Last season was a tumultuous one for NHL coaches. On Nov. 27, 2016, Gerard Gallant stood by the loading dock of PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, luggage in tow, waiting for a cab. He had just been fired as coach of the Florida Panthers.
Claude Julien, who won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011 and returned to the finals in 2013, was told the team would go in a different direction -- and the announcement was made public on the morning of the Patriots' Super Bowl LI parade, as if to muddle its impact.
The Montreal Canadiens fired Michel Therrien a week later, and quickly scooped up Julien. Jack Capuano was let go by the New York Islanders, and replaced by then-assistant general manager Doug Weight. St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong had once called Ken Hitchcock "a Hall of Fame coach" and one of his "best friends" -- but fired the veteran coach on Feb. 1, nine months after Hitchcock had led St. Louis to the Western Conference finals.
In-season coaching changes are ubiquitous in the modern NHL; all five of these examples occurred within the space of a few months. But as the 2017-18 season marches toward the trade deadline, an intriguing trend has taken hold: stability. No team has made a coaching change yet. It's the first time we've gone this far into a season without a switch since 1966-67 -- when the NHL first expanded beyond its Original Six.
So what gives?
When I posed the question to a Western Conference front-office executive this week, he quipped: "This league has cut ties with so many guys the last couple of years, maybe everyone just needed a break."
Indeed, the NHL has been a quick-trigger league of late; 34 coaches have been fired in-season over the past nine years. But there are clues as to why 2017-18 may be different.
"This is one of these years where there's a realistic approach to some of the teams," surmised Hitchcock, who is now coaching the Dallas Stars -- the same team that fired him in 2002, less than three years after he guided the Stars to their only Cup title. "The teams that should do well are doing well, and the teams that are building their program, they're going about it in a different direction, so I think there's a little bit of continuity."
Consider, too, that the league's two bottom-dwelling teams -- the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres -- both have rookie head coaches in Rick Tocchet and Phil Housley, respectively. The Vancouver Canucks, also struggling in the standings, have a first-year bench boss as well in Travis Green. Given the rosters each coach inherited, it would behoove management to exercise some patience.
Neil Glasberg, the president of PBI Sports who represents several prominent coaches, pointed to a trend we have seen matriculate across the NHL on many levels: parity. Division races in the Central and Metropolitan divisions are uber-tight. Three of the four teams that won their respective divisions last season (the Chicago Blackhawks, Canadiens and Anaheim Ducks) would not make the playoffs if the season ended today.
Glasberg explains: "There's a lot of parity in the NHL now, and teams lumped together. Nobody is that awful. I think GMs are being a little more calculated -- the rewards have to significantly outweigh the risks in making [a coaching] change. It also tells me that, even with all the speculation, in the [dressing] room things might not be as bad as people make it out to be. So unless a coach has literally lost the room, or there is just cause, a lot of people are going, 'What's the point?'"
Teams that could be candidates for change all have extraneous circumstances. Though it's shocking the Blackhawks have fallen to last place in the Central, Joel Quenneville is the league's longest-tenured coach and has won three Cups with the franchise; many around the league believe Chicago is hoping that continuity will help pull the Hawks out of their season-long funk. Guy Boucher led the Ottawa Senators to the Eastern Conference finals in 2017, but this season his team is floundering. The Senators have announced that they are embarking on a rebuild, however; plus, it is believed Ottawa's owners are unwilling to pay for two coaches' salaries, and therefore firing Boucher before his contract expires could be out of the question.
And then there are the Edmonton Oilers, who racked up 103 points in 2016-17, but have struggled with largely the same roster this season. Even still, Todd McLellan remains as coach. Part of the equation there could be a lack of an obvious replacement. Glasberg warns that a lame-duck interim can sometimes do more harm to an organization. Some coaching changes that yielded the best immediate results included the team with a contingency plan within the staff (the Blues turning to Mike Yeo; the Bruins to Bruce Cassidy). Teams often dip down to their AHL team to find new leadership, but the Oilers' farm team in Bakersfield, California, has been just as bad this season.
The frequency of coaching changes has normalized short tenures. "If you get four, five years with a good team, you feel like you're a fortunate one," Hitchcock says. "The only way it changes is if you give us 100-year deals."
When I reminded Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper last month that he was the league's second-longest-tenured coach, he too was deferential. "It's a tough league," Cooper said. "Pro sports is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, and I feel extremely fortunate to be surrounded by an owner in Jeff Vinik and a general manager, Steve Yzerman, who have been in this league for a long time, and know something about stability and being in one place for a long time."
Even though there haven't been any changes yet, that doesn't mean there won't be some coming. We could also see a new trend this offseason.
"My theory is there are going to be more GM openings than there's ever been," Glasberg says. "Because the drafts have not gone well and the development has not gone well, so that's where we could see the changes."