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Is It Ever Too Early To Fire the Head Coach?

If a team believes they’re better than they’ve shown, probably not. Lets look at a couple teams who pulled the plug early and if the Devils should consider doing the same if things get out of hand.

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NHL: New Jersey Devils at Calgary Flames
Devils Head Coach Lindy Ruff contemplating what went wrong during a loss late in the 2021-22 season
Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

The New Jersey Devils have gotten off to a less than ideal start, going 1-2-0 to start the season. That could’ve been 0-3-0 after a rough start last night against Anaheim, but fortunately the Devils had a response and won the game. Even with that win though, a lot of trouble signs were apparent through the first two games, as they looked similar to a lot of bad games from the previous two seasons. I also don’t know anyone who feels like the ship was righted after one win. After all, we were at the point where the second game of the season was deemed a “must win” by Miles Wood. They lost and the know the rest.

My thoughts on Lindy Ruff are abundantly clear so I won’t rehash them here. I want to talk about whether or not its too early in the season to make a change and if there’s a benefit to an NHL team admitting a mistake and cutting your losses early.

First, lets ask ourselves why teams fire their coach in the first place. The answer seems obvious, but unless there is some sort of scandal involved, the reason(s) why teams fire their coach is usually some combination of the following.

  • The team is bad and/or the team is talented, but underperforming. The standings reflect that as the team continues losing games.
  • There’s not necessarily anything wrong with the roster but they need “a new voice”. They need to go from a players coach to a drill sergeant, or vice versa. The players simply “tune out” the coach or the coach is incapable of getting the players to buy in.
  • In the short term, its easier to change the coach than change the roster.
  • Pressure from the fanbase and/or the media, which includes but isn’t limited to fans booing at games, empty seats, and bad press. The atmosphere in the building becomes so toxic that it becomes untenable for the coach to continue.
  • Ownership takes a hands-on approach by getting involved in personnel decisions. The buck ultimately stops with the guy signing the checks, after all.
  • The desire to make a “splash” or hire a big name who is currently available
  • The team hopes that with a change, there’s a lift or bump post-firing, the team wins games and/or players play better.

Let’s put a bookmark in this line of thought and come back to it later.

We’ve heard all of the reasons (or excuses) why you shouldn’t fire a coach in-season. After all, the team has new players and/or assistant coaches. You have to give the team time to gel. They need time to learn the system and learn how to play with each other. Firing the coach early in the season might be perceived as a panic move, an act of desperation, or an admission that you screwed up in the offseason by retaining the coach in the first place.

But what if its not?

What if you got it wrong, but you have a chance to make it right? What if the team has a higher ceiling than what they’ve shown? Is it too early to fire the coach after a handful of games?

Let’s take a look at a few instances in recent NHL history where a team did make the decision early to dismiss the coach, what happened afterwards, what lessons we can take away from that, and how it might apply to this year’s Devils team.

The 2013-14 Philadelphia Flyers

Peter Laviolette was entering his 5th season as the head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2013-14. Laviolette had a lot of success in Philadelphia, as he has in most of his previous stops. He took over for John Stevens during the 2009-10 season (Stevens was fired after a 13-11-1 start, more on that in a bit) and nearly led the Flyers to a Stanley Cup title, ultimately losing to the Blackhawks in six games. Philadelphia finished with 106 and 103 points in his first two full seasons, but suffered a setback during the 2012-13 season with a 10th place finish in the Eastern Conference.

The Flyers roster was in a good place going into the 13-14 season, but they wanted to make some offseason additions to supplement their core. Ray Emery was brought back to help their goaltending after the Ilya Bryzgalov debacle. Mark Streit came aboard to play tough minutes on the backend. Vinny Lecavalier joined the team after playing his entire career in Tampa to provide veteran leadership and secondary scoring. These seemed like reasonable decisions (albeit with questionable contractual terms) at the time to supplement what was already in place with Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds in their prime and young up-and-comers Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier taking the next step in their careers.

The Flyers fired Laviolette after an 0-3-0 start. Gone after three games.

Ed Snider might’ve had a bit of an itchy trigger finger, but he is a Hockey Hall of Famer who had owned the team since 1967 until his death in 2016. He had overseen multiple Stanley Cup champions under his ownership. The Flyers have been to six other Stanley Cup Final and were regarded as one of the league’s marquee franchises. Snider and then-GM Paul Holmgren knew they had a talented roster and turned to longtime assistant Craig Berube to right the ship. And right the ship, he did.

