Coaches often get fired during the season in the NHL, and it is getting more and more common as teams get more expensive to run and owners get less patient as a result. When a coach is fired handicappers immediately have to try to figure out what is going to happen to the team in the short term. Is the team going to react positively to the coaching change, or is their shock and frustration going to cause them to play poorly at the start of the new regime? Here are 10 quick questions to ask to get a sense of which is more likely:
Was the change expected? – Sometimes everyone in the world knows that a coach is going to be fired sooner or later – and probably sooner. Other times it comes as a real shock. The more unexpected a move is, the harder it will be for players to come to terms with the change and adapt to the idea of playing for someone else.
Was the coach popular with his players? – Some coaches are very popular with their players, and will be missed when they leave – even if the team wasn’t winning enough to save his job. In other cases, though, a coach had to go because they just weren’t getting along with their players. In that case the team could play with new intensity and excitement after the firing just because the dark days are over.
How were the stars playing? – The best gauge of the status of a team is how the highest paid and most talented players are performing. If those players aren’t carrying their weight then it’s clear that they aren’t happy, and that has a ripple effect on the whole team. If that’s the case then it is especially important to look at how well the style of the new coach suits the stars, and how well they are likely to adapt to the change. If an offensive star was frustrated by a defensive coach, for example, then you could be more optimistic if the new coach is aggressively offensive than if he is also a defense-first guy.
Is the new guy ready to go right away? – Most times these days a coaching change is made when the team has the replacement in place and ready to start right away. Sometimes, though, teams are forced to make a quick decision and use an interim coach for a period of time. I’m not a fan of an interim coach in any case, but in hockey it seems to be especially damaging.
Does the new coach know his players? – I’m not a huge fan of an internal hire – like an assistant coach or someone from the front office taking over the team. What I do like, though, is if the coach has a personal connection already established with some of the key players. Perhaps the coach has coached some of the players in the minors, with a different franchise, or at an international tournament. If a coach has an established, positive relationship with some players then it is easier for him at the outset because he already has someone on his side, and someone who knows what he expects and can model that for his teammates.
Does the coach have a track record? – In order to succeed in the short term a coach has to be able to quickly command the respect of the players and get them to buy into his message. It’s easier for that to happen if he has an established record of success in the NHL as a coach. A rookie coach can also have a good shot at early success if he was a successful player who has coached well at levels other than the NHL. If neither of those situations exist then it’s not that a coach isn’t going to be able to succeed, but it could take him a bit longer to earn the respect of his players.
Will there be a big change in styles? – It’s easier for a coach to make tweaks than wide scale changes in the short term, so it can be easier for a coach of a similar style to succeed when he takes over than if the coach has a radically different approach to the game.
Are there obvious issues that can be fixed? – Sometimes a team isn’t winning despite having all sorts of talent. It could be that they are playing without discipline, that they are lousy on special teams, that they aren’t backchecking as aggressively as they should, or something similar. Any of those issues can be quickly and effectively remedied if the players are willing to listen to the new coach and do what he suggests. When the issues are more serious than that, though – the defense is ineffective, the team can’t score enough goals, and so on – then it could take much longer for the coach to make a difference, so the early impact could be less than inspiring.
Who do they play? – The schedule has a lot to do with how teams will do here just as it does in almost any case. It would obviously be easier for a coach to make a big impact if he is playing a team that is weak and ready to be exploited than if he is debuting against a top quality team in strong form.
Is there still hope? – The biggest message a coach will try to spread when he takes over a new team is hope – that the team can really turn things around and accomplish something impressive if they buy in and embrace his vision. The more realistic and significant that hope is, then, the more effectively the coach will be able to sell it. If the team is all but eliminated from playoff contention then a coach will have far more issues than if he is taking over a talented team that could easily be a force in the playoffs with a few key changes.