Julien?! Here's who's really on the hot seat

One minute, Claude Julien was the seemingly confident and competent coach of the New Jersey Devils, wearing an expensive suit and tie and guiding his team to its fourth victory in five games.

The next minute, Julien was gone, vanished, with extraterrestrial abduction being one possible explanation.

What, you think Lou Lamoriello doesn't know people on other planets?

It was a truly bizarre coaching change -- unless, that is, you know Lamoriello and the manner in which he makes decisions. Then, it was entirely understandable.

The Devils' GM-for-life never takes the easy route, never explains himself, always believes planning and preparation win out, and would abruptly dump Julien's replacement -- himself -- as early as today if a better option came to his attention.

As Lamoriello loves to say with a chuckle, "Yes, there's a five-year plan. It just changes every day."

Really, then, the only truly peculiar part of the Julien dismissal was it didn't seem to be in the works. There was no underground scuttlebutt suggesting it was possible; Julien lost his job while the positions of 10 or more other NHL coaches were considered far more unsettled heading into the final weekend of the season.

A week ago, few were wondering what might befall Julien if the Devils missed the postseason (because they weren't going to) or how his future might be affected if they were dusted in the first round.

Look elsewhere, however, and there's no shortage of that type of conjecture concerning a large number of NHL coaches. Some places where you'd think there might be rumblings after unsuccessful seasons -- Columbus, Chicago, Philadelphia -- there is none because those teams already dumped one coach for another earlier this season. You know somebody's going to get tossed overboard, if only because only one team gets to win it all, and we all know how first-round exits leave most teams unhappy.

Indeed, many of the talented coaches, the most-scrutinized list, have been booted from previous jobs because a team failed to meet expectations. Whose expectations those are is never quite clear.

Those potentially on the hot seat:

Bob Hartley, Atlanta Thrashers
Probability of getting the ax: Low.
• Hartley knows what it's like to win and get the boot anyway. He won the Stanley Cup in Colorado in 2001 and was gone two seasons later. The moves made by Atlanta GM Don Waddell at the trade deadline (adding Keith Tkachuk and Alexei Zhitnik) were designed to get the Thrashers into the postseason and save both his and Hartley's jobs. Assuming mission accomplished, both should be safe regardless how the playoffs turn out.

Dave Lewis, Boston Bruins
Probability of getting the ax: Medium to high.
• Lewis' rookie season in Beantown wasn't even over when the owner started ruminating publicly about whether he'd keep his job. That's never good. This is an organization still reeling from the Joe Thornton trade, an organization that had to deal with Phil Kessel's cancer scare during the season, an organization that plays in a very tough division. So, pointing the finger at Lewis seems ridiculous, but it's happening. Lewis got only two seasons to prove himself in Detroit before being dumped, so he wouldn't be stunned if he lost his job, particularly given that GM Peter Chiarelli's first choice last summer was Pat Quinn.

Jim Playfair, Calgary Flames
Probability of getting the ax: Medium.
• Despite repeated denials by GM Darryl Sutter, Playfair's job was rumored to be on the line in the final weeks of the season before the Flames went on a nice little winning streak to put the Colorado Avalanche sufficiently in the distance at last. Then, the Avs went to Calgary and knocked off the Flames on Wednesday night, starting the jitters all over again. If Playfair can't win a round, he probably can't keep his job.

Peter Laviolette, Carolina Hurricanes
Probability of getting the ax: Very low.
• Laviolette got a five-year deal this past summer after leading the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup, which gives him a fair bit of protection right there. Plus, GM Jim Rutherford has a history of standing by his coaches. When the Hurricanes went from being 2002 Cup finalists to the worst team in the league the next season, Paul Maurice wasn't given his walking papers. Something's going to change in Raleigh, but it won't be Laviolette.

Dave Tippett, Dallas Stars
Probability of getting the ax: Medium to high.
• You have to believe Tippett has to get the Stars out of the first round to hang on to his job. He has had three seasons to get this club back to the level it was at during the Ken Hitchcock years, and -- despite very good regular-season results -- Dallas has been unable to make big noise in the postseason. Last spring's five-game debacle vs. Colorado, clearly a fading power at that time, essentially put Tippett on notice. He's a quality coach with good results at all levels, but the low-scoring Stars need to win at least a round this time.

