The NHL coaching fraternity is a notoriously tight circle with old coaches getting hired by one team, then fired, and finding their way to another team down the road. All you have to do is look around and see familiar names: Trotz, Montgomery, Bowness, DeBoer, Tortorella, and the list could go on and on. The point is that the lifecycle of an NHL head coach rests in the here and now. Forget about what they did even a year ago; fans, pundits, and especially front-office general managers are equally wrapped up in current performance only and if your team is tanking, you get to join the dubious list of head coaches currently sitting on top of a barbeque grill waiting to get burned.
The 2023-24 NHL season isn’t even officially one-third over with about 30 regular season games played and already three head coaches have been torched due to their current team’s “performance.” We get it – head coaches are brought in by the ownership and GMs, paid big dollar amounts to help the team win the Stanley Cup each season. The problem with that scenario is that out of 32 NHL teams, only one team can hoist the Stanley Cup each year in June when the playoffs are over. Is winning the Cup a true measure of a team’s overall success? With big-time sports dollars riding on winning it all, having a winning season and making the playoffs certainly is no guarantee of job security for a head coach these days.
Which coaches already hit the unemployment line?
Truth be told, any NHL head coach could be terminated at any moment for any whim on the part of team ownership or a powerful GM who’s set incredibly high sights for their coaching staff to achieve this season. All you have to do is look at the coaches who’ve been culled already this season and realize that no coach is truly safe. Goodbye Jay Woodcroft from Edmonton; Dean Evason complained about the lackluster style of play in Minnesota and was given a pink slip for his comments and Craig Berube is the latest member of the NHL coaching fraternity to start having to file for unemployment.
In all fairness, these former head coaches were paid a lot of money to get the job done and there’s plenty of playing talent in Edmonton, Minneapolis, and St. Louis with the recent season turnarounds with both the Oilers and the Wild, coaches are accountable for team performance. The St. Louis Blues are off to another lackluster season and after missing the playoffs last year, Craig Berube already painted a huge target on his back. Forget about helping bring the only Stanley Cup to St. Louis in team history; Berube’s job rating simply was tied to how the Blues were doing this season.
Is the hot seat getting warmer for other coaches right now?
At this point in the season, there could be many coaches who feel the constant strain of their team’s nightly performance but I’ve focused on three head coaches who are getting their rear ends burned right now. The first on my list is Ottawa Senators head coach D.J. Smith. The Senators have played some of the least amount of hockey so far this season but haven’t found this year to be kind to them with an 11-14-0 record and sitting among the cellar dwellers in the Eastern Conference (see the next head coach for further explanation.) Smith has been the bench boss with the Sens for the past four seasons and has never taken them to the playoffs. With new ownership in town, they fired GM Pierre Dorion and Smith certainly could be the next in line to start looking for a new job. A 3-7-0 record in the last ten games certainly doesn’t help the Smith cause right now. While Smith looks safe at the moment, coaches serve at the whim of their GMs and the ownership which means that a coaching change could be in the works.
Another coach who was brought in to make some sort of miracle happen is none other than Pascal Vincent in Columbus. What, no Mike Babcock? It’s a seriously bad omen when you watch your new head coach resign before the season even starts but the Blue Jackets’ GM Jarmo Kekalainen had to do exactly that with complaints about Babcock’s methods of “getting to know” his players drew the ire of the NHL PLayers’ Association. Enter Pascal Vincent as the “newest” new head coach in Columbus. If the Blue Jackets remain true to their form, Vincent will be cannon fodder as a 10-16-5 season record so far indicates that Columbus will more than likely miss the playoffs yet again come next spring.
I’m kind of sorry for having to mention his name but Dave Hakstol also is a prime candidate for a quick exit up in the Pacific Northwest. Last season, the Kraken was truly unleashed up there in Seattle and with rookie sensation Matty Beniers, this franchise made the playoffs in only their second season of existence. Fast forward to the 2023-24 season and this team should be renamed the Seattle Plankton because this team is primarily food for hungry opponents and with a 2-6-2 record in the last ten games, Hakstol has to be looking over his shoulder for security to escort him out of the building at any moment. I think Hakstol is a great coach and has the potential to turn around the Kraken this season. However, time and memory are short in the NHL and nobody cares what you did last season; coaches are judged solely on what your team record is right now.