LeBrun: NHL coaches on parity, the cap and how firings became ‘easiest thing’ for struggling teams

The number jumps off the page: 13 coaching changes in the NHL since the end of last season.

“It’s obviously shocking when that many coaches get fired,” Gerard Gallant, who was one of the 13 let go by the New York Rangers after last season, told The Athletic. “But we’ve got 32 teams now, and the league is very competitive and everyone wants to win every night. You’re going to have some ups and downs during the season. It’s tough. When we sign up, we know what the job is all about.

“It’s gotten quite a bit different with the amount of firings that are happening, but it’s part of the business.”

Dating back to the end of last season, we’ve seen head coach changes with the Rangers, Washington Capitals, Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames, Anaheim Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets (twice), St. Louis Blues, Edmonton Oilers, Ottawa Senators, Minnesota Wild, New York Islanders and most recently, Los Angeles Kings.

That’s a wild number of changes within nine months.

“Yeah it is,” Dean Evason, fired by the Wild earlier this season, told The Athletic. “It’s funny because I’ve talked to different people, and when I was coaching in the American Hockey League or when I was an (NHL) assistant coach, you don’t want to see anybody get fired obviously, but if people do get fired it opens opportunities for people like myself who wanted to coach in the NHL. But I think going through the process here, talking to people afterward, the number of coaches let go since last year, there are more than there used to be.”

Stanley Cup-winning coach Craig Berube said the parity of the league feeds into it.

“Listen, it’s a pressure-packed job, and I think it’s a pressure-packed job for everybody,” Berube, let go by the Blues earlier this season, told The Athletic. “In today’s game, with the salary cap and everything, a lot of teams think they have a shot, and they do have a shot. You never know. Get in the playoffs and anything can happen. So, things aren’t going well, the easiest thing to do is make a coaching change. It’s hard to make trades in this league — we all know that — with the money (cap limitations) and everything. You can make a coaching change and you hope it sparks something.

“You hope a change sparks something and you get going in the right direction. I think really that’s what it boils down to.”

What else can a GM do, especially earlier in the season? That’s what Evason wonders given the salary cap making it so hard to truly change a roster mid-stream.

“Back in the day when I played, the general managers made a big trade to shake the team up,” said Evason. “There’s a reason people get fired. The team is struggling. When the team is struggling, how do you shake it up? So nowadays, it’s like, you yell at them, you pat them on the back, you give them a day off to go have fun and get away from the rink, you do all these things. In my situation with Minnesota, (general manager) Billy Guerin came into the room and gave the players a talk; you’re trying to spark the group somehow.

“Back in the day, you could spark it by a trade and shake it up. Or the GM or coach could go in and say, ‘If you guys don’t pick it up, there’s going to be trades here.’ Well, the players today know that’s not reality. They know the situation. So I’m guessing the GM’s next opportunity to shake the team up is fire one guy. It’s the most obvious reason that I think I can see.”

In talking to coaches around the league the past few years, they say they’ve never been under more scrutiny and pressure.

“Yeah, I think that’s fair,” Berube said. “I think it’s because of the NHL in general, where you have an opportunity to do something, almost every team is in it right to the end. There’s only a few teams that are out of it if you look at it year to year.

“Look at Florida, they just get in last year and go to the Final. Now, they’re a top-tier team in the league. They’re a good hockey team. What it boils down to with the coaching changes is ownership and general managers feel like something isn’t going right. They don’t like what they’re seeing. It could be a number of things. Boom, they’re going to make that change.

“And it’s tough, but that’s what we signed up for, too. We all know that going into it. There could be a change at any time. We’re willing to do that. We want to coach, and it’s what we like to do. But there’s a chance you can get fired.”

Berube benefited at both ends of the spectrum. He was the new voice as head coach during the Blues’ 2018-19 season that ended with a Stanley Cup championship.

“It’s unfortunate when someone gets let go, another person steps in and you have success, and then it happens to you,” Berube said with a gallows-humor chuckle. “It’s just part of it all. You have to be strong mentally and you have to deal with things.

“Like I said, we signed up for that.”

Like Berube, Evason has lived both sides of the coin.

“When Bruce Boudreau got let go, I was the assistant coach,” said Evason. “Nobody wants to see your head coach get fired. That means we’re not having success. But when Bruce got let go, I got promoted to interim head coach and I saw right away how things turned.

“So as coaches, we all get it. I think everyone’s situation is different, and certainly in my case, did I think it was a little premature? For sure. I think we could have come out of it. Which a lot of us do. But we’ve seen both sides. Chief (Berube) has been there. I’ve been there. And in Minnesota, when John Hynes came in, the next game they were immediately better. It’s not about a different system being implemented. It’s just the spark that the group got.”

Does a head coach “lose the room” or is his “message no longer getting through”? You hear that a lot after a coach gets fired.

But is it really that simple?

“Honestly, it’s very seldom that’s true,” Gallant said. “It’s the build-up.”

When coaches are getting ready to be fired, Gallant says you can feel it building up in the media, as far as what’s being said. And he’s not blaming the media, but it’s a feeling you get as a coach that momentum is building the wrong way.

“We get frustrated,” Gallant said. “We know we have a good team. You might say the wrong thing in the media trying to get your team going. You’re always trying to do stuff to make your team better. Nobody wants to lose. But most of the time, coaches don’t lose the players. They don’t lose the dressing room. I think that’s just an easy way of saying things. Chief didn’t lose the dressing room (in St. Louis).”

Evason concurred.

“I don’t think that happens,” Evason said. “I truly believe that things start spiraling and the team’s not playing well and they lose confidence or swagger, and then it just continues to go down. We’ve all been in situations, and certainly in the last three, four years where I was head coach in Minnesota, we’ve had losing streaks but we pulled out of it. With the same tactics that I tried in the seven games prior to when I got let go this year.

“I don’t think players sit in the room and say, ‘Well, we’re not going to listen to this guy anymore.’ I don’t think that ever happens. There’s not one situation but there’s a combination of situations that happen, and you can go through them all as far as injuries, players not playing well, goaltending, special teams — there’s so many different areas you can pinpoint.”

The one thing Berube would say, though, is that a message may not necessarily get shared properly near the end.

“Depending on what you have in your dressing room sometimes, from a leadership standpoint with your players, the message can get old,” Berube said. “Maybe the message is not being carried from your leaders to the team enough. There’s a number of different things. But listen, coaches have their own personalities, and they coach a certain way. If you’re going to change it and try to do other things, they’re going to see right through you. You’ve got to be yourself.

“In the end, maybe that stops working. Well, then it’s time to move on. And hopefully you get another job and you bring the way you coach and your personality and you get after it again.”

(Photo of Dean Evason: Claudio Bresciani / Getty Images)

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