The Montreal Canadiens started the 2021 season with a 7-1-2 record. Their big-ticket offseason acquisitions meshed well with a returning core of talents. It appeared that coach Claude Julien had a North Division juggernaut on his hands.
Three weeks later, Julien was handed his pink slip.
In the pressure cooker of a 56-game sprint to the playoffs, the fortunes of teams shift dramatically. The Calgary Flames had won five of their last seven games on Feb. 11. Three weeks later, head coach Geoff Ward was fired from a .500 team, replaced with Darryl Sutter.
These are the only two head coaches fired this season thus far. One wonders how many others there would be if not for the COVID-19-related factors including travel restrictions at the border and the economic catastrophe teams are facing after a year without ticket revenue.
Just because they haven’t been dismissed doesn’t mean many NHL coaches aren’t squirming as their seats get hotter. Here’s a temperature check for all 31 teams, from the coaches sitting on mounds of snow to the ones who might want to consider wearing a hazmat suit. This is informed speculation after conversing with sources. Shout out to the indispensable Cap Friendly for some of the contract info.
Note: Coaches are listed in alphabetical order within each tier.
Whether it’s because of their success, their contact or their team’s plan, these coaches can exhale.
Rick Bowness, Dallas Stars. The man they call “Bones” signed a two-year contract in October 2020 after coaching Dallas to the Stanley Cup Final on an interim basis. The Stars have been underwhelming this season, with a .471 points percentage in 17 games, but GM Jim Nill recently gave Bowness a firm vote of confidence. “I can put that to rest: There is no hot seat. Rick’s done a great job. Here’s a coach who, through a pandemic, took us to the Stanley Cup Final. For anybody to question the job he can do — he’s done a great job,” Nill told The Athletic.
Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina Hurricanes. He’s in the final year of his contract and makes only $600,000, so Brind’Amour is due for a hefty raise from the Hurricanes or another team (that may or may not play in Seattle beginning next season). He wants to remain in Raleigh, and owner Tom Dundon — despite some previous reservations about overspending on coaches and general managers — wants him to stay. “We’re going to get it worked out,” Dundon told the News and Observer. “He’s going to be here. We don’t want him to go, and he doesn’t want to go. This is the easiest thing of all time. I’ve got to pay him more. That’s life. He earned it.”
Bruce Cassidy, Boston Bruins. Cassidy was extended in September 2019 by the Bruins on a multiyear contract that pays him around $3 million annually. The Bruins are contending again, and Cassidy’s status continues to grow, especially considering Boston’s high-profile offseason departures.
Jeremy Colliton, Chicago Blackhawks. If you had told us a year ago that Colliton would be residing in this tier, we would have responded with that Ron Burgundy meme of him saying, “I don’t believe you,” mainly due to our affinity for “Anchorman” comedy. Well, the joke’s on us: The Blackhawks handed Colliton a two-year extension in January, signing him through the 2022-23 season, and their success thus far is one of the season’s pleasant surprises. We respectfully respond with the meme of Ron Burgundy saying, “well, that escalated quickly.”
Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning. As the head coach of the defending Stanley Cup champions, who are 15-4-1 through 20 games this season, Cooper’s seat is slightly colder than a pint of Ben and Jerry’s on the surface of Neptune.
Pete DeBoer, Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas is the class of the West Division and made the conference finals in DeBoer’s first season at the helm in 2019-20. He reportedly has two more years left on his deal after this campaign. Obviously, when Bill Foley is your boss, there are no guarantees on job security if the Golden Knights fall short of the Stanley Cup. But DeBoer should be back next season even if Vegas goes bust in the playoffs again.
Dean Evason, Minnesota Wild. While going one and done in Minnesota isn’t an impossibility on the hockey operations side — see Fenton, Paul — Evason is in the first campaign of a two-year deal and has the Wild positioned to be a playoff team in the West Division. He also has them playing an up-tempo system that’s in direct contrast with the style of hockey that has defined this franchise since its inception. We’re going to need a moment to process this ourselves.
Peter Laviolette, Washington Capitals. The Capitals are challenging for the East Division title in Lavy’s initial campaign behind the bench in D.C. And considering he’s in the first year of a three-year deal that pays him close to $15 million, he’s not going anywhere.
