Why Won't My Team Fire The Coach?

NHL coaches find themselves without a job for a number of reasons. Sometimes they've lost the room. On occasion, the situation is so bad the team captain leads a players revolt. In other cases, the club decides that the team is not successful enough in the playoffs. Other times, the club is going in a different direction and the coach can't adapt to the new players or situation. Sometimes the team is too mediocre for too long. And sometimes the coach is a scapegoat for the general manager's ineptitude. While a lot of time contracts expire and are not renewed, there are plenty of examples, with a season on the line, of a general manager firing a coach mid-season in hopes of sparking his team and improving their performance immediately.

There have been more calls recently for the Panthers to do this. A lack of confidence late in games, a league-worst power play and some bad luck have combined for a lot of one-goal losses and the team headed for a league record ten seasons without a playoff appearance. While no one in the organization is interested in setting this record, owner Cliff Viner and general manager Dale Tallon have made no secret of their plans to throw out the band-aid, quick fix, tinkering approach to running this team and to instead put a long-term plan in place to win a championship. Tallon has said repeatedly that making the playoffs is not his goal. His goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and all decisions are made with that goal in mind.

With that in mind, I'll take a look at the options for the Panthers should they choose to make a change. When a coach is fired and replaced mid-season, there are generally three courses of action:

  • 1. The general manager, who happens to be a former coach, replaces the coach until the end of the season.
  • 2. Hiring an unemployed former NHL head coach.
  • 3. Replacing the coach with another coach already employed by the organization.

The first option, though exercised several times in the last few years by Canadiens GM Bob Gainey and Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, is not one likely to be taken by the Panthers as GM Dale Tallon and Assistant GM Mike Santos are not former coaches.

The second option is a road often taken. If the Panthers move now, they have their pick of unemployed coaches. Unfortunately, the pickings this season are slim. Two seasons ago, this was a good option for teams, with experienced coaches Joel Quenneville, John Tortorella and Paul Maurice all available after being let go in the summer. This season, the former coaching pool is littered with short-time NHL head coaches like Rick Tocchet (Tampa Bay), Scott Gordon (New York Islanders) and John Anderson (Atlanta). The only coaches with more than a couple years of experience are former Stars/Flyers/Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock and former Oilers coach Craig MacTavish.

If Dale Tallon is interested in hiring one of these coaches then he can act immediately. However, if he waits until the off-season, there are potentially a lot more people available. Teams will let contracts expire if they want to change direction. Minor league or assistant coaches who are ready to move up or on will not sign new contracts in hopes of finding a better job. And some good head coaches will find their contracts not renewed.

The third option is intriguing. While Rochester Americans head coach Chuck Weber doesn't seem like a prime candidate for a jump to the NHL, there has been speculation that new assistant coach Gord Murphy might be ready for a head coaching job. Indeed, much of the speculation has been that he was brought in as a potential replacement for DeBoer. This may be true. However, offense/power play coach Jim Hulton has been identified as part of the problem. It seems that he is as likely, if not more likely, to go as DeBoer. If DeBoer is gone, he will likely to be gone as well. If they're both relieved of their duties in favor of Murphy, the team is short two assistant coaches for the rest of the season.

Again, while it is possible that there are good coaches available now, the choices will be better at the end of the season. If the Panthers do choose to go in a new direction, the team is better served by taking the time to build the foundation for the long term than to once again make short term fixes in an attempt to make the playoffs. Clinging to the short-term view and making poor decisions in hopes of "making the playoffs this year" is a large part of what got the Panthers to the position they're in.

Something else to consider is that everyone on the hockey side of the organization is essentially auditioning for Tallon this year. While the realities of the trade deadline and free agency mean that some players won't make it the full year before he makes decisions on whether they will remain with the Panthers, the coaching staff is a different thing altogether. Firing staff during the season is a drastic move that's generally an attempt to save a season or distract from the general manager's mistakes. Even if Tallon was interested in shaking the team up, the Panthers are too far in to think they'll make the playoffs after a coaching change. There's usually an adjustment period where a lot of games are lost before teams turn a season around and the Panthers simply don't have enough of a cushion for this to work.

If it's too late to save this season with a coaching change, there's no benefit to making that change now. Both Pete DeBoer's and Jim Hulton's contracts expire after this season. If Tallon isn't happy with their performance, he can simply allow them to leave at the end of the season and have a chance at all of the available coaches this summer.

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