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Do in-season NHL coaching changes work?

There are always a couple of coaches sitting on the edge in the NHL, but sometimes those coaches are unfairly maligned, and their replacements do even worse. Let's take a look back at some recent examples of good, and bad, coaching decisions.


With the Montreal Canadiens collapsing at even strength and blowing a nine-point lead in the wild-card standings in just two weeks, calls are beginning to come for the head of coach Michel Therrien. Is it justified?

Power Rankings

Last season, Therrien's Habs finished second in the Eastern Conference, second in the entire league in Fenwick while the score was tied, and eighth while the score was close, partially because they spent so much of the year in the lead.

As it turns out, this season's collapse bears a striking resemblance to the last time Therrien was fired, and replaced by Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh. I wrote about this yesterday at Eyes on the Prize, and it seems to me that the time to find a new coach in Montreal is now, before the cavernous hole can be dug even deeper.

As you can see by the chart here, Bylsma replacing Therrien basically saved the season for the Pens that year. We used shot attempt differential -- or, Corsi differential, shots attempts for vs. shot attempts against -- at even strength on a game-by-game basis for the analysis. (There are a ton of reasons why this stat is so important in terms of how teams are trending, as it correlates well with control of the puck and the number of scoring chances. If you're unfamiliar with the concept, check this brief explanation from Eric Tulsky.)


It's been brought to my attention by Penguins fans that although defenseman Sergei Gonchar came back right after Bylsma was hired, Sidney Crosby went down for about 10 games. That probably explains the 10-game period it took for Bylsma to right the ship, at which time the Penguins again started to outshoot teams.

You can see how closely Therrien's work in 2013-14 mirrors his work in 2008-09, although this time he doesn't have the excuse of his top defenseman being out. Every major contributor has been healthy most of the season. There are times where general managers are too quick to pull the trigger on coaches, but this doesn't look like one. Replacing a coach at the right time can save a season, like Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma engineered in 2009. The Pens actually wound up winning the damn Stanley Cup that year.

We decided to take this same analysis and see how it worked out for other teams that have fired their coaches midseason. Did that firing make a marked difference in their team's performance?

2010-11: Lemaire replaces MacLean in Jersey


Jacques Lemaire replaced John MacLean at Game 34 of the season, and although MacLean's team seemed to be getting better at the time, Lemaire reformed the Devils into a possession machine. New Jersey went 29-17-3 the rest of the season after starting out 9-22-2. They still missed the playoffs because the hole was dug too deep.

It really doesn't look like MacLean was that bad of a coach by this metric, but Lemaire's tight defensive system allowed the Devils to insulate the aging Martin Brodeur to greater effect.

2011-12: Terry Murray out, Darryl Sutter in


The commonly held belief is that Darryl Sutter turned the season around for the Los Angeles Kings in 2011-12, and although it's true that he led them to incredible, consistent improvement, Terry Murray actually had them going pretty well in the weeks leading up to his firing. Would that have lasted? We'll never know.

You can choose to look at this move two ways. Either Dean Lombardi didn't realize that Murray's club was doing a good job and got lucky with the hiring of Sutter, or he knew he had a pretty good coach, but saw that there was a great one available, and made the tough decision of sacking a good employee in favor of hiring a better one. Based on how well the Kings have been managed, I think the answer is closer to the latter.

Sometimes you need more patience

It's easy to judge things in hindsight, but often managers pull the plug on coaches too soon. The most obvious example of that happened in the 2011-12 season, also with the Montreal Canadiens.


After several major injuries, the Canadiens began to decline rapidly in possession, but it wasn't until Jacques Martin was fired and Randy Cunneyworth was named head coach that they really went off the deep end. A little patience could have allowed Martin to adjust and save the season ... but ending up with Alex Galchenyuk in the draft wasn't so bad.

2012-13: Sabres fire Ruff, hire Rolston


The Sabres were going to suck last year no matter what, but at least Lindy Ruff kept them from completely imploding. After he was let go and replaced by Ron Rolston, the Sabres pulled a nearly straight line to the basement. Continuing into this season, the Sabres were a punchline until Rolston was let go and replaced by Ted Nolan. They're still the worst team in the league, but they're no longer the same level of excruciatingly bad.

What's up with the Leafs?


Almost every graph here has a fairly smooth trajectory, even with ebbs and flows accounted for. Then there's the Toronto Maple Leafs. I have no idea how they were possibly so erratic, but after a brief blip upwards under Randy Carlyle that only got them to around where they were when Ron Wilson was fired, they tanked hard, as they have continued to do since then. Ron Wilson is pretty undeniably the superior coach.

Sometimes there's no impact until the next season


Of all the in-season coaching changes I looked at, only one didn't have much of an impact, and that was the Tampa Bay Lightning's firing of Guy Boucher and hiring of Jon Cooper.

We know now that an offseason later, Cooper has turned Tampa Bay into one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, maybe even the league, but with only 16 games to work with in 2012-13, there wasn't much to speak of.

Offseason changes

Out of curiosity (and by request), I also took a look at a couple of offseason coaching changes, and how they impacted their clubs. These are a bit more tricky because the rosters coaches deal with can be largely different, but I thought I would show an example of a good one and a bad one.

In Tampa, Rick Tocchet vs. Guy Boucher


Boucher completely turned around the Lightning's fortunes, creating a dominant possession team that finished third in the league Fenwick while the score was close, behind only Chicago and San Jose. Boucher's Lightning advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals and came within a game of a Cup Final appearance.

It didn't last into the next season, but the initial impact of Boucher was pretty incredible, especially considering the weak defense he was given.

In Calgary, Mike Keenan vs. Brent Sutter


The much-maligned Mike Keenan looks like he was actually an incredible coach in Calgary. Not even Darryl Sutter's Kings broke the +700 mark, and Keenan had the Flames inching up on 800. If Miikka Kiprusoff didn't have the worst season of his career, Keenan likely wouldn't have been let go, and the Flames would have been considered one of the best teams in the league. They finished fourth in the NHL in Fenwick close that year, dropping to seventh under Brent Sutter, which is still very good.

This is one of those cases where it's not a huge fumble because of the guy you hired, but Keenan comes out looking far better than the Flames do.

Special thanks to Travis Hughes for help with the graphics.

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