHL coaches might be on the hot seat given their performance last season. It’s a chance to reflect on what went wrong for some teams and how issues that arose during the season were dealt with or not dealt with, as the case may be.
But we have to go into any evaluation or coach-grading exercise with open eyes and realize that the coming season could change a person’s fortunes. Some of the coaches I am about to mention could have been hard at work this summer trying to get better. In a perfect world, they all would be. That means we can expect that for those who suspect their jobs might be in jeopardy, there could be a sense of urgency around the rink for the next seven months.
I acknowledge that I should update this list as the season progresses to consider how some of these names have fared. Perhaps there will be additions and subtractions, but I’ll leave that until we’ve had some regular-season games in the books. So, with all that in mind, let’s have a look at which coaches around the NHL could be on the hot seat to start the 2021-22 season.
Paul Maurice – Winnipeg Jets
After sweeping the Edmonton Oilers in the first round last season, the Winnipeg Jets fell flat on their face against the Montreal Canadiens.
Last year marked only the second time since relocation that the Jets had advanced to the second round. The team’s first-round victory was only their third playoff series win since 2011. Year after year, it seems the Jets are unable to turn regular-season success into playoff prosperity. Eventually, that is going to catch up to the head coach. After eight seasons behind the bench and several different rosters to work with, the team might be filing for divorce from Paul Maurice if it isn’t where it should be by January.
It didn’t help that the Jets’ top center Mark Scheifele ended last season on the sidelines for the second year in a row. Last year, it was an injury in the opening series versus the Calgary Flames. More recently, a four-game suspension for charging in the final minute of the Game 1 versus the Canadiens kept him out.
It’s never always all the coach’s fault, but questions remain behind the bench. Even if some writers think it would be a surprise if Maurice or general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff are shown the door, it’s apparent changes are coming.
Bob Boughner – San Jose Sharks
After an illustrious 15-year NHL career with eight different teams, Bob Boughner has yet to translate coaching success in the junior ranks to the big league. He won coach of the year with the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires in 2008 and 2009 and won back-to-back Memorial Cup championships in 2009 and 2010. However, in his most recent four seasons — two each with the Florida Panthers and the San Jose Sharks — Boughner has yet to make a single playoff appearance. His potential to leave after this season isn’t hurt by the fact he is in the last year of his contract.
The fact that he will likely be on the hot seat this year has more to do with the changing nature of the Sharks as they rebuild and look for a new focus and team culture than it does his ability as a coach. But being a good coach isn’t enough in a results-based business like hockey. Any coach hired in the NHL is a good coach. The ones that have long-term success also have a little luck.
Boughner hasn’t had much of that with the teams he worked for, and that’s not about to change. This year, the Sharks seem destined for a date with the draft lottery. It feels like that’s where this team needs to go and although the coach might survive the season behind the bench, whether or not he will return in 2022-23 is the big question. The entire team is at a crossroads. Not only is the coaching position open for reassessment, but general manager Doug Wilson might also be pondering his fate throughout the next 82 games.
Jeff Blashill – Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings are another team many believe will still be basement dwellers this season. Mike Babcock’s protégé, Jeff Blashill, might find himself on the way out as general manager Steve Yzerman reevaluates his team.
A savvy GM, Yzerman signed Blashill to a two-year extension in May. Instead of a vote of confidence, however, the short term on the contract signals that his position is probably on the line. Let’s be honest, anyone could have coached recent versions of the Red Wings and not had much success. But going into his seventh year at the helm, Blashill could be approaching “tune out” territory.
I expect Yzerman will be searching this year for candidates to replace the head coach. However, I suspect we won’t hear anything about it until at least after the Olympics and perhaps not until the end of the year. Sure, there’s something to be said about stability in rebuilding years, but signs point towards Blashill’s ship sailing off on the horizon.
Blashill was at the helm when the team made the playoffs in 2015-16, but they’ve missed it every year since. The longest playoff streak in the league at 25 seasons is turning into another kind of streak that has put Red Wings fans in unfamiliar territory. That’s not the head coach’s fault entirely. The team was slipping into a rebuild when he took over, but the fact they are still trying to get the train back on the tracks suggests it might be time for a new voice behind the bench. Blashill was also hired under former general manager Ken Holland, and like many GMs, Yzerman will likely seek to bring in a coach of his choosing.
Alain Vigneault – Philadelphia Flyers
He’s only been with the team for two years, which would usually translate into some job stability for a coach of his nature. But Alain Vigneault could find himself sweating this year if the Philadelphia Flyers stumble again out of the gate and are fighting for a playoff spot in January. Questions remain around whether or not the team’s new additions are enough.
The Flyers are an enigma. The team is always frustrating pundits by doing the opposite of what is predicted. This goes back to 2016-17 when the team was thought to be on the road to success and maybe even crack the second round of the playoffs. Instead, they put in an 88-point season. The following season, many adjusted to have them lower in their projections. Instead, the team came out strong, finishing third in the Metropolitan Division before losing in the first round to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It didn’t stop there. In 2018-19, people were high on the Flyers again, but they disappointed, falling to sixth in the Metro. People again adjusted in 2019-20 to predict that the team would fight for a playoff spot they might eke out if things go right. Instead, they delivered an 89-point season which was good for second. They were so good that had the pandemic not put an early end to play, the Flyers probably would have cracked the 100-point mark. Last year? You guessed it, everyone placed the team-high in their predictions, and they finished near the bottom.
For this reason, (and despite proving that it’s sometimes futile to predict what will happen in the NHL, no matter what mathematical model you use), the Flyers are always an entertaining team to follow. Who knows where they will be by Christmas time, but I’m betting Vigneault will end up somewhere between Coach of the Year candidate and unemployment.
Travis Green – Vancouver Canucks
Adding Oliver Ekman-Larrson, Conor Garland, and Jaroslav Halak was a coup for GM Jim Benning. It also shows that his patience with the team is wearing thin, and he expects that they will be not only contending for a playoff spot but looking for continued postseason success soon.
Should they falter and fumble, Travis Green will be the man who is on the receiving end of some finger-pointing before the new roster gets its share of the blame. He is well respected around the league and might be a good coach, but that doesn’t save you in this league, as I mentioned earlier. Often restless for success, the Vancouver Canucks fanbase could be clamouring for Green to be shipped out if they suffer significantly in the first half.
Coach Changes Offer Challenges
More than ever, NHL coaching jobs seem like they are always in jeopardy. The popularity of fixing the team with a firing picked up after what happened in 2018-19. That year, the St. Louis Blues fired head coach Mike Yeo in November and hired assistant Craig Berube. In January, they were mired in a 15-18-4 record and sat dead last in the league. Then, the team went on a 30-10-5 run leading into the playoffs, where they would win the Stanley Cup.
It’s not a new thing to think firing the coach is one way to change a team’s fortunes, but with that latest example in mind, it seems everyone is trying to catch that same bolt of lightning in a jar. That makes the men I mentioned above nervous and keeps hockey fans and writers glued to their screens. A hockey season is like the weather. Professionals get paid to predict what’s going to occur but sometimes what happens is up to the laws of nature.
Mike Carter is a freelance writer and contributor for the Buffalo Sabres with The Hockey Writers and NHLTradeRumors.Me He is @mikecarterlives on Twitter. Mike has been writing professionally since 2012, with stints as a reporter in northern British Columbia and Edmonton, Alberta. He now calls Salmon Arm, B.C. home.