Mike Babcock, Detroit Red Wings
Probability of getting the ax: Low to medium.
• This situation is a little harder to read, given there has been some volatility in Motown in recent years, the result of having so much champagne to drink between 1997 and 2002. Interest is down a bit in Detroit; customer response to playoff prices has been moderate; and after the Red Wings were stunned in the first round by Edmonton a season ago, the repercussions of another early postseason exit could rock the entire organization. Interestingly, Babcock was in Anaheim when Jean-Sebastien Giguere stoned the Wings in the playoffs and started Lewis down the slippery slope to unemployment. Ken Holland likes his coach, but owner Mike Ilitch likes to win.

Craig MacTavish, Edmonton Oilers
Probability of getting the ax: Very low.
• That Mac-T isn't in big trouble after a disastrous season has more to do with the four-year contract he signed this past summer than with the undying support of GM Kevin Lowe. This isn't a team that pays people not to coach, so MacTavish is staying at least through next season. Some of the players who wanted out of Edmonton in the past year weren't big fans of MacTavish's coaching, but that's no big surprise. More to the point, take players such as Chris Pronger, Michael Peca, Jaroslav Spacek and Ryan Smyth away from any coach and he's not going to look good. A hero last season and a bum now, MacTavish certainly has seen both ends of the coaching spectrum in the past 10 months. Still, he's not going anywhere.

Tom Renney, New York Rangers
Probability of getting the ax: Medium.
• If you compare the Rangers to the NBA's Knicks and look at the latitude given to Knicks coach Isiah Thomas, who got a big contract extension this season, you might think the boss, James Dolan, is likely to feel just as generous toward his hockey team.
Not necessarily. Dolan is unpredictable, likely to be more supportive of Glen Sather than of anybody else with the Rangers. Sather made some significant moves that have paid off handsomely, but the club blew a chance to clinch a playoff berth Tuesday and still has some work to do. The fact the Rangers were swept by the Devils in the first round a season ago doesn't help Renney's position.

Bryan Murray, Ottawa Senators
Probability of getting the ax: Medium.
• Owner Eugene Melnyk has showed a lot of patience with Murray and GM John Muckler, ignoring calls for one or both to be fired last spring after the Sens were beaten in the playoffs by Buffalo and again earlier this season when the club got off to a very slow start. Most would argue Murray has done a terrific job remolding this team, given the offseason loss of defenseman Zdeno Chara, the numerous goaltending issues and various injuries throughout this season. But the Sens repeatedly have disappointed in the postseason, and Murray has no contract beyond this season and hasn't held any recent talks with Muckler.

Wayne Gretzky, Phoenix Coyotes
Probability of getting the ax: Unknown.
• Gretzky's future is outside the realm of normal speculation because he is also a part-owner of the Coyotes and the face of the franchise. Right now, there are more rumors about GM Mike Barnett and whether he'll be staying, and Barnett is Gretzky's buddy and former agent. Given that the Coyotes are worse this season than during Gretzky's first year, something has to break eventually, particularly with fans still reluctant to flock to the Glendale Arena. Might Gretzky step down? He says no. Could he replace Barnett as GM? He has run the Canadian Olympic team in consecutive Olympics. The status quo seems unlikely to continue in the desert, but who's going out the door is tricky to foresee.

Ron Wilson, San Jose Sharks
Probability of getting the ax: Low.
• The Sharks are in an unusual position: Although they've been among the best teams in the NHL the past two seasons, they have a fairly young roster that might still have its best hockey in front of it. Wilson has the team over 100 points despite having to bang heads with Anaheim and Dallas eight times a season. That said, he has been at the helm in San Jose since 2002 and his team could make an impact in the playoffs if the goaltending holds up. An early exit, on the other hand, could raise some unhappy questions.

John Tortorella, Tampa Bay Lightning
Probability of getting the ax: Low to medium.
• Tortorella stuck his neck out by guaranteeing the Bolts would make the playoffs, and a big victory over Carolina on Tuesday (one that knocked the Hurricanes out of the playoffs) was a significant achievement. That said, the Lightning aren't home and cooled out yet, and they didn't last long in their title defense effort last spring, when Ottawa eliminated them in five quick games. GM Jay Feaster has been loyal to Tortorella, who has dealt with uncertain goaltending the past two seasons. The bet is if the Lightning don't prosper in the playoffs, one of the big three -- Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards or Martin St. Louis -- will have to go to strengthen other parts of the team. But a coaching change wouldn't exactly shake the foundations of the hockey industry, either.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."