NHL coaching changes come often, and often have successful results

Posted: February 20, 2013

THE EVIDENCE seems overwhelming.

Darryl Sutter replaced Terry Murray halfway through a dismal campaign in Los Angeles last year and poof, a few months later, the Kings won their first-ever Stanley Cup.

Fired after a disappointing three seasons in Florida, Peter Deboer replaced onetime Stanley Cup winner Jacques Lemaire as the New Jersey coach and poof, the Devils reached the finals, too.

One season after guiding Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup finals, Michel Therrien was fired amid a poor start and replaced by Dan Bylsma, a minor league coach with no prior NHL experience. Bylsma took the Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship that very season. Now Therrien has resurfaced as the leader of a Montreal resurgence.

Peter Laviolette stepped in for John Stevens four seasons ago and poof, the underachieving Flyers made a run all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals. Now with his team stumbling to a disappointing start, he too is feeling some heat.

Ken Hitchcock was a one-hit wonder here, a bust in Columbus, a savant in St. Louis. I could go on and on with these examples, as can we all. Some of the recently fired guys were even once midseason saviors themselves, and some of them later replaced fired coaches.

The question is, why is it that midseason coaching changes are far more effective in professional hockey than in the other major team sports?

Why do they appear to be more frequent, too, for that matter?

"Because there's probably not as much theory as in those other sports, especially football,'' said Keith Primeau, the former Flyers captain and now a junior coach himself. "As a hockey coach you're not just a tactician, you're part motivator. The tricky part is how to do that. How do you get the most out of your own unique group of players? It all depends on how you deliver your message, I guess.''

It's an interesting balance, the message, the messenger and the recipients. Lemaire was the right jolt for some Devils teams and battery acid for others. Murray's schemes and strategies were hardly tinkered with by Sutter last season, yet the results were immediately and markedly different.

Sometimes they're not. When Laviolette first took over the Flyers, his attack philosophy - in marked contrast to Stevens' approach - did not translate into victories. This year, with his attempts to inject a more defense-first philosophy to reflect a change in team personnel, the Flyers have again been slow on the uptake. That led to some questions about his job safety. Peter Luukko, president of Comcast-Spectacor, said no changes were in the air.

For now. But if the Flyers continue this one-step-up, two-steps-back season, will that endorsement remain? Laviolette's own history, which includes replacing and being replaced by the same man, Paul Maurice, suggests no.

"It's not a vanilla job,'' said another former Flyer, Keith Jones, whose well-traveled, 9-year NHL career exposed him to an abundance of coaching styles. "There are copycat systems and such, but each guy brings something different as a coach. You're constantly seeking the right mesh. And then it can change.''

No team makes this point year in and year out like Lou Lamoriello's Devils. Including last season, they have reached the Stanley Cup finals five times since 1995 and only once has the same coach been behind the bench. Larry Robinson won a Cup and lost a finals in consecutive playoffs, but it should be noted that he coached only the last eight regular-season games of 1999-2000 after replacing Robbie Ftorek.

Ftorek's record at the time of his dismissal was 41-20-8-5.

Which is why Lamoriello, a former college coach himself, is considered by some a mad genius.

Jones owns and races horses in addition to his broadcasting work. He said the hockey coach's closest parallel is not found amid other team sports, but to the relationship between a jockey and a horse.

"It's actually very comparable,'' he said. "Riding style is such a feel thing. When to whip one horse is different than when to whip another. Some need to be whipped a lot, some hardly at all. When to do it, how often and how hard . . .

"The coach you put in there has to fit the personality of the team.''

It doesn't always work. Sutter reached his first finals as coach of the Calgary Flames in 2004, two seasons after San Jose fired him 24 games into the season. Later, as the Flames' general manager, he promoted his assistant, fired him, hired and fired Mike Keenan, hired his brother to coach and then resigned.

Then he surfaced as a messiah in Los Angeles.

You'd call it dumb luck if it didn't happen so often in this sport. One team's throwaway is another team's messiah. One team's messiah is another team's throwaway. Baseball replaces managers midseason, but not with this regularity - or success.

"Here's one possible answer,'' Jones said. "Hockey players are tougher in the mind than in the other sports, at least when it comes to abuse. They can take the abuse because that's how you're brought up in hockey. You get to that level because you have a thicker skin. You can take the tougher motivation.''

The problem, said Primeau, is when today's tough motivation sounds like the day before. And the day before that. And . . .

"I always said I consider myself a Hitchcock disciple,'' he said. "I teach my players the way he taught me, but my delivery is completely different. That's the one flaw in his game, his delivery. He said he's changed in St. Louis and maybe he has. But that's why the leadership group was so important to him. I never felt more of a conduit than I did then. You were constantly telling guys, 'Don't listen to how he's saying it, but listen to the message.' ''

Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: philly.com/


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