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NHL lockout-shortened season: Life preserver for coaches on the hot seat?

Greg Wyshynski
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How many coaches would you say are on the hot seat right now in the NHL?

One figures Joe Sacco could pay for the Colorado Avalanche’s injuries and protracted negotiations with Ryan O’Reilly, as unfair as that would be to Sacco. Depending on whether the Pittsburgh Penguins picked up two points in the previous night, Dan Bylsma’s name has been placed on the endangered list. And what to do with Glen Gulutzan, the young coach of a rebuilding Dallas Stars team?

Peter Laviolette hasn’t the been the problem for the Philadelphia Flyers, but who knows what happens if things go sideways? Adam Oates has been part of the problem with the Washington Capitals, but George McPhee firing Oates this early would likely mean he’s signing his own pink slip.

But how many firings will we actually see in a 48-game season?

Allan Muir of Sports Illustrated thinks someone will get canned, but not many:

Anywhere teams are losing, panic buttons are being mashed by fans who are only too aware of the playoff implications of a slow start. Car pools are being organized to help ex-coaching staffs get to the airport. Wish lists of possible bench bosses are being drawn up on cocktail napkins.

Change needs to happen, and it needs to happen now, before it’s too late. Right? Right? If it was up to the fans, half a dozen bench bosses would be looking over their severance packages right now.

But general managers, the men who actually have to make these decisions, tend to be a little more judicious, a little more big-picture oriented. They want results, but they grasp that these are unique circumstances. Which makes me wonder: Could this actually be the safest year in NHL history to be a coach? A season in which not one single coach gets fired? It’s possible.

Muir correctly places Sacco on the hot seat. Sure, the injuries and O’Reilly’s situation had dealt him a bad hand, but he’s also missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons and it’s not his first squat on the torrid throne.

He also tabs Bylsma as being in trouble, and here’s where the 48-game season might hurt a coach’s chances. The Penguins have a very real chance of winning the Stanley Cup this season. If they aren’t playing well under Bylsma, GM Ray Shero has two choices: Make the dramatic trade for a winger on Sidney Crosby’s line (Phil Kessel? Corey Perry?) or fire Bylsma.

And here’s why the second option might be easier: Bylsma is a players’ coach. Going the other way with a firm handed butt-kicker could energize the team for a Cup run. Or make them hate said coach like they did Michel Therrien. One of the two.

What about Glen Gulutzan? Is his fate tied to that of GM Joe Nieuwendyk? Mike Heika fielded the question in a recent mailbag:

I have been told that the organization and owner Tom Gaglardi are planning to be patient. I was also told previously that Doug Armstrong’s job was safe and that Les Jackson would get a chance to be a solo GM for at least one year. Those predictions both turned out to be wrong, because then-owner Tom Hicks changed his mind.

Pro sports is a volatile place, and Tom Gaglardi could at any minute change his mind, and then we could see all sorts of changes. Bottom line, teams like the Panthers and Islanders and Oilers go through changes all the time. If the Stars continue down a path that results in a losing record, then changes very much could come.

Overall, Muir’s right we imagine: Not only might GMs be hesitant to turf their coaches, but the dynamics of the truncated season can turn last week’s coach on the hot seat into next week’s coach at the top of the standings.

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