NHL Playoffs: The Ex-Coach Strikes Back!

If you’re looking for an early title for the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, you might want to call it The Ex-Coach Strikes Back. There are plenty of storylines when it comes to the playoffs, but one of the more intriguing ones has emerged. On Saturday night, three teams were eliminated, each of which was once coached by the head coach of the opposition a long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away.

Alain Vigneault (New York Rangers), Mike Yeo (St. Louis Blues) and Todd McLellan (Edmonton Oilers) were all given the classic, “We wish you the best in your future endeavors” by their former teams, but came back to haunt them this year.

Mike Yeo (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Yeo made quick work of his former employer (Minnesota Wild) in five games, while Vigneault and McLellan knocked off the Montreal Canadiens and San Jose Sharks in six.

Coaches are often made the scapegoat for franchises that never got over the hump, instead of looking at the makeup of the team needing a change. Then again, it’s easier to fire one coach instead of trading a 23-man roster.

Vigneault & Rangers Eliminate Canadiens

Alain Vigneault coached the Canadiens from 1997-01 and was the second-youngest coach in franchise history. During his 266-game tenure, Vigneault held a 109-118-39 win-loss record over parts of four seasons.

Before Vigneault’s arrival, the Canadiens still felt they could contend despite not making it to the Eastern Conference Final since winning a Stanley Cup in 1993. The pressure was on, and in his first year, Vigneault got the Habs to the second-round in 1998.

As the seventh seed, they knocked off Pittsburgh (second) in six games, but were swept by the Buffalo Sabres in the next round. The Canadiens weren’t good teams during Vigneault’s term, in the final year they were younger, inexperienced and injury-plagued.

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The Canadiens were in denial about their contending years, and while they eventually retooled during Vigneault’s tenure, the coach somehow managed to be nominated for the Jack Adams Award twice!

In the series against the Canadiens, you didn’t have the story of Vigneault trying to exorcise his demons against his former players, but he’s coached against Montreal in the playoffs twice in four years, winning both times.

If the Rangers scored in overtime in Game 2, they would’ve gone back to Madison Square Garden up 2-0. Instead, the Canadiens tied it, then went up 2-1 before Vigneault coached the Rangers to three straight wins to close the series.

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Vigneault left with a 0.483 winning percentage, the lowest of any of his coaching terms in the league. He’s since gone on to have eight 100-point seasons, win seven division titles, and has been to the Stanley Cup Final twice with two different teams.

After taking the Rangers to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final in his first year, he came within one win of being the first coach to qualify for back-to-back Finals since Mike Babcock with the Detroit Red Wings (2008 and 2009). Vigneault hasn’t missed the playoffs once with the Rangers and holds a 0.628 winning percentage through the regular season.

Yeo & Blues Eliminate Wild

If you ask Mike Yeo if he gets any satisfaction knocking off his former team, he’ll tell you this isn’t about him, and it’s about his team. There’s an unwritten rule in sports and coaches know it best; if you don’t win, you can’t expect there not to be changes.

Yeo coached the Wild from 2011-16 for five seasons and was the third coach in franchise history; also its youngest. Yeo held a 173-132-44 record through 249 games, equalling a 0.649 winning percentage.

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During Yeo’s time in Minnesota, he helped the Wild go from missing the playoffs for four straight years (including his first year) to being a playoff team. In 2014 and 2015, the Wild got to the second round but ran into a wall called the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks beat them in six games and swept them the following year.

Minnesota fired Yeo last February after one of the longest losing streaks in franchise history. The Wild lost 13 of 14 games under Yeo and turned the team over to John Torchetti. They eventually hired Bruce Boudreau, and Yeo would end up as St. Louis’s assistant coach next to Ken Hitchcock.

Hitchcock was let go this season, and Yeo was named his replacement and turned the Blues’ season around. This would eventually set the stage for a matchup between two divisional rivals and two coaches with something to prove.

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Yeo set out the gameplan for the Blues, knew his former team far too well, and ultimately knew what it took to beat them. The Blues limited the Wild’s potent power play and killed off 15 of 18 penalties (83.4 percent). They utilized a solid defensive game and held Minnesota to just eight goals (1.60 goals against per game).

St. Louis also took home ice advantage away from Minnesota and won all three games on the road. Yeo has coached the Blues to a 12-1-1 record on the road since March 5.

McLellan & Oilers Eliminate Sharks

Todd McLellan coached the Sharks for seven seasons from 2008-15 and is the winningest coach in San Jose’s history. If the Sharks win at least 40 games a year, it’ll take five and a half seasons for their current coach Peter DeBoer to catch McLellan’s 311 wins.

During his stint in San Jose, McLellan held a 0.647 winning percentage and won three division titles, but ultimately his biggest failure was never getting the Sharks over the hump.

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In six playoff appearances, San Jose made it out of the first round just three times and advanced to the Western Conference Final twice, but never made the Stanley Cup Final. In McLellan’s final year, the Sharks missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003, and there was a mutual agreement to part ways.

At the time only, Claude Julien (Boston) and Mike Babcock (Detroit) had been with their respective teams longer, but McLellan took the fall for an organization that had a general manager that didn’t make enough moves to create a winner and a group of players that were enigmatic at best.

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McLellan knew there was an antidote to the Sharks in a series that looked too close to call on paper. San Jose had been to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago, and the Oilers hadn’t played a playoff game in 11 years, so many figured Edmonton would have a tough go.

The turning point of the series was a 7-0 loss when the Oilers could’ve gone up 3-1 in the series. The Sharks tied it, but immediately McLellan got out in front of the cameras and instilled a belief that this was just a bump in the road. Edmonton had taken 22 penalties in the first four games of the series but regrouped and played two very disciplined games with just four penalties the rest of the way. The Sharks’ power play was abysmal, and their former coach knew it.

Another key was McLellan getting the Sharks frustrated with matchups, especially with their defensemen. He emphasized getting physical with the Sharks’ backend on the forecheck and it made for a tough series for guys like Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun and Paul Martin. McLellan had seen the Sharks’ greatest failures up close and personally, and he exposed them en route to the Oilers winning that series.