Every game has a winner and a loser and not every team can meet or exceed expectations each year. Even entering a new season in which every team has a clean slate, it’s not incorrect to state that some NHL teams will struggle in 2019-20. And when that happens, the head coach is usually the first one to go. There are 31 head coaches in the league and one of them will inevitably be the first one fired this season. Who has the best chance of earning that unfortunate title?
Several names can likely be ruled out immediately – although anything can happen. Anaheim’s Dallas Eakins, Buffalo’s Ralph Krueger, Edmonton’s Dave Tippett, Florida’s Joel Quenneville, L.A.’s Todd McClellan, Ottawa’s D.J. Smith, and Philadelphia’s Alain Vigneault are all beginning their first season with a new team. In most cases, that affords them at least one year of job security before their seat can start warming up. However, in the event of a massive collapse or poor locker room dynamics, it’s not unheard of in hockey for a coach to be one and done.
It was a strong season for rookie head coaches last year though. Calgary’s Bill Peters, Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour, Chicago’s Jeremy Colliton, Dallas’ Jim Montgomery, Washington’s Todd Reirden, and of course, reigning Jack Adams Award-winner Barry Trotz of the New York Islanders all excelled in their first year on the job. It’s hard to imagine any of the group having a hot seat, barring a major disappointment against expectations. The New York Rangers’ David Quinn had a much tougher task for a team that internally had an eye on moving assets and developing young players, but the former top college coach will likely be given another year to work with a revamped lineup.
Other names whose seats are probably very cold: Stanley Cup combatants Craig Berube of the St. Louis Blues and Bruce Cassidy of the Boston Bruins. Both exceeded expectations last year and were rewarded with multi-year extensions in the off-season. Gerard Gallant, whose Golden Knights made a magical run to the Cup Final two years ago in their inaugural season, is likely safe as well.
Who does that leave as a candidate for the hottest of seats? Despite a record-breaking regular season, all eyes will be on Jon Cooper and the Lightning as they look to bounce back from a shocking first-round sweep. Cooper is the NHL’s longest-tenured head coach, but he could lose that mantle if Tampa Bay isn’t a top-ten team all season and at least an Eastern Conference finalist. Similarly, Toronto and Mike Babcock had a strong regular season, but again could not fight their way past Boston in the first round. Babcock may to avoid any regular season struggles to even get back to a likely postseason re-match with the Bruins, as many feel his seat has warmed considerably. John Tortorella got his franchise their first ever playoff series win last year, but the Blue Jackets watched a ton of talent walk away this summer and Tortorella faces the tough task of getting the team back to the postseason. Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice, the second-longest tenured coach behind Cooper, faces the same difficulty of leading a team whose Stanley Cup hopes have been shaken this summer. Jared Bednar’s Avalanche were a surprise in the playoffs as well, but moved in the opposite direction this off-season and are a popular dark horse pick to win it all this year. High expectations demand results and Bednar’s job could hang in the balance if Colorado cannot take a step forward this year. The Devils’ John Hynes is certainly under a lot of pressure as well, as New Jersey missed the playoffs – by a wide margin – last year and responded with arguably the most impressive off-season in the league. Many will expect the Devils not only to make the playoffs, but to be competitive. Other coaches whose teams need to take a step forward via playoff success are Nashville’s Peter Laviolette, San Jose’s Peter Deboer, and perhaps even Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan. Coaches whose jobs could depend on making the playoffs include Arizona’s Rick Tocchet, Minnesota’s Bruce Boudreau, and Montreal’s Claude Julien.
The two outliers of the group: the Red Wings’ Jeff Blashill and the Canucks’ Travis Green. Neither team is expected to be a legitimate playoff contender, but at the same time both men need to show a marked improvement in their teams. Blashill has been in Detroit for four years but has little to show for it. Green enters his third season in Vancouver having fallen short of ownership and management’s lofty expectations in the previous two. It’s hard to set benchmarks for what would either save or end both coaches’ jobs.
All 31 coaches have a seat to start the year. Whose is hottest and in the most danger of being lost before the others?
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