Philadelphia struggled initially as they adjusted to the coaching change and was 4-10-1 through the first 15 games, but eventually talent won out and they started putting winning streaks together. They finished the season 42-30-10 but fell in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion New York Rangers.

Berube was unable to build on that success the following year and was fired at the end of the 2014-15 season. He’s done pretty well for himself since then as he famously took over for Mike Yeo after 19 games and went on to lead the St. Louis Blues to their first Stanley Cup championship in franchise history in 2019. Again, talent winning out.

Since I brought it up earlier, lets talk about the 2009-10 Flyers. John Stevens was dismissed after 25 games and was replaced by Laviolette. Philadelphia was in a Conference Final two years earlier and the playoffs the year before, so they clearly felt they had a talented team. Their two young centers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were in their mid 20s and in their prime. Claude Giroux was 22 and just entering his prime. James van Riemsdyk finished 11th in Calder voting that year. Obviously, that team also had veterans like Chris Pronger, Danny Briere and Simon Gagne, but its not like they had prime Dominik Hasek in net. They had Michael Leighton, Brian Boucher, and Emery. That goaltending trio doesn’t sound a whole lot better than Mackenzie Blackwood, Vitek Vanecek, and Jonathan Bernier, does it?

The 2008-09 Chicago Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks promoted assistant coach, Hall of Famer and franchise icon Denis Savard to be their head coach in 2006-07 after dismissing Trent Yawney 21 games into his second season. This was at the point of the Blackhawks timeline where they had already bottomed out and drafted Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Toews and Kane debuted during Savard’s first full season as head coach and made an immediate impact, helping Chicago finish with a 40-34-8 record. They fell short of making the playoffs, but there was a sense that the Blackhawks were finally making progress after years of prolonged losing and were about to turn the corner.

The core that would make up the Blackhawks dynasty was in place. Kane and Toews were 20. Duncan Keith was 25. Brent Seabrook was 23. Niklas Hjalmarsson was 21. Patrick Sharp was 27. There were good players in place before they added Marian Hossa in 2009-10.....Kris Versteeg, Martin Havlat, Andrew Ladd, Brian Campbell, and Dave Bolland. Surely, the Blackhawks would come out of the gates in 2008-09 firing on all cylinders.

Not exactly.

The Blackhawks fired Savard after a 1-2-1 start. Savard, who has his number 18 hanging in the rafters of United Center, was out after FOUR games and just ONE full season as coach. Rough business.

GM Dale Tallon had said the team had a flat camp and that “we felt we needed to send a message and invigorate this team.” They opted to go with an experienced head coach in Joel Quenneville, which turned out to be a successful hire.

Quenneville instantly led the Blackhawks to a Conference Final that season after going 46-24-12. Again, talent ultimately won out, as Kane eventually developed into a Hart Trophy winner, Keith became a two-time Norris trophy winner, and Toews has had his own Hall of Fame career leading that group. Chicago won the Stanley Cup the following season and two more championships in 2013 and 2015.

Quenneville was fired by Chicago in 2018, but he showed that he’s still a very good coach in Florida before he resigned in disgrace last season for his role in the Blackhawks coverup of the Brad Aldrich sexual assault allegations.

The 2001-02 Pittsburgh Penguins

Ivan Hlinka was hired as the head coach of the Penguins prior to the 2000-01 season after a long coaching career with the Czech Republic national team. Of course, the 2000-01 season was more notable for Penguins fans as being the same year Mario Lemieux returned to the NHL as a player-owner. Pittsburgh reached the Conference Final that season, where they ultimately lost to our Devils.

On the surface, the hire of Hlinka made sense as many of the Penguins best players at the time were Czech. Unfortunately, the Penguins roster was getting a little long in the tooth at this point. After clashing with Jaromir Jagr, the former Hart Trophy winner was traded to Washington after the 2000-01 season. There were reportedly language barrier issues as well as Lemieux wanted Hlinka to take English-speaking lessons to better communicate with the other players on the roster.

Pittsburgh got off to a slow start in 2001-02 and fired Hlinka after an 0-4-0 start.

Hlinka was replaced by longtime Penguins assistant Rick Kehoe, but the damage to the Penguins roster was already done. Lemieux was still very good although he missed time in 01-02, and Alex Kovalev was still there, but there wasn’t enough talent on the rest of the roster. Pittsburgh finished with 69 and 65 points the following two seasons before dismissing Kehoe and bottoming out.

What Can We Take Away From This?

