Ah, the life of an NHL head coach. It’s a job in which one of the major objectives is to simply keep your job. How many of us can say that? If you’re wildly successful, then your reward is getting to keep your job for more than 5 years. But when you stop and think that there are only 30 jobs in the entire world, it seems like a pretty good payoff.
That’s right: 30 jobs—that’s it. Statistically, it’s easier to be a United States Senator. Politically, it might be just as hard. The shelf life for these coaches is about the same amount of time for people in college. For most coaches, it’s a short adventure that’s filled with excitement and ends before they want it to. But then again, there are a few people like Barry Trotz and Lindy Ruff who look like they’ll be career students. Like I said, just like college.
Aside from the Ruff and Trotz, the job title “NHL Head Coach” is not exactly the career path people pick if they’re looking for stability. Outside of those two coaches, Mike Babcock’s tenure with the Wings is the longest in the NHL. He’s been there FIVE whole years. Want a little more perspective? Check this out: 77% of the head coaches (23 out of 30) in the NHL today were hired in 2008 or later.
So with all of these new coaches popping up, what kind of guys are getting hired? For years, there was a “Good Ole Boys” club of head coaches that just drifted from job to job. Any time there was a job opening, it was a pretty safe bet that Pat Burns, Mike Keenan, Ken Hitchcock, or Pat Quinn was going to get the job. Hell, Scotty Bowman coached 4 teams and he’s arguably the best coach the NHL has ever seen.
But lately, it seems like the times are a-changin’.
More and more coaches are coming from the AHL, Juniors, and the assistant coaching ranks. We are getting away from the time when 30 head coaches just basically played musical chairs and swapped positions every few years—but it was the same 30 guys. Recently, we’ve seen a shift away from “experience” as the most important factor and organization are looking outside for more promising candidates. San Jose swiped one of Detroit’s top assistants when they hired Todd McLellan.
Recently this trend has only intensified. This off-season, there have been 6 organizations that have hired a new head coach. Of those 6 positions, 5 were filled by a man who had never been a head coach in the NHL before (Craig Ramsey had served briefly as an interim). The only recycled coach that was hired was Tom Renney, and he was actually the coach-in-waiting behind Pat Quinn in Edmonton. Interesting that there were 5 decisions made and 5 new coaches without real NHL experience were chosen.
But if we look just a little closer, this trend isn’t as new as it may seem. Recent years have shown that management has been leaning towards new coaching prospects for a while now. The vast majority of hires over the last 3 years can be broken up into two separate categories: mid-season coaching changes and off-season coaching changes. Not surprisingly, all but two mid-season replacements were guys who already had NHL head coaching experience (Cory Clouston and Dan Bylsma).
It’s interesting to look at the recycled coaches that have landed jobs recently. In all, we’ve seen 11 head coaches land at least their 2nd NHL head coaching job. Almost half of those guys ended up taking control in the middle of a season, which isn’t terribly surprising since it would be tough for any first-time head coach to jump in head first in the middle of a season. But those other 6 recycled coaches? Well, there are some interesting stories there as well.
Tom Renney was named the Edmonton Oilers head coach, but he was already the associate coach and this was a predetermined move to the top. Terry Murray is technically a recycled coach, but he went 7 seasons between his job in Florida and taking over the Los Angeles Kings. Brent Sutter? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that he had a connection to get his job in Calgary. That leaves two slam-dunk, boring, recycle hirings in the last 3 seasons.
Only Ron Wilson, Marc Crawford, and Jacques Martin were your average, barrel-scraping hirings over the last 3 years. Do you remember when it seemed like every hiring was some name that had just been fired? If anything, Wilson and Crawford represent the old-school way of thinking. I wonder if it’s any coincidence that both of those guys lead their teams to their worst record in years. They’re not exactly doing any former coaches any favors with their awful performances. Or in Dallas: a Crawful performance.
Now, we’re getting an infusion of new coaching talent with guys like Guy Boucher and Scott Arniel. John MacLean has been waiting in the wings for seemingly forever in New Jersey and Craig Ramsay is FINALLY getting that permanent head coaching position that a lot of us thought he should have gotten years ago. And it was great to see the Blues reward former ECHL coach Davis Payne with a permanent position after getting his feet wet in the NHL last year. A few years ago, these are the guys that would have had a horrific time trying to break through into the NHL ranks—now they’re all making the jump in the same season.
“Steve Yzerman’s first task as the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning was to bring in a coach that he felt could guide the team through another rebuilding season, and stick it out for the long haul. Instead of going through the retread stack of NHL coaches which is the norm for most NHL teams, Yzerman went with youth… Boucher will become the youngest coach in the NHL at 38 years old.” —Dustin Staggers (Bolts By The Bay)
Sure, we still have the Ron Wilsons and Marc Crawfords of the world who still find a way to land on their feet—but it’s great to see some of the younger coaches with potential getting a chance. After all, there are only 30 of these jobs to go around. No reason to keep handing them to the same, tired names.