Coaching carousel spins out New (and Used) Kids On The Block
More than one-third of NHL teams have shuffled their bench-boss deck since just before the last lockout. And as for the CFL … ?!
VANCOUVER — So Ron Rolston is gone as Buffalo Sabres’ head coach, replaced by a blast from the past, Ted Nolan, and we are thus able to update a truly stunning statistic:
Of the 30 teams in the National Hockey League, 11 either fired a head coach prior to the lockout — meaning his replacement didn’t actually coach a game until 2013 — or have jettisoned one since the start of the calendar year.
In alphabetical order: Buffalo, Colorado, Dallas, Edmonton, Florida, Montreal, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Tampa, Vancouver, Washington.
That’s basically 37% New (or Used) Kids On The Block in less than 10 months’ worth of coaching hockey games.
And the numbers would be higher if you could count Columbus, which only beat the rush by a couple of months — and Buffalo twice, because the same swinging door that hit Lindy Ruff in the arse in February barely had time to swing open and shut again before taking Rolston with it Wednesday morning.
Either way, it’s an impressive toll, even by NHL standards. And if standup comic/butterfly goalie Ilya Bryzgalov doesn’t spark a 180-degree defensive turnaround when he joins the Moscow Circus in Edmonton next week, it’s only about even money that NHL newbie Dallas Eakins is going to survive the perennially disappointing Oilers’ latest free-fall.
Now shift to the Canadian Football League where Montreal (Dan Hawkins), Edmonton (Kavis Reed) and now Winnipeg (Tim Burke) have already fired their coaches, Hamilton is in its first term under Kent Austin after dispatching Marcel Bellefeuille, and — judging by the rumblings out of B.C. Lions camp — second-year man Mike Benevides’ entire staff is under the microscope. That’s four down and one twisting, essentially since the start of 2013 ... in an eight-team league.
They can’t all be lousy coaches. In fact, each one of them was confidently expected to cure what ailed his new team when he was hired. So how did it all come unglued?
With Rolston, it’s simple. The Sabres were 4-15-1 and have been bad, and getting worse, as 16-year GM Darcy Regier’s tenure has droned on. Even owner Terry Pegula’s infusions of enthusiasm and salary-cap cash haven’t helped. Firing Regier and Rolston, going back to the future to get Nolan and new president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine might work out, and it might not — Nolan was once Coach of the Year in Buffalo, and LaFontaine, while not experienced in the front office, is tremendously bright — but chances are the problem is player personnel and that won’t change overnight.
The coach almost always takes the fall for the shortcomings of the materials given him by his bosses, and into that class fell both Reed and Burke in the CFL, Scott Arniel in Columbus, Ralph Krueger in Edmonton (and Tom Renney and Pat Quinn before him), Glen Gulutzan in Dallas, and Kevin Dineen in Florida.
All of the above organizations were, and most still are, riddled with roster holes and more than a few are disasters from the top down.
A few of the victims just got stale working the same dressing room — and the dressing room got stale being worked — over a long haul, like Alain Vigneault and John Tortorella, who essentially traded jobs, and Pete Laviolette in Philly.
And a few others just proved, given a little time (some of them, like Randy Cunneyworth in Montreal, very little), to be not up to the job, which appears to have happened with Guy Boucher in Tampa and Joe Sacco in Colorado and arguably Rolston and could yet happen with Eakins, whose star has plummeted in lockstep with the Oiler goaltenders’ save percentages.
The Sabres, in joining the movement for change, evidently have opted for a strategy that works once in a blue moon: bringing back popular former employees to stabilize a foundering ship.
It is, at best, an iffy proposition. Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic have made it work so far in Colorado, but Joe Nieuwendyk and Brett Hull had no such luck in Dallas, Washington didn’t work out for Dale Hunter, and a steady diet of relics from the Oilers’ glory days hasn’t been able to resurrect an ever-rebuilding Edmonton team with Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish in charge.
Nolan probably got a raw deal when he was sent packing by the Sabres the first time, when he clashed with then-GM John Muckler, and LaFontaine has already proved smart enough to turn down the GM’s job and go looking for someone with more experience. That GM will then have the option of removing the “interim” label from Nolan, or hiring his own guy, so at least one decision has been made rationally, giving hope that more may follow.
And the coaches who have been deep-sixed?
Ruff resurfaced as head coach in Dallas. Gulutzan is an assistant on Tortorella’s Vancouver staff. Arniel is a Vigneault assistant coach in New York. Joe Sacco is an assistant and Cunneyworth a pro scout in Buffalo. Krueger is working for the Canadian Olympic team as its international-size ice specialist and scout.
To date, Boucher has not caught on with another NHL employer, and the wounds are still fresh with Dineen and Rolston, and Laviolette, who was turfed after just three games by Philadelphia.
But they’ll all work again. Think of it as a recycling problem.
They may have been canned. They may feel like hitting the bottle. A few might be living on plastic. They may be temporarily in a curbside blue box, waiting.
But their phones will ring, probably sooner than later. The casualty rate among coaches guarantees it.
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