The High Turnover for Coaches

It’s been said that if a coach can’t show success (e.g. win the Cup or go deep in the playoffs) within the first three years of his tenure, then it’s time for that team to move on. Some get a lot more than that. Others get much less.

The longest tenured coaches all taught in the era of our legends – Jack Adams coached the Red Wings for 20 years straight, Toe Blake with the Canadiens for 13, and Al Arbour coached the Islanders for 20 years as well, although there was a two year break when he moved up in the organization. The shortest-tenured, however, include Barry Melrose, who coached all of 16 games with the Lightning, Ron Rolston, who lasted ten months with the Sabres after replacing Lindy Ruff, and Mike Johnston, who was fired after a season and a half with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Obviously, these five names are at the extreme opposite ends of the spectrum, but coaching tenures for coaches seem to be getting shorter.

The only modern exceptions seem to be Mike Babcock, Darryl Sutter, and Joel Quenneville. Babcock both left their most recent former teams of their own accords, while Coach Q has had enough success with Chicago that his job is pretty safe for a long time. Meanwhile, heralded coaches such as Claude Julien, who helmed Boston’s bench for nine and a half seasons, Lindy Ruff, who lasted shortly over 14 season with Buffalo, and Barry Trotz, whose first 15 seasons as an NHL head coach were spent with Nashville.

The question being asked is this: has there been an increase in head coach turnover over the years?

It certainly feels like it, with teams chomping at the bit to win more than ever. But surprisingly, there hasn’t been as much change as one might think. Legacy coaches such as Toe Blake or Jack Adams or Al Arbour are extremely hard to come by these days. In the days of six or even twelve or fourteen teams, there was less opportunity for moving up with a different team, and less parity in the league as well. Unless your team managed to come across someone like Bobby Orr or Stan Mikita, the good teams (Montreal, Toronto, Detroit) were generally good and the bad teams were generally bad (most notably, the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers – two of the best teams in the league now).

The bottom line is that apart from issues with the players or the front office, retirement, resignation, or promotion, a coach lasts while the team is good – obviously the testament to a coach’s success. Teams that are bad for long periods of time go through many coaches. Even if a coach is successful, a la Ruff, Trotz, or Julien, it becomes a “What have you done for me lately?” situation. The three years’ measure mentioned at the beginning of the article nearly hits it on the hammer – except instead of three years since hiring, the trend seems to be more three years since major success.

In the case of Willie Desjardins, the Canucks coach, he has had three years without a resounding success. In 2014-15, his inaugural season as head coach, he met expectations by meeting the playoffs (this of course was when management wanted to retool instead of rebuild), but was absolutely dummied in the playoffs to match lines. Last season took the Canucks to 28th in the league, and this season looks no different. After comments from GM Jim Benning stated that Desjardins has “caught up to reality”, there’s some speculation that he could be let go in the offseason.

But is switching coaches worth it when your team is bad and/or young? Pittsburgh, which is by no means bad or young, has pulled it off twice since the lockout, winning the Cup both times. Meanwhile, bad and young teams such as Edmonton of three to ten years ago floundered under a revolving coaching staff. 

There are countless variables as to whether a team and coach should part ways, and turnover is certainly not increasing once the increase in teams is factored in, but perhaps teams should consider the impact of getting away from a coach will have on their players’ play, first.

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