Paul Maurice, Winnipeg Jets. Quietly, the Jets have moved into second place in the North Division behind the Maple Leafs. Maurice has his faults, like some specious lineup configurations, but he also has a contract extension he signed last February and another season in which his Jets have punched above their weight.
Todd McLellan, Los Angeles Kings. He’s in the second campaign of a five-year deal with the Kings worth a reported $5 million annually when performance bonuses are factored in. Los Angeles is just starting to turn the corner back to relevance — and hitting a sweet spot with a maturing prospect pool and a still-effective veteran core. McLellan was hired to coach through the rebuild, and will be there when they come out it.
Joel Quenneville, Florida Panthers. The Panthers are contending for a playoff spot in Quenneville’s second season behind the bench in Sunrise. But even if they weren’t, it’s hard to imagine Florida’s ownership endorsing the removal of “Q” with three years and upward of $18 million left on his contract.
Lindy Ruff, New Jersey Devils. He’s in his first season with the Devils, tasked with teaching a young team how to win. It’s an education that’ll obviously extend beyond this season, so logic dictates this teacher will be around a bit longer, too.
Darryl Sutter, Calgary Flames. Generally, coaches who are hired and given multi-year contracts are not on the hot seat before the team plays a single game under his command. Sutter was hired on Thursday when Geoff Ward was fired after just 66 games as head coach. It’s the fifth head coach hired by GM Brad Treliving since taking over the Flames in 2014. Treliving is signed through 2022-23. Logic dictates that this duo has the rest of this season and the 2021-22 campaign to turn the Flames into winners. After that? Well, Sutter already served as Calgary coach/GM once … who knows what the future holds?
Barry Trotz, New York Islanders. Trotz is in the third year of a four-year deal he signed with the Islanders after guiding the Capitals to the Stanley Cup. His system has produced tedious, if effective, teams that have made the playoffs in his first two seasons — including a conference finals appearance last summer in the bubble. While GM Lou Lamoriello has been known to change coaches like many of us change coffee filters, Trotz isn’t going anywhere.
Alain Vigneault, Philadelphia Flyers. The coach is in the second year of a contract worth a reported $25 million. He coached the Flyers to the second round of the playoffs last summer and has them in contention again this season. Even if the Flyers miss the cut, AV is A-OK in Philly.
These coaches are safe … maybe.
Jared Bednar, Colorado Avalanche. Toss out that first season, when Bednar was hastily hired after Patrick Roy quit, and he has coached the Avalanche to a .585 points percentage in the following four seasons. But he’s signed only through the 2021-22 season, and expectations are growing for what’s become a perennial Stanley Cup favorite.
He wouldn’t deserve it based on his accomplishments, but the Avalanche might be one to watch for that “proven veteran coach who takes the team to the next level” type of coaching change, which is a motif you’ll see repeated throughout this list.
Bob Boughner, San Jose Sharks. The Sharks have a .450 points percentage after 20 games and are skating to a minus-18 goal differential. Barring an unexpected turnaround, they’ll miss the playoffs for the second straight season, for the first time since 1995-96 and 1996-97. Boughner, who is reportedly signed for two more seasons after this, has a 22-30-5 record since coming on as an interim coach last season. He’s not the solution here. Even if he was, the real issue is that the Sharks don’t seem to even understand the problem. Which means he’s probably back next season.
Craig Berube, St. Louis Blues. The coach that led St. Louis to their first and only Stanley Cup in 2019 is in the second campaign of a three-year contract. He’s no longer coasting on the goodwill that moment created, but it would take a real downturn in the Blues’ fortunes to see him dismissed before that contract runs its course — like missing the playoffs in the West Division, where the Blues have a 39% chance of qualifying at the moment?
Still, injuries should provide him enough cover if St. Louis misses the cut in a truncated season.
Sheldon Keefe, Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs are running away with the North Division, and Keefe could very well be a Jack Adams finalist for getting them to finally care about defense in the regular season.
So why is he here? Because it’s the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are always one first-round meltdown away from an over-reactionary firing of general manager Kyle Dubas, to whom Keefe is inexorably linked. Would this be instantly regrettable? Yes, as Dubas is 100-57-19 as a general manager, getting to 100 wins faster than any other GM in franchise history. Does that mean it can’t happen? It’s the Leafs, silly. Barring that calamity, Dubas is safe, which means Keefe is safe, and the coach keeps getting better at this.
