When we look back at this season, it may be remembered as the season of coaching changes.
More than a quarter of the League has replaced its coach during the course of the 2011-12 campaign, which is a remarkable total. The latest replacement came last week in Toronto when Ron Wilson was replaced by Randy Carlyle. In all likelihood, this will be the last time a coach is fired before the regular season is over, but with eight coaching changes this year, it's important to note that the previous changes all played a part in leading up to this one.
And they haven't all worked out for the better.
St. Louis Blues -- This was the first one and, obviously, this was a home run. When Ken Hitchcock came in and replaced Davis Payne he completely changed the culture of the team and brought in accountability. Obviously, when a coach walks in that's won a Stanley Cup the players can't say the coach doesn't know what he's doing. Given the results, it's clear he was the perfect man at the right time. St. Louis may be the best team in the NHL since the change, their home record is fantastic, and their goaltending, which was at one point a weakness, might now be the best in the League.
Most importantly for every other coach, however, is that this one probably accelerated the process for other changes around the League. When an owner or GM looks at St. Louis and says, "Well, look what this change did. That's clearly what we have to do," it has a wide-ranging impact.
Carolina Hurricanes -- When Kirk Muller replaced Paul Maurice at the end of November, it was another successful change. Paul Maurice is a good coach, but I think this was just a case of the message being lost. Maurice had been there for too long, the guys had heard from him for too long and some fresh air was needed. Since Kirk's come in the team has turned it around and played a style that's much more fun to watch and much quicker. Eric Staal also looks like he's responded and as Staal goes, so go the Canes. This was a change that has definitely paid off and it could get things going for this team next season.
Washington Capitals -- The Capitals are a total mystery, and Bruce Boudreau's getting replaced by Dale Hunter seems to have confirmed it. Washington was a team that started the season on fire with seven straight wins, Boudreau had everything going his way, and then the Caps lost to Detroit and the wheels just fell off the wagon. Personally, I think it's just a case of the players deciding they didn't want to play for Boudreau anymore, and GM George McPhee knew some change had to be made -- and the choice was basically change the coach or change the team. They weren't going to trade Ovechkin, they weren't going to trade Semin, they weren't going to trade Backstrom and any other move would have just been cosmetic. It's always easier to fire one guy than 25 guys and I think Boudreau was a victim of that. But as you can see, despite a few brief flashes, things haven't gotten much better with Hunter in the job now. I think this is a team with issues in the dressing room and issues with character and the solution might just be to blow the team up, because it looks like it doesn't matter who's coaching. They're probably the biggest disappointment in the NHL this season.
Anaheim Ducks -- Of course, it's hard to talk about the Caps without mentioning the Ducks, who brought in Boudreau just days later to replace Carlyle when they were in their own slump. Now, I have my three-year rule. After three years a coach can't find a new way to get their message across and the players get tired of hearing the same thing. The nucleus for the Ducks is very talented, but it's also been together for a long time by NHL standards. Sometimes things get stale and it looks like it was just a case of Carlyle getting shut out. Boudreau has been a breath of fresh air and the players have responded. This is clearly another coaching change the has worked out for the best. I think they've run out of time as far as the playoffs are concerned; but at the start of next year, you have to assume they'll be in the playoff mix with Boudreau at the helm.
Los Angeles Kings -- This is another group that might be in the same boat as Washington. They aren't as dramatic a disappointment, but when Terry Murray was fired the team was struggling to score and were fighting in that No. 7 to No. 10 cluster of teams in the West. When they won, they basically won with goaltending from Jonthan Quick and Jonathan Bernier. Now, under Darryl Sutter, they're basically the same team. They're not scoring more, they're not assured of a playoff spot and, even with the addition of Jeff Carter, they're not putting up the numbers they expected even if they've won a few games with him. GM Dean Lombardi clearly didn't want to make this move when he did, and the apparent results might indicate why.
Columbus Blue Jackets -- What can you really say about this one? Columbus came into this season with massive expectations and it's just been a complete disaster. The trades have been terrible, there was the Nash boondoggle at the NHL Trade Deadline, and things haven't changed much since Todd Richards replaced Scott Arniel. It's a mess. Whether Richards loses the interim tag or they hire someone new this offseason, the Jackets will have a number of things they need to do -- most notably figure out the Nash situation. Either way, however, the season was lost long before the coaching change happened. This could be a real make-or-break time for the Columbus franchise. The fans in that city have been great since the team started playing, but they need something to repay them for coming year after year. The man who eventually is coach in 2012-13 has to give those fans a positive light for the future.
Montreal Canadiens -- This is another team that's just in a tailspin that a coaching change couldn't fix. I will be very surprised if both Pierre Gauthier and Randy Cunneyworth are still with the team next season as the team is going to finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. It's just been a tough season all around. When Cunneyworth replaced Jacques Martin I think he walked into a real no-win situation. The team was bad, he didn't speak French, it was just an uphill fight from the start. I love the way he battled and how he handled everything, but it was a can't-win situation for him. I expect there will be more changes this summer in Montreal.
Toronto Maple Leafs -- So after looking through all the coaching changes that happened this season before Toronto's, it was clear that some proved to be great moves and others have proven not to be or were just window dressing on bigger problems. The change in Toronto is particularly surprising, though, because Ron Wilson was given a contract extension midseason. I think GM Brian Burke did his friend Ron a favor by giving him that extra year -- remember, these two have a history together, most recently with Team USA at the 2010 Winter Olympics. I think Brian thought things would turn out OK when he did that, but it hasn't been the case.
The Leafs had lost six games in a row before Wilson was fired and and the two of them had had enough time to turn that team around, particularly since they're in a market where they can spend to the salary cap.
At this point, Toronto is clearly not where it expected to be with the moves its made and that hot start probably fooled the Leafs into thinking they were better than they are. All of that created a lot of pressure to make a change. I don't think Burke wanted to fire Wilson, but he had to to appease the fans. When your fans get riled up and the team shows no sign of turning it around, you have to make a move like that, particularly with a guy like Randy Carlyle available. Burke obviously has a history with Carlyle, too, since they won a Cup together in Anaheim in 2007. He knows what kind of a coach Carlyle is and he couldn't risk letting him get to another team. This is a guy who is a big name in Toronto, who knows what to expect from the media after playing there and who's won a Stanley Cup. Burke couldn't risk him getting hired away and knew he had to make a move now to get him.
This is probably step Toronto had to make to advance. Randy is a very good coach, and so is Wilson, but they're different kinds of coaches and Burke, knowing he had to make a move, probably knew he couldn't wait much longer because someone else might have hired his man first. Now, I tend to think that most times coaching changes are made in season, it's a panic move where the GM is trying to take the heat off himself. Sometimes teams improve afterward, but often the replacement doesn't do much better and it lets the players get off the hook for underperforming. If you look at the situations in Buffalo and Nashville, those players know that their coach isn't going anywhere, and as a result, they're going to be held accountable.
That wasn't what happened in Toronto, but the change probably brought the players a needed bit of fresh air anyway. The Leafs won their first game with Carlyle at the helm and with two games in hand on eighth-place Winnipeg, their playoff hopes are far from finished.
At this point though, the Maple Leafs could still wind up looking as much like Washington as they could St. Louis. Only time will tell if Carlyle is the right man for the job.