Bruce Cassidy watched from afar as coach after NHL coach was shown the door.
A lot of good ones, too. All in the span of eight weeks.
It started when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired Mike Babcock on Nov. 20 and culminated with the Vegas Golden Knights axing Gerard Gallant – the man responsible for leading the franchise on a magical run to the Stanley Cup final in its first season of existence just 19 months earlier – on Jan. 15.
Cassidy understands the game. Bench bosses, as the saying goes, are hired to be fired.
But what about a coaching carousel that seems as volatile as ever?
“I’m happy to still be on it,” Cassidy, the Boston Bruins coach, joked during all-star weekend.
In between Babcock and Gallant, the other performance-related firings saw John Hynes (New Jersey Devils, Dec. 3), Peter DeBoer (San Jose Sharks, Dec. 11) and Peter Laviolette (Nashville Predators, Jan. 7) handed their walking papers.
The Calgary Flames, meanwhile, parted ways with Bill Peters on Nov. 29 after it was revealed he directed racist comments at one of his players in the minors 10 years ago, and allegations he physically abused two others on the bench with the Carolina Hurricanes. Jim Montgomery was then fired Dec. 10 by the Dallas Stars for what the team called unprofessional conduct.
The dismissals of Babcock, Hynes, DeBoer and Laviolette all made sense to varying degrees based on expectations from management, fans and media.
Gallant’s dismissal – the Knights occupied top spot in the Pacific Division at the start of January and were just three points out of first when he was handed his walking papers – was another story.
“When a guy like Gallant goes down, it makes you think,” said Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet, who received Gallant’s blessing to take his spot behind the Pacific bench at the all-star game. “Sometimes things are out of your control and some things aren’t.
“But as a coach, you can’t worry about that sort of stuff. I can’t think that way ... of ever getting fired.”
NHL general managers unhappy with their teams used to shake things up with a big trade or a demotion to the minors. But in the salary-cap era where most clubs try to squeeze every last dollar out of the roster, player-for-player deals of any consequence have become nearly impossible.
So what’s left when a spark’s required? Fire the coach.
“It’s become an easier and easier option,” Cassidy said. “That’s just the way it is.”
An added wrinkle is that of the seven dismissed coaches, two have already found work – Hynes replaced Laviolette in Nashville, while DeBoer now occupies Gallant’s old office in Vegas.
“It’s a very difficult challenge to be one of 31,” said Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden, who took over for Barry Trotz after he led the franchise to its first Cup in 2018. “This year has really been an eye-opening experience (with) some of the changes that have been made and how competitive it is.
“It’s something you sign up for, you know it’s coming.”
Jeremy Colliton replaced Joel Quenneville as coach of the Chicago Blackhawks in November, 2018. With all the movement since – there were seven off-season changes on top of the seven since the schedule began – he’s currently right in the middle of the pack in terms of tenure with 118 games.
“It just reinforces that the demands are high,” said Colliton, one of two in-season hires in 2018-19. “There’s a lot of pressure on everyone to get results, and that’s the way it is. It doesn’t really change how you approach it.”
Craig Berube, who took over in St. Louis for Mike Yeo just 13 days after Colliton was hired, led the Blues from last in the standings to their first Cup in June.
In a strange way, the turnaround he helped architect could explain some of the trigger-happy GMs.
“Impatient, for sure ... a lot of impatience,” Berube said of the firings. “It’s a tough league and everybody thinks they have an opportunity to win. When things aren’t going well, they make changes. That’s just the business we’re in.”
Cassidy, like almost every other person behind an NHL bench, got the job he’s currently in because someone was fired.
“I’m glad some of those good coaches have landed on their feet quickly, like I’m sure Gerard will,” he said. “I got an opportunity because someone got let go.
“It’s a bit of a circle of life.”
HUGHES OFFERED EARLY GLIMPSE
Vancouver defenceman Quinn Hughes made his debut at the end of last season. Jacob Markstrom could tell right away the Canucks had something special. “In practice the first couple times, he was so smooth and looked so relaxed on the ice – like he wasn’t trying,” the netminder said. “After the first couple games I figured he’d get a little stiffer, thinking he would be a little tight or nervous, but he was the same way. It was impressive to see and he’s just kept going.” The 20-year-old Hughes, who had five goals and 34 points in 49 games heading into Wednesday, finished second behind fellow rookie blueliner Cale Makar of Colorado in midseason voting for the Calder Trophy by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
DON’T SLEEP ON KUBALIK
While Makar and Hughes have been getting lots of the attention for rookie of the year, Chicago winger Dominik Kubalik is also starting to turn heads. The 24-year-old has 21 goals and 11 assists in 49 games – including 10 goals in his past nine contests. Drafted in the seventh round by Los Angeles in 2013, Kubalik spent four professional seasons in his native Czech Republic and two more in Switzerland before making his NHL debut in October. “He’s been playing real well,” Blackhawks sniper Patrick Kane said. “Good skater. Physical, to a point, and also gets to the front of the net and scores some dirty goals.”