The Coaching Hot Seat Revisited

Prior to the start of the season we had taken a look at several NHL coaches that could be on the proverbial hot seat had their team gotten off on the wrong foot.  Of the coaches we profiled, Todd Richards, Marc Crawford, Ron Wilson, and John Tortorella, the only one whose team doesn’t boast a winning record is Wilson’s Maple Leafs.  The Leafs got off to a hot start and have since fallen back to earth, but Wilson’s job has not appeared to be in jeopardy thus far.  You could successfully argue that Richards, Crawford, and Tortorella have all met or exceeded expectations through the first 11-12 games, and it’s probably safe to say their jobs are secure for the foreseeable future.

With our preseason prognostications now moot, we figured it’s time to revisit the subject and take a look at a new crop of coaches that ought to be wary of the axe.

Lindy Ruff

Although the Sabres tanked in the first round of the 2009-10 playoffs, Ruff’s job appeared to be safe as usual for 2010-11.  Ruff, along with Barry Trotz in Nashville, enters every NHL season with about as much job security as any coach in North American professional sports.  Ruff is the NHL’s longest tenured coach, having been at the helm in Buffalo since 1997, and only twice has he failed to post a winning record.  In 12 full seasons with the Sabres, Ruff has led the Sabres to seven playoff appearances including three visits to the conference finals and one trip to the Stanley Cup finals.  Considering the Sabres lose star talent year in, year out, Ruff’s no nonsense style has become a model of success for small market teams.

For the first time since taking over head coaching duties in Buffalo, Ruff has become the subject of serious coaching change talk.  It’s not fair to point the finger solely at Ruff for Buffalo’s horrendous start, but a Sabres club that’s winless at home and getting nothing out of their special teams is alarming enough to place considerable blame on the coach.  The loss of Jason Pominville to injury and inconsistencies across the board have stung, Ryan Miller has not looked like the Vezina Trophy winning goaltender he was a season ago, although he’s been nursing a lower body injury.  The same could be said for Tyler Myers, who has struggled mightily in his second NHL season, too.  Still, Ruff has failed to ignite his squad and it’s shown with an ugly 3-8-2 start to the season.

It’s still too early to write the Sabres off, but they haven’t remotely resembled the Northeast Division winning club they were from 2009-10.  Buffalo is light on superstar talent, and GM Darcy Regier is unlikely to pull the trigger on a blockbuster deal any time soon – which raises the question, what’s going to change?  Unless another club steps in and knocks Regier’s socks off with a deal, and is willing to absorb Tomas Vanek’s massive contract thus setting off a rebuilding phase, or there’s sudden lineup of suitors for Tim Connolly – the likely fall guy is Ruff.

John MacLean

Everyone was aware of the New Jersey Devils salary cap issues coming into the season, and there were also valid concerns about a lack of depth on the back end.  We’ll even give you the team chemistry card with Ilya Kovalchuk’s enormous contract and the drama that surrounded it, but the Devils listless 4-9-1 start to the season still comes as a surprise to most.  A multitude of injuries put the Devils behind the 8-ball out of the gate, but there was reasonable optimism with a new coach, new system, and a bevy of offensive talent up-front.  Instead, the New Jersey Devils have resembled a circus act, both on and off the ice.

MacLean’s job came into question immediately following his decision to make Ilya Kovalchuk (he of the 15-year, $100 million contract) a healthy scratch.  Given the circumstances around the benching (Kovalchuk was late for a team meeting), it’s actually a fairly admirable move by MacLean.  It’s tough love approach, but it’s the same treatment that would have been given to a player with lesser star power, say a David Clarkson.  Still, MacLean has come under a ton of fire for the move and for the Devils’ awful start.

If New Jersey continues to spiral downward, it will become more and more likely that MacLean won’t even get a chance to lead this club when everyone is healthy.  We’re talking about Lou Lamoriello’s New Jersey Devils here, and it wouldn’t be out of character for Lou to put his coach on the chopping block and take over the duties himself.  He’s done it when the Devils were in contention, so why wouldn’t he when they’re out of it?

Randy Carlyle

The Anaheim Ducks head coach is another interesting case.  Randy Carlyle was riding a wave of success since becoming head coach of the Ducks in 2005, he had a club that was stocked with talent and has watched the trio of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Bobby Ryan develop into NHL stars.  Carlyle led the Ducks to their first ever Stanley Cup in just his second season behind an imposing defence and a great mix of youth and veterans.  Father time and declining depth finally caught up to the Ducks in 2009-10, and Carlyle missed the playoffs for the first time since taking the job.

Ducks’ general manager Bob Murray insists that Carlyle’s job is safe, but it’s hard to look at the club’s defensive struggles and not place some blame on the coach.  Granted, the Ducks blueline is thin and they’re giving up the most shots per night in the league while sitting near the bottom in goals against per game, so it’s just as simple to pinpoint personnel as the problem in Anaheim.

The Ducks have been awful on the road at 2-6, which has been their undoing thus far in this young season.  Carlyle may be able to take some solace in the fact that his team looks more like a club that’s rebuilding than one that’s a Cup contender.  The presence of Jonas Hiller along with Getzlaf, Perry, and Ryan certainly points the contrary, but the Ducks thin-out considerably after their top-5 forwards and that defense core is particularly atrocious.  Cam Fowler will be given ample time to develop and mature as a player this season, and it’s difficult to picture that process taking place with anyone other than Randy Carlyle behind the bench.  Barring a complete catastrophe in the standings for the Ducks, Carlyle’s job should be secure for at least this season.

Dishonourable Mention: Brent Sutter.  Although, he may be the least of Calgary’s worries right now.