NHL’s head coaching recycling bin is alive and well

Adam Gretz
NBC Sports

November has not been kind to NHL head coaches.

Edmonton’s firing of Todd McLellan on Tuesday was the fourth head coaching change this month and put him on a list with John Stevens (Los Angeles), Joel Quenneville (Chicago) and Mike Yeo (St. Louis) who have all been replaced over the past few weeks.

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This comes after no team made an in-season coaching change a year ago.

All four of the recently fired coaches had been head coaches in the NHL before their most recent stops. History indicates all four of them have a pretty good chance of being head coaches again in the not-too-distant future. Not only because each has had varying degrees of success in the league, but because NHL teams tend to go through the same people when they look for their newest head coach. Three of them (McLellan, Stevens, and Yeo) were replaced by coaches with previous head coaching experience in the league, including Ken Hitchcock in Edmonton who will be getting the chance to coach his fifth different team (if you count his second stint with Dallas during the 2017-18 season, this is actually the sixth different time he has been hired to be the head coach of an NHL team).

Stevens was replaced by former Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins, while Yeo was replaced by former Philadelphia Flyers head coach Craig Berube.

[Related: Ken Hitchcock returns to coaching, replaces Todd McLellan in Edmonton]

The numbers on this are pretty remarkable.

Since the start of the 2005-06 season there have been (including interim coaches) 154 coaching changes in the NHL.

Those changes involved only 102 different coaches getting jobs, meaning 52 of those changes involved someone getting a second or third chance in the league.

In some cases, teams went back to the same coaches that they had previously fired.

Some examples:

  • Randy Carlyle is currently coaching the Anaheim Ducks for the second time after having been fired by the team during the 2011-12 season.

  • Hitchcock was fired by the Stars during the 2001-02 season, and after stops in Philadelphia, Columbus and St. Louis, was hired again by the Stars a year ago for one season.

  • During the 2002-03 season the Montreal Canadiens fired Michel Therrien and replaced him with Claude Julien. The Canadiens eventually fired Julien a few years later and after going through a handful of different coaches went back to … Michel Therien for the start of the 2012-13 season. After four-and-a-half years the Canadiens had seen enough from Therien and fired him. His replacement? Claude Julien.

  • Paul Maurice coached the Carolina Hurricanes from 1996 until the middle of the 2003-04 season when he replaced by Peter Laviolette. Laviolette coached the team for four-and-a-half seasons until he was fired mid-season and replaced by … Paul Maurice.

  • Jacques Lemaire and Larry Robinson both had multiple stops with the New Jersey Devils throughout their coaching careers.

This is pretty unique to the NHL.

It is not that the other sports don’t often times see coaches get second and third chances with different teams, it’s that it happens in the NHL significantly more often than any other sport.

None of the other sports see teams bring back coaches they previously fired as often as the NHL does, either. It does happen on occasion — Billy Martin and the New York Yankees; Jon Gruden’s current madness with the Oakland Raiders — but it is extremely rare.

For comparisons sake, let’s look at the coaching numbers in the other three major North American sports leagues over the same time period mentioned above.

Since 2005 the NBA has seen 137 coaching changes. Those changes have included 94 different coaches, meaning 43 (31 percent of the changes) involved someone getting a second (or third) chance.

Major League baseball teams went through 114 managerial changes since 2005 involving 93 different people. Only 21 (18 percent of the changes) involved a manager getting a second chance.

NFL teams had almost identical numbers, having made 114 changes involving 92 different people. That means only 22 (19 percent of the changes) involved a coach getting a second chance.

Just a little more than 34 percent of the NHL’s changes since 2005 involved a coach getting a second chance somewhere else.

So if it seems like NHL teams keep going to the same people when they are in need of a new coach, it is because they generally do. At least more so than every other sport in North America.

This is not to say it is necessarily a bad decision to go after someone with previous head coaching experience. Any team in need of a coach that is not at least picking up the phone and giving Quenneville a call to gauge his interest, for example, is not doing itself any favors. In the end there are only 31 jobs in the league, and even when you take into account all of the assistants and head coaches at lower levels of the sport (AHL, Junior Hockey, NCAA, etc.) there is still a limited number of options.

It just seems like sometimes even those options get consistently overlooked in favor of the same eight or nine coaches that keep getting hired, fired, and re-hired by different teams.

Sometimes it works. Many times it does not.

Sometimes there is nothing wrong with a fresh voice, a new idea, or a new person breaking into the head coaching ranks. The NHL always seems loathe to explore those options in the name of playing it safe or going with experience.

Even if that previous experience was not always great.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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