D.J. Smith, Ottawa Senators. Two determining factors here: expectations and the continued employment of his general manager. On the latter point, Pierre Dorion has a contract that runs through the 2021-22 season. He has been lauded for acquiring a treasure trove of assets for the Ottawa rebuild but is also the guy who made the Matt Murray trade. Smith was his hire; but if it comes down to saving Dorion’s job by firing his coach before next season, we imagine he won’t hesitate.
But what are the expectations here? Smith has the Senators — who are not good — playing well enough to be a tough out on most nights in the North Division. For now, that’s fine, but what’s going to be expected in 2021-22?
Fluctuating levels of heat
Depending on the day and the context, otherwise successful coaches find their seats a little sizzly.
Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins. There was a brief moment recently when it looked like Sullivan could be on the hot seat, to which we responded, “in this economy?” He’s signed through the 2023-24 season at what we assume is a pretty healthy clip. Of course, the Penguins could have let him go under the assumption that Sullivan would get another job quickly, getting that contract off their books — a more than reasonable assumption.
But here’s the reality of his surroundings: The Penguins are in win-now mode, and the two hockey operations fixers they just hired — Brian Burke and Ron Hextall — did not hire Sullivan, who is in his sixth year as head coach. Penguins team president and CEO David Morehouse talked about Sullivan as part of that brain trust when Burke and Hextall were hired, so that cools his seat a bit. But if the Penguins miss the playoffs, does the new management bring in their own guy in the hopes of getting instant, different results?
Dave Tippett, Edmonton Oilers. In the great “coaching vs. construction” debate, there’s no question the problem with the Edmonton Oilers is one of construction. Just like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can only drag this group so far, Tippett can only play the cards he has been dealt. His contract runs through next season. Someone might have to pay the price if the Oilers flame out in the postseason again — or fail to make it. That might be the Tipp-ing point.
Rick Tocchet, Arizona Coyotes. This is a fascinating one. Tocchet is credited with getting a lot out of a little in Arizona, bolstered by some of the league’s best goaltending over the past three seasons; the Coyotes are fifth in goals-against average (2.68) in that span. Offensively … well, there’s a lot of criticism that can be laid at the coach’s skates.
He’s in the last year of his contract and looking for a raise. His general manager, Bill Armstrong, didn’t hire him and might want to move his own guy in there at a lesser cost. (Potentially looking at you, Blues assistant Mike Van Ryn.) But even if the Coyotes want Tocchet back, does Tocchet want to come back, given the state of the franchise?
Their seats are hot and growing increasingly hotter.
Dominique Ducharme, Montreal Canadiens. The interim coach after Julien’s firing, all he has to do is turn around the season for a team that added more offseason payroll than anyone else, for a general manager who is so even-keeled these days that he fired his star goalie’s coach during intermission of a recent game. Ducharme, who has never been the head coach of a professional team, could earn this job on a permanent basis if Montreal makes the playoffs; or he could become a brief stop-gap to the new guy like Randy Cunneyworth was a few years back.
The bottom line: His seat is going to be as hot as Marc Bergevin‘s, as many believe Ducharme is the last coach Bergevin will be permitted to hire in Montreal, as he has one year left on his deal — and he’s managing like it.
John Hynes, Nashville Predators. The Predators are currently 28th in offense this season at 2.27 goals per game. During his five-season tenure in New Jersey, Hynes’s teams were … 29th in offense, at 2.54 points per game. His Nashville teams can’t score and have been wildly inconsistent, although injuries and the sudden regression of players such as Ryan Johansen and Juuse Saros hasn’t helped.
He has one more year on his deal, but his status is less important than that of GM David Poile, whose future is murkier than it has ever been in Nashville. If the team’s disparate collection of owners decides Poile’s time is done, Hynes leaves with him.
David Quinn, New York Rangers. The Rangers should be better than a middling .475 points percentage, and perhaps at the end of the season they will be better. If not, then Quinn is squarely on the hot seat. He has two more years left on his contract after this one, a contract that was signed in May 2018, just over three months after “the letter” the team sent its fans to signal a rebuild. That rebuild has been expedited through acquisitions of players such as Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. Meanwhile, some of the young players Quinn was tasked with developing — Adam Fox excepted — aren’t playing with the necessary consistency, as a slew of Rangers fans have noted.
