How NHL Interim Coaches Have Fared: The Great, the OK and the Plain Awful

Dan Falkenheim
Sports Illustrated

Willie Desjardins’s first win on Tuesday as the Los Angeles Kings interim head coach is a step in the right direction after the team did away with John Stevens. Halfway across the country, the Chicago Blackhawks threw away three Stanley Cups, five Conference Final appearances, 452 wins and a surefire Hall of Fame coach when they fired Joel Quenneville. They replaced him with a new head coach in Jeremy Colliton, who has never coached an NHL game before. Though not an interim, Colliton is tasked with a very sudden midseason takeover.

There’s no Magic 8-Ball (or 8-Puck) that can come up with the next Jon Cooper, the perfect grizzled vet like Darryl Sutter, or just the right fit like Peter Laviolette. Firing a coach in season and finding an adequate replacement is messy. Worse, a team might further its descent into mediocrity.

So, how do interim head coaches fare in the NHL? In the last 10 seasons, interim head coaches have stepped into teams with a .481 points percentage before their hiring, and combined to finish the season with a .551 points percentage since that point. In the past 11 seasons, teams have turned to rookie head coaches 19 times (50% of the time) after firing their head coach, and the most common month for a team to fire a coach midseason is February (around the 34-game mark). Dan Bylsma, Darryl Sutter and Mike Sullivan are the only head coaches in the last decade to take over their team midseason and win a Stanley Cup.

Not all teams are created equal, but here’s a look at the great, the good and the plain awful interim head coaches of the past decade.

THE GREAT

Mike Sullivan (Dec. 12, 2015) — Seven seasons removed from their last Stanley Cup appearance, the middling Pittsburgh Penguins fired head coach Mike Johnston after a 15–10–3 start to the 2015–16 season. Hey, it doesn’t hurt to step into a team that added Phil Kessel on top of an already stacked roster of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury. But, Penguin privileges aside, Sullivan finished the year with a 33–16–5 record and became the sixth coach in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup after taking over midseason. Sullivan and the Penguins repeated as Stanley Cup champions in 2016–17.

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Darryl Sutter (Dec. 17, 2011) — The L.A. Kings were finally reloaded after seven years of irrelevancy, but they struggled to break past .500 one year after notching 98 points. The Kings turned to 12-year coaching veteran Darryl Sutter. Bolstered by a lineup including young stars Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick, Sutter led the Kings into the playoffs, past the Presidents Trophy–winning Vancouver Canucks and onto the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Sutter and the Kings claimed the Stanley Cup again in 2014, and Sutter finished his six-year Kings tenure with a 225–147–53 record.

Joel Quenneville (Oct. 16, 2008) — Blackhawks fans don’t need any more callbacks to Quenneville’s tenure … but the team’s former bench boss took over the burgeoning Blackhawks midseason in 2008. Captained by then-21-year-old Jonathan Toews and strengthened with a core of Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, Quenneville and the Blackhawks reached their first Conference Final since the 1994–95 season. The rest is (actually) history: The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup the following season and added another two over the next five years.

Honorable Mention: Dan Bylsma (Feb. 15, 2009) — Something about Crosby and Malkin tends to make coaches look good. Assuming control with 25 games left in the 2008–09 season, Dan Bylsma lead the Penguins to an 18–3–4 record and their first Stanley Cup since the Lemieux years. Bylsma won the 2009–10 Jack Adams Award but never won another Stanley Cup.

THE GOOD

Jon Cooper (March 25, 2013) — The Lightning found their faces of the future in Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman but, with an aging Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, the team didn’t claim its potential. General manager Steve Yzerman tapped rookie coach Jon Cooper, who has turned the Lightning into one of the league’s most dominant teams. Since taking over, Cooper has a 254–146–41 and led Tampa Bay to its two best regular seasons and one Stanley Cup appearance. Lord Stanley is waiting.

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John Tortorella(Oct. 21, 2015) —After becoming the New York Rangers’ interim head coach in 2009, Tortorella found himself in a similar situation with the Blue Jackets in 2015. He jumped in after an 0–7–0 start to 2015–16 and lead the young Blue Jackets to a franchise-best 108 points the following year—earning him the 2016–17 Jack Adams Award. Tortorella and the Blue Jackets had the Washington Capitals on the brink of defeat in last year’s playoffs, and a second-round appearance this year would be a welcomed sight for Columbus fans.

Bruce Boudreau (2007 and 2011) — Regular-season success has never been Boudreau’s downfall: He replaced Glen Hanlon and spearheaded the Capitals resurgence as an interim head coach in 2007–08, and solidified the Anaheim Ducks status as a regular-season stalwart again as an interim coach in 2011–12. Boudreau finished his Capitals and Ducks’ tenures with a combined 409–192–80 record. But Boudreau’s teams have never reached a Stanley Cup Final, and that will remain the knock against him until he does.

Honorable Mentions: Peter Laviolette (2009) and Jack Capuano (2010) — Peter Laviolette replaced John Stevens 25 games into the 2009–10 season and lead a well-equipped Flyers team to its first Stanley Cup Final in more than 10 years. Laviolette’s teams eclipsed 100 points in the following two years, but he was rashly dismissed in 2013–14 after missing the playoffs and starting the season with a 0–3–0 record. Elsewhere in the tri-state area, the New York Islanders turned to rookie head coach Jack Capuano in 2010. Capuano and John Tavares led the Islanders to their first second-round appearance in more than two decades.

THE UGLY

Tom Rowe (11/28/16) — The Florida Panthers were coming off their best regular season in franchise history in 2015–16. A 11-9-1 record to start the following year shouldn’t have incited panic, but then-general manager Tom Rowe decided to fire the head coach and insert himself behind the bench. Oh, and who was the Panthers head coach? Gerard Gallant who, after being forced to hail his own cab following his firing, lead the Vegas Golden Knights to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final in a fairytale season. As for Rowe: He finished the year with a 24–27–10 record and was demoted to an advisory role.

Randy Cunneyworth (12/17/2011) — The Canadiens replaced Jacques Martin after a 13–12–7 start in 2011–12 with rookie head coach Randy Cunneyworth. The Canadiens posted an 18–23–9 record since his hiring and missed the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. Cunneyworth was replaced by Michel Therrien after the season.

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Todd Nelson (12/15/14) – After the Edmonton Oilers 7–19–5 start in 2014–15, Edmonton fired second-year head coach Dallas Eakins and replaced him with rookie head coach Todd Nelson. Nelson was moderately more successful, finishing the season with 17–25–9 record, but was replaced by current bench boss Todd McLellan the next season.

For every success story like Sullivan, Sutter and Cooper, there are also twice as many forgettable interim head coaches like Cory Clouston (Senators), Claude Noël (Blue Jackets) and Davis Payne (Blues). Most interims don’t inherit diamond-encrusted young cores; they walk into middling teams and usually don’t find wild success. And both Desjardins and Colliton lie somewhere in the middle: Their teams once ruled the NHL in the first part of the decade, but they’re tasked with revitalizing aging lineups into conference contenders.

No pressure.

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