Stirring the pot: How coaching changes landed two ice hockey teams in hot water

A spate of coaching changes rocked the NHL during the regular season. The litany of leadership switches landed ESPN’s front page on the regular and at the time I remember thinking: “Is this really going to help?”

There are a zillion good reasons to fire a coach, but seven firing/hiring stunts in about two months raised eyebrows. Was it groupthink, coincidence, or just a lot of pot-stirring?

In reality and fairness, each of the coaches should get a full season in behind the bench before being evaluated. But if we’re going to peek early, now that we’re more than half way through the Stanley Cup Playoffs (although in my world they are already over) it’s an interesting time to tentatively take stock.

Of the eight teams that swapped coaches, five — the Hurricanes, the Canadiens, the Ducks, the Maple Leafs, and the Blue Jackets — didn’t make it to the playoffs.

Of those that did see the postseason — the Capitals, the Blues, and the Kings — only L.A. is still in contention with the third round underway.

Even if the L.A. Kings win the Stanley Cup, the results make it pretty tough to draw many conclusions about coaching changes and postseason success this year.

What the coaching switch has done so far is made for some soap opera-style drama — two teams are currently coach-less — so we can talk a little bit about the old default strategy of stirring the pot.

The Montreal Canadiens were terrible this year, but Randy Cunneyworth, who was brought in to replace Jacques Martin, stirred Hab nation to a boil. Cunneyworth is already back out the door — not because the Canadiens were bad, although they were, but because he can’t speak French. With a losing record on the books, the Canadiens still have no idea who’ll be in charge next.

Right now, though, the Capitals are providing even more coaching suspense.

As the Washington Post reported in its postseason recap, the Caps dropped a high-caliber coach in Bruce Boudreau to take a chance on Dale Hunter, who wasn’t even sure he wanted to coach in the NHL.

The Caps had a respectable and downright exciting postseason run (though they barely made it in), but Hunter already resigned his position, even after being lauded for instilling discipline and “accountability” in the streaky team.

From the Post article, it sounds like the coaching hire has been mired in controversy from the start.

“…the notion that Hunter had implemented sort of magic elixir of a system is a myth. Boudreau was in the process of changing the Capitals’ approach when he was fired for essentially one reason: Alex Ovechkin didn’t want to play for him anymore because — ironically — Boudreau began insisting on accountability from everyone, including his superstar. Hunter was a different voice saying many of the same things — to the team in general and to Ovechkin in specific.”

As if Ovechkin weren’t enough to handle, following the season there were rumors that Alexander Semin, the Capitals other leading forward, didn’t want to remain with the team because, as his agent told ESPN,  the team “decided to change directions.” Now he’s denying those rumors. Still, it’s likely his decision could be influenced the by the coaching pick.

In the meantime, the style and performance of two teams is in utter limbo. If the GMs were hoping to stir the pot (and not just follow the herd), they succeeded. Though not in the way I imagine they planned.

It’s easy to wonder if the Caps and the Canadiens might have been altogether better off keeping the coaches they started the season with. After all, Boudreau was just signed to a two-year contract with the Anaheim Ducks, so couldn’t Ovechkin have gotten over himself? And I’ve seen Martin on some lists as a potential Hunter replacement for the Caps, just to make things weirder.

There’s obviously no way to know.

Inevitably, more coaching switches will go down between now and next postseason, but these two organizations will be the teams to watch. Their ability to weather a revolving door of coaches — and possibly players — may help other general managers with their hiring and firing decisions, whether they know it or not. Or at least, a GM might think twice before firing a coach to try and stir the pot.

Yael Borofsky is a writer, editor, and Philadelphia sports fan. Follow her on Twitter @yaelborofsky.

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