There is an expression in sports that coaches are hired to be fired. It is certainly true in hockey, particularly in the summer. This past summer the NHL saw six coaching changes, in the summer of 2022 there were 10. While it is commonplace for teams to make a coaching change after a disappointing season, there is always the possibility of an in-season move to give a jolt to an underperforming hockey team. The Pittsburgh Penguins did it twice in 2009 and 2016 where they made an in-season coaching change and found themselves lifting the Stanley Cup at the end of the season. The same goes for the St. Louis Blues who went through a similar fate in 2019 with Craig Berube at the helm under an interim head coach tag.
Given that the in-season coaching change is possible. Let’s look at which NHL coaches could be on the hot seat this year should their team falter.
D.J. Smith – Ottawa Senators head coach Smith hasn’t had a lot of success in Canada’s capital city. As Steve Warne wrote in The Hockey News back in May, 11 other head coaches have been both hired and fired since Smith took over behind the Senators bench. Ottawa has been incredibly patient with Smith and their rebuilding club given that they have yet to experience any regular season success a half-decade into the rebuild. Many fans in Ottawa were calling for Smith’s job last season, but general manager Pierre Dorion elected to keep his bench boss for the time being. As Adam Proteau wrote in The Hockey News this past month, the new ownership group in Ottawa will be looking for quick results this upcoming season. One must believe that if Ottawa struggles out of the gate this season or appears destined to miss the playoffs by mid-season, Smith could be the first coach to be let go.
Craig Berube – As mentioned above Berube was brought in by St. Louis as a mid-season replacement and led the Blues to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Since that cup victory, the Blues have just one playoff series win and are coming off a year in which they missed the playoffs. While the blame doesn’t rest squarely on Berube, he did appear at times to be increasingly frustrated with starting netminder Jordan Binnington and he seemed to be unable to answer for some of the problems plaguing St. Louis last season. A fresh start should do Berube well this season, but if the team stumbles out of the gate once again all bets will be off. Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic doesn’t believe Berube will be fired, but he also doesn’t rule it out depending on how the team fares this upcoming season.
Mike Sullivan – Sullivan is a two-time Stanley Cup champion as a head coach and has cemented his legacy in the city of Pittsburgh regardless of how his relationship one day ends with the Penguins. While there were many calls last season to relieve Sullivan of his duties, Penguins ownership had little desire to move on from the 55-year-old. Last year the Penguins missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006, but in the eyes of ownership, it appears that failure rests squarely on the previous management group. The Fenway Sports Group has already shown a lot of faith in Sullivan by extending him prior to the expiration of his current contract and by heavily involving him in the search for the team’s next general manager. At this time, it seems unlikely that Sullivan would be removed unless the Penguins absolutely collapse during the regular season.
While this list is hardly exhaustive, it does give a snapshot of which coaches have had their names bandied about as possible in-season coaching changes. D.J. Smith certainly seems like the likeliest candidate given that he is the only name on the list without a Stanley Cup to his name. But Stanley Cup-winning head coaches have been fired before, and no coach is above being fired no matter how good their track record is.