Who is on the hot seat for the 2011-2012 NHL season, and what will it take to secure their job?
The cardinal sin of NHL coaching is
underachievement. When owners sign those checks with all the commas on them,
they expect results in the form of deep playoff runs, if not the Stanley Cup
itself. The following four head coaches are under pressure to deliver this
season, and a first- or second-round exit, or even a 5-20 stretch during the
regular season, could spell curtains for them.
New Jersey Devils – Peter DeBoer
When Peter DeBoer
stands behind the bench during the Devils' season opener against the
Philadelphia Flyers this year on October 8, he will be the team's third coach
in two seasons. Last year the team got off to a horrible 9-25 start under John
MacLean, then turned it around completely when Jacques Lemaire took over, and
ended up threatening to make the playoffs as an eight seed, before falling just
Lemaire retired after the season, and
former Florida head coach DeBoer was brought in to take the reins of a
high-dollar roster headlined by wing Ilya Kovalchuk. Scoring star Zach Parise
should be back to 100 percent effectiveness after missing all but 13 games last
year, a big reason why New Jersey finished dead last in the NHL in scoring at
2.08 goals per game. The number four overall draft pick, defenseman Adam
Larsson, will be given every chance to make the team and should provide a badly
needed injection of enthusiasm.
The Devils are unlikely to play for the
Stanley Cup this season, but they are far too good to completely miss the
playoffs again. Martin Brodeur's advancing age adds another element of pressure,
after all, no hall of fame goalie should have to put up with the ignominy of
missing the playoffs in his final seasons. If the team's play is limpid once
again, and management feels the coaching is to blame, they have already proven
they're not afraid to make a mid-season switch. Even if there is no Lemaire
waiting in the wings this time.
New York Rangers – John Tortorella
The ouster of Isiah Thomas and the return
of the New York Knicks to respectability may have done more than anything else
to put pressure on third-year coach John Tortorella. It seems expensive
ineptitude is no longer the order of the day in Madison Square Garden, which
means that third place in the Atlantic division and another first-round loss in
the playoffs may not be enough to keep Tortorella around.
Following the blueprint of other
major-market non-contenders like the New York Mets or Washington Redskins, the New York Rangers once again signed the biggest-name free agent available, former Tampa
Bay Lightning and Dallas Star, Brad Richards. If Richards performs anything
like other former big-name acquisitions like Wade Redden, Chris Drury, Scott
Gomez or Marian Gaborik, Tortorella may be headed for waivers, and Richards for
an expensive contract buyout well before his nine-year, $60 million deal is up.
L.A. Kings – Terry Murray
After collapsing against the San Jose
Sharks in the playoffs, LA Kings management aggressively improved the team's
roster with the additions of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne. If Anze Kopitar
returns from injury at full strength and the team is able to sign defenseman
Drew Doughty to a contract extension, the Kings will be perceived as a team
whose time is now.
If a team that can put Kopitar, Mike Richards,
Gagne, Doughty, Dustin Brown and Jack Johnson on the ice can't make it deep in
the playoffs, it will be perceived as Murray's fault. Since finishing 5th in
the Pacific division in his first year in L.A., Murray has led the Kings to
back-to-back 46-win seasons. Impressive enough, especially in a tough division.
However, the Kings have lost in the first
round of the playoffs the last two years, and slipped from 101 points in year
two under Murray to 98 in year three. Another regression, or failure to advance
out of the first round, will spell the end of Murray's fourth head-coaching
This may be a tall order: Murray is good at getting his teams into the
postseason, but he has gone home after the first round in five out of 12 trips
while making it to the Cup finals only once. (Where his Philadelphia team's
infamous loss to Detroit cost him his job.)
Washington Capitols – Bruce Boudreau
Boudreau has proven that he can coach, as
the Caps have won the Southeast division in each of the four years that he has
been at the helm. In fact, under Boudreau, the Caps have won nearly everything
besides the Stanley Cup: the Art Ross Trophy, Maurice "Rocket"
Richard Trophy, Lester B. Pearson Award, Calder Trophy, and Boudreau's own Jack
Adams Award, for starters.
After turning Washington into a
goal-scoring dynamo when he first took the team over, Boudreau revamped the
squad into one of the NHL's best defensive groups last year, only to get the
same result: playoff frustration. This year's loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning
was especially ignominious: a sweep in the second round in which the Lightning
often seemed capable of scoring at will.
So they have failed to win with offense,
and now failed to win with defense. Defense is nice, and no one ever won the
Cup with a a sluggish blueline, or less than committed back-checking. But a team
that dresses players with scorers' mentalities like Alexander Ovechkin,
Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green should never finish in the
bottom half of the league (19th, to be exact) in goals per game.
Boudreau can take heart from the example
provided by Claude Julien. As recently as May 16, Julien was the coach of a
team in a 0-2 playoff hole to a lower-seeded team, with a non-functional power
play and a road trip to Montreal on the docket. When one thought of the Bruins
recent playoff experience, one thought of the team's epic collapse from a 3-0
lead to losing in seven games against Philadelphia the year prior.
responded by reeling off three wins in a row against the Habs en route to
winning the series, followed by exorcising their demons by sweeping the Flyers,
followed by winning the Stanley Cup. If Boudreau can maintain the Caps'
defensive excellence while getting Ovie and co. to score like their old selves,
a similar change in the way he is perceived could be in his near future.