I want to be clear that even if the Devils fire Lindy Ruff today, next week, or next month, there is no guarantee that this Devils team will go on a run and make the playoffs. The Metropolitan Division is still loaded. The Eastern Conference is loaded. Its possible the goaltending duo of Mackenzie Blackwood and Vitek Vanecek simply is not good enough. It’s also possible that there are inherent flaws with the roster that have yet to be addressed.

With that said, you’ll notice that I used the word “talent” a lot when talking about all of these situations. Philadelphia and Chicago had it, both in terms of established NHL players and young players looking to take the next step. The Penguins, outside of a handful of players, did not. Keep in mind, we’re just talking about teams that fired their coach in the first week. We could have a whole separate discussion about teams that played better or even won it all after a midseason change, although I don’t think anyone is delusional enough to think these Devils can win it all in June.

These teams clearly thought there was another level that they were capable of reaching, and they wagered that having a new voice behind the bench is exactly what they needed to turn it around. In Philly and Chicago’s case, they were right.

It’s at this time that I go back to Tom Fitzgerald’s season opening press conference.

Fitzgerald used words and phrases like “excitement”, “high upside”, “depth” and “growth” when describing the team itself, the atmosphere in the building on Day 1 of camp, and individual players. He also said “the standard here is high”, that they think they have a good team and “now is our time, why wait?”. Unless Fitzgerald is paying us lip service and doesn’t believe a word he’s saying, it sounds to me like he thinks this team should be better this season.

My advice to Tom Fitzgerald, and if not him then with Devils ownership....if the Devils roster is truly as improved as they seems to think, bet on talent. Double down on talent. Do that instead of doubling down on a coach or system. Do that and let the rest of the issues with the roster sort itself out in due time.

Nobody is disputing that the Devils have things that they need to address with the roster short-term and long-term. Devils management can address what is still missing from the roster once the team shows they’re ready to compete. That might be size, sandpaper, grit, or whatever buzzword you want to use. It might be a second-pairing defenseman, a right-handed shot at wing or a 4th line center who can actually play defense and not get caved in like Michael McLeod.

The Devils have committed to the core that is in place right now. This isn’t a roster like Arizona, Philadelphia, San Jose, or Chicago that lacks talent. Jack Hughes is talented. Nico Hischier is talented. Jesper Bratt is talented. There are good players here that they have committed to such as Dougie Hamilton, John Marino and Jonas Siegenthaler on the blueline. They have good young wingers such as Yegor Sharangovich who are already in place. They have solid veterans like Ondrej Palat and Erik Haula who have been through the battles and seen everything. The talent is here, with more coming at some point in Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec. Maybe there’s not as much as the Blackhawks dynasty or the 2010 Flyers, but it does exist. Bet on talent. Double down on it.

This all brings me back to the question I asked earlier in this column why a team fires a coach. The Devils would check a lot of those boxes if they chose to do it. Team underperforming? Check. Easier to change a coach than change the roster? Check. Fans revolting? You tell me.

Is it too early to make a change though? Not necessarily, especially if you think you’re better than you’ve shown. If they were going to make a change, it would be preferable to do so sooner rather than later with as many regular season games remaining as possible. It might not work, but its better than essentially playing an extension of the 2021-22 season knowing what the end result is going to be with defensive breakdowns and porous goaltending. Not to mention you’ll be able to answer a lot of questions definitively about this group once and for all. You’ll know if it really is “just the goaltending”, if you can win with (random player), or if (random player) who came over from (random team) is still good when its all said and done.

One last thing. Fitzgerald and Ruff share the same 47-78-16 record since they were named to their positions. That is not good enough regardless of the circumstances. To quote Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells, “You are what your record says you are.” Every team has had to deal with COVID, suboptimal performances and injuries. Those are excuses, and there are no excuses remaining with the team healthy and ready to go.

Final Thoughts

We have seen in recent NHL history that a talented team can fire a head coach early in the season and still have enough runway left in the season to make a run. The Devils have 79 games remaining this season. The general manager of this team said three weeks ago that this team is good. “Now is the time, why wait?”. Maybe they build on the win over Anaheim, but maybe they don’t. If they do, this point is moot and I wrote almost 2900 words for nothing. If they don’t and they’re 2-6-1 at the end of the month, they should change course if they believe in the group in place.

Where are you on this situation? Is it ever too early to fire the coach? If Ruff has the team looking decent and they’re in the mix, do you give him the whole season? Are the Devils talented enough to warrant a change or are we overrating the talent? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thanks for reading.