Influential New York Post columnist Larry Brooks doesn’t buy the player development argument, but he called out Quinn last month for the team’s lack of effort and, more important, his lack of answers. This is a classic “fire the rebuild coach for the proven NHL coach who takes the team to the next level” situation.
In which facing the inevitable is its own temperature.
Jeff Blashill, Detroit Red Wings. GM Steve Yzerman should give Jeff Blashill a going-away bonus after this season, which is assuredly his last as Red Wings head coach as his contract expires. After making the playoffs in 2015-16, Blashill was the caretaker of the team for five years of rock-bottom rebuilding, culminating in last season’s .275 points percentage dumpster dive. He did his time, made sure everyone had their skates tied properly before hitting the ice, and will leave having finished over .500 just once in six seasons. Seriously, give this guy a little something for the effort. Maybe a year’s worth of free Little Caesars pizza, if he’s not sick of it by now.
Nuclear core meltdown
You’ll not find hotter seats in the NHL than these four.
Dallas Eakins, Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks have a .370 points percentage; if that holds, it would be the lowest in the history of the franchise, even going back to their first year as the Mighty Ducks when Terry Yake was their leading scorer. Through Wednesday, Eakins has been at the helm for 94 games over two seasons and had posted a 35-45-14 record. He has one more season on his deal, but one assumes this’ll be his last swim in the Anaheim pond. The biggest question: Will general manager Bob Murray float away with him?
Travis Green, Vancouver Canucks. There are three scenarios for the Vancouver Canucks and Travis Green, who doesn’t have a contract beyond this season:
The first is that he’s brought back after what has been a putrid, regressive season (.385 points percentage after 26 games) in the hopes that it was an anomaly and he’s still the coach for this team.
The second is that he isn’t brought back because of that regression — and there’s a strong case that his coaching staff was ill-prepared for the early-season stumble, which is concerning — and GM Jim Benning attempts to save his own job by hiring “the proven veteran coach who takes the team to the next level.”
The third is that Benning doesn’t get to make that decision because he’s fired, after some specious personnel moves around his young core, in which case the new GM decides whether to keep or jettison Green.
If it’s the latter, this won’t be his last NHL coaching gig.
Ralph Krueger, Buffalo Sabres. Krueger was always off limits. He’s well-spoken and as well-liked by his players as he is by the media, who rooted for him as an “outside-the-box” NHL hire. But the Sabres stunk last season, and they stink even more this season; their offense has dropped to 2.20 goals per game from 2.80 goals last season, despite adding Taylor Hall, Eric Staal and others to Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. Suffice it to say, he’s no longer off limits, especially after a recent obfuscation over Eichel’s injury.
“You can fire Krueger on hockey reasons and you would be justified. But there’s a bigger issue at play now: Just like ownership and a neophyte GM who has disappeared from view despite numerous media outlets seeking comment, Krueger has a credibility problem,” wrote Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News, in a recent evisceration. Krueger has one more year left on his deal. The best thing Buffalo could have done was move him up to a hockey operations job after firing GM Jason Botterill. Instead, they have an overmatched bench boss getting diminishing returns, whose tagline has shifted from “a coach who deserves another shot in the NHL” to “maybe he’s not an NHL coach.”
John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets. GM Jarmo Kekalainen said he has “100 percent confidence” that Tortorella and his staff can lead Columbus back to the playoffs this season. We don’t have “100 percent confidence” that he’ll make it to the end of the season. We’re a bit more confident that both sides will move on when his contract expires after this season.
It feels like the time is right for a new direction in Columbus after six seasons of “tough love,” conservative play and constantly striving for the postseason bubble. It also feels like the timing is right for Tortorella to walk away from a place that has had a steady stream of talented players leave town during his tenure there. (And yes, there is a “chicken or the egg” argument when it comes to whom some of them might be fleeing.)
There’s speculation in NHL coaching circles that Tortorella wants to move on after this season. If he does, it won’t be long before he finds another gig — with a significant salary — in the NHL. For a coach with his history, there’s always another seat available. Until that one gets unbearably hot, too …