‘Something had to give’: NHL coaching carousel spins as playoffs approach

Coaching changes sweep the NHL as teams look to playoffs

St. Louis Blues goaltender Jake Allen was floored when the only NHL coach he has ever played for was fired on Feb. 1. Ken Hitchcock’s dismissal was a stark reminder of just how precarious life in the pros is, even for one of the most successful coaches in league history.

“It’s tough for us to lose him, but I think we’ve all woken up a little bit,” Allen said recently. “I’ve shaken the cobwebs off and even though it was unfortunate circumstances it happens.”

The Blues are one of five teams to have already fired their coach this season â€” it happened three times last year — the Atlantic division-leading Montreal Canadiens joining the fray on Tuesday when Michel Therrien was replaced by Claude Julien, who was dismissed himself exactly one week earlier by the Boston Bruins.

Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin said his team needed a “new energy, a new voice, a new direction”, believing he’s found those things in Julien, a Stanley Cup winner with the Bruins in 2011.

Best-case scenario for Montreal is that Julien jolts a stuttering team just as Mike Sullivan did with Pittsburgh last season. The Penguins didn’t just win more under their new coach, they evolved into an entirely different team that was consumed by speed and skill en route to a fourth Stanley Cup.

A mid-season coaching change also spurred the Penguins’ third Cup seven years earlier with Dan Bylsma, oddly enough, taking Therrien’s spot in February.

The Blues, now under Mike Yeo’s watch, could repeat such a feat in the coming months.

St. Louis had the third-best record in hockey last year and made it all the way to the Western Conference final. But they stumbled through the first half this year, hurt in particular by Allen’s struggles in goal. The club went from having the No. 1 goaltending in the league statistically to 30th at the time of Hitchcock’s firing.

Tellingly, the Blues won back-to-back games just once over the final two months of Hitchcock’s tenure.

“It was frustrating for everyone — coaches, players, everybody,” 33-year-old defenceman Jay Bouwmeester said. “It was just kind of like you want to turn it around, but it wasn’t happening. We were inconsistent with our play and that’s the bottom line. Something had to give and that was the road they went.

“It’s unfortunate any time it happens, but it’s done and you move along.”

Pegged to take over for Hitchcock after this season anyway, Yeo is among three assistants to slide into top duties this year, joining Doug Weight with the Islanders and Bruce Cassidy with the Bruins. Panthers GM Tom Rowe replaced Gerrard Gallant making Julien the only outside hire.

Familiarity can be an advantage to both players and their newly promoted coach. 

While not an assistant on the Penguins staff when he replaced Mike Johnston in December 2015, Sullivan had been directing the team’s minor league bench, making him familiar with those like Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust and Matt Murray, who all played suitably big roles in Pittsburgh’s Cup win.

Bouwmeester said a comfort level had already been established with Yeo when he slid in for Hitchcock, removing the need for that potentially awkward relationship-building phase. The veteran defenceman, now playing for his ninth NHL head coach, said Hitchcock commanded respect in the Blues room with unparalleled preparation, but Yeo, formerly the Minnesota Wild head coach, was “a different voice”.  

“He’s a little younger, maybe he kind of relates to some guys a little differently,” Bouwmeester said of the 43-year-old Yeo, who is 22 years younger than Hitchcock. “His communication has been good. He’s been good with practices, keeping things up-tempo, little subtle changes but nothing huge. It’s been good.”

The Blues won six of their first seven games under Yeo, outscoring the opposition 22-8 with Allen and backup Carter Hutton combining for three shutouts. The Islanders and Bruins have seen similar upswings while the Panthers had been treading water until recently when the club started to win more with key talents like Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau finally back from injury. 

Still with a strong grip on the Atlantic, meanwhile, Montreal is looking to rediscover under Julien that which fuelled a 13-1-1 start. Mediocre since mid-November, the club has struggled to score, especially in recent weeks, and Carey Price has also dropped off.

In his first comments since Tuesday’s announcement, Therrien said being an NHL coach is a “tough job.”

“It is gratifying on many levels but it can also quickly become a thankless task,” he said. “When a team is experiencing difficulties, any head coach knows his job is on the line.”

Players also understand this reality and have to quickly regroup when a coaching change is made, said Bouwmeester.

“For us I think it was a point in our season where all right it happened, but if we’re going to get to where we want to get â€” and that’s the playoffs — and then hopefully do something then we’ve got to pick it up,” Bouwmeester concluded of the Blues. “It’s unfortunate that something like that has to happen, but the way they were going something had to give.”

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press