Position of Head Coach Overrated in the NHL?

No Gimmicks in Hockey

Randy Carlyle Toronto Maple Leafs can improve
Randy Carlyle (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

When it comes to the sport of hockey, there isn’t much trickery or gimmicks involved. There is no such thing as hidden puck trick, and there are only so many systems of forechecking style to choose from. Hockey has no equivalent to a fake field goal or a perfectly timed all out blitz. Five skaters on the ice at a time are indeed coached to play a particular style of hockey but for the most part, hockey is a simple game of creating time and space on offense, and taking it away on defense. As a fellow hockey columnist pointed out recently, (I believe it was “The Neutral” of Fear The Fin) a “potato” could have coached the 2007 Stanley Cup winning Anaheim Ducks team with Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer anchoring their blue-line. Anaheim’s actual coach at the time was Randy Carlyle, who was fired midseason this year by the Toronto Maple Leafs after fans had been calling for his removal for months.

Cup Winning Coaches Fired

Darryl Sutter's future sits on the fence in Calgary as the Flames run short on time to make the playoffs (Lee Gunderson/Flickr).
Darryl Sutter while with Calgary (Lee Gunderson/Flickr).

A lot of well respected NHL head coaches have been fired and/or changed teams. Dan Bylsma won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 but he was let go a few years later. Ken Hitchcock, who I think would be an ideal fit in San Jose, has been fired a number of times. While I think he would be a good fit for the Sharks, by no means is it predictable for any coach to turn a team around. Who would have thought Darryl Sutter would take the Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup in 2012 after taking over midway through the year? After his miserable coaching and GM stint in Calgary, who saw that coming? Not a soul could have predicted that. John Tortorella has a Stanley Cup as head coach but has been fired recently. Ron Wilson coached Team USA at the 2010 Olympics but no longer has an NHL coaching job. Peter Laviolette was the Flyers head coach for a long time but this year made a splash in Nashville, turning them into a team that could score and finish near the top of the conference. He replaced Barry Trotz who is now in Washington and has transformed Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals into a much better two-way team. Longtime Buffalo Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff is now with Dallas.

Unpredictable Right Guy at the Right Time

Speaking of the right fit for the Sharks, whether Hitchcock or someone else, whoever comes in will be replacing the highly respected Todd McLellan. While the Sharks and McLellan are calling the decision a mutual parting of ways, after seven years, it was probably time. Message style from a coach can go stale. Change for change sake is the primary reason for all the coaching changes in the NHL. McLellan was with San Jose for seven seasons, and that was one of the longest tenures in the league. The average tenure is only a few years. Lots of changes indicates that men behind the bench aren’t all of a sudden having epiphanies when finally finding championship success, they instead just happen to be the right fit at the right time. Joel Quennville with Chicago has a negative reputation amongst a good amount of Blackhawks fans for changing the lines too often. But the man has been the bench boss for Chicago’s two Cups in the last five years! If Quennville was all of a sudden on the market for a new head coaching job, by recent championship success, you would think he would be the most sought after candidate out there. However, methinks both McLellan and Mike Babcock would be higher on many team’s lists.

(Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)
(Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

This isn’t to say coaches don’t contribute to wins and losses, they certainly do have an effect. However, coaches are never the main problem when they are fired. Firing a coach as a team’s only big change is almost always a cop out by teams that simply didn’t perform to their capabilities or weren’t given enough talent to work with by the GM. All of these coaches in the NHL have similar credentials and backgrounds, it is just about the right voice at the right time and it is truly unpredictable on why a coach meshes at a particular time with a particular team. I certainly prefer Hitchcock for the Sharks, but both Bylsma and Tortorella could all potentially come in and win a Stanley Cup with San Jose. Any of the three winning with the Sharks shouldn’t shock anybody. Certainly it would be shocking for them to do it with Joe Thornton still the No. 1 center and Doug Wilson still the GM but if either or both are gone, then yes, any of these coaches could end up being the right guy at the right time.

It is one thing to prefer a certain coach to take over your favorite team, but there is no way of knowing which coach will or won’t work out. Coaches don’t go out and take faceoffs or score goals, their impact is important but it is a much smaller impact than the GM putting together a talented roster. It is why when fans are critical of a team’s performance, more often than not they should point the finger at the GM and not the coach. While yours truly was critical of McLellan’s tenure in San Jose, he wasn’t nearly the main problem. Yes, a change of scenery behind the bench is good for the Sharks but they need far bigger changes to fix the franchises’ lack of unity from the top of the front office down to the players.