Since this years playoffs have begun, the teams that have found themselves on the outside looking in suddenly find themselves with a host of questions that need answering. Invariably, the question that usually gets asked first is, “Do we continue with the current head coach?” Now I’m sure we all are used to the usual media tropes surrounding coaches. Such nuggets like; “He has lost the room.” “He wasn’t a players coach.” Etc. Further to that, you ultimately cannot replace an entire team (yes I know another cliche), especially in a salary cap league like the NHL. The thing I’m wondering is, how can a coach be so valuable and expendable at the exact same time?
The Philadelphia Flyers had a bad season. One of their worst in franchise history. Although the season had a tombstone on it since the beginning of March, Berube’s critics have been out in full force since late November. His critics have been calling out everything from the system that he had implemented, to the personnel decisions that he made, to his personal relationship with some of his players. The funny thing to me was when he was named head coach, there wasn’t really a chorus of excitement. Then he took one of the worst teams in the NHL, and pushed them to one of the hottest teams from November on. From a Flyers fan’s point of view, it was a truly magical situation. The fact that they pushed the Rangers to Game 7 during Round 1 appeared encouraging. Yet by November of this season, many Flyers fans were ready, no screaming for a change. Of course this is the nature of the job, but this job is really a case of, “what have you done for me lately?”
I find Dan Bylsma to be the most interesting of the paradox of NHL Coaches. He was hired by Pittsburgh in 2009 as a rookie coach. At the time, the Penguins were in shambles, yet somehow Bylsma willed them back to the Stanley Cup Finals, and gave the Pens their 3rd Stanley Cup. He hit folk hero status instantly, and the waves reverberated throughout hockey. Not only was he the new superstar (and young) coach of the hottest team in the NHL, he was now frequently linked to international competition, culminating in coaching stints for the American’s at the Olympics. Talk about a meteoric rise, and equally meteoric fall. I’m a little surprised that he hasn’t been scooped up by a team yet. At the same time, near the end of his tenure with the Penguins, the media was known to call into question his in game adjustments, and personnel decisions. Funny if you think about it, a coach revered enough to be coaching team USA, and he isn’t making simple coaching decisions. Like he’s not aware of what he needs to do. Maybe we should ask Mike Johnston how he feels about the Penguins when he loses his job in about a week.
So we are coming up on what could be the craziest Free Agency class for a coach ever. The leader of the pack will be Mike Babcock (who’s team is currently in the middle of dismantling The Hockey News Stanley Cup favourite, Tampa Bay Lightning). Chances are that Babcock ends up sticking around the Red Wings organization. Mind you, if I were him, I wouldn’t mind bringing the cost of business up even higher for my coaching brethren. Its a tough spot. Sure, Babcock fits in with the Red Wings, but would he be equally successful someplace else? He would no doubt be hailed as a saviour to wherever he would end up. As well, he does deserve his accolades, there really aren’t very many coaches as decorated as he is. What if he comes into another team, say the Leafs, and things don’t go well? How long of a leash does he have? How does it affect his legacy? Does he care?
I started thinking about this post when I saw that Todd McLellan was the odds on favourite to be coaching the Philadelphia Flyers next season. Nevermind the absurdity of leveraging odds on such a thing (to me that’s like making bets on what people might have for breakfast). It had a lot more to do with how quickly teams are willing to forget the foibles of a coach with another team, look how quickly Bruce Boudreau ended up with the Ducks organization. Sometimes I feel like that teams aren’t only hiring coaches, they are also hiring a scapegoat. They are the easiest to blame and replace, yet finding the one that seems to fit is a situation coveted by every team. Being a coach in any professional sport would be a pressure cooker that I’m sure many of us just couldn’t begin to fathom. The fact that San Jose had to part ways with their winningest coach of all time is a testament to that notion. I’m sure every coach dreams of being a Barry Trotz, even though most of them seem to get treated like Ted Nolan.