The first ax swung Wednesday morning as Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin handed head coach Claude Julien his walking papers.
Was it a surprise move? Somewhat. The Canadiens made big moves in the offseason and started the season like gangbusters. But in recent weeks that success had slowed to a crawl. After losing six of their last eight and three straight, including two to the Senators, Bergevin made the first firing of the season. To be fair, that was probably the only surprise — that Julien was the first to go.
A bunch of bench bosses have been rumored to be on thin ice for a while but still have jobs despite their clubs still struggling. With Julien now on the market, there could be an influx of coaches looking for work. Last year, following the firing of Mike Babcock by the Maple Leafs, John Hynes (Devils), Pete DeBoer (Sharks), Peter Laviolette (Predators), Gerard Gallant (Golden Knights) and Bruce Boudreau (Wild) were all let go before the season finished. (Jim Montgomery and Bill Peters were also fired, but for off-ice conduct.)
As the NHL approaches the 50-percent mark of this 56-game sprint, the separation between the cream of the crop and the bottom of the barrel of each division is minimal, but there are glaring issues with the bottom teams.
Here’s a look at five coaches who could be pink-slipped next.
Five coaches on the hot seat
(In alphabetical order.)
Travis Green, Vancouver Canucks
Record: 8-14-2, sixth in the North Division
Why: Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini may have given Green and general manager Jim Benning a vote of confidence back on Hockey Day in Canada, but how many times have we’ve seen that and someone still gets the ax?
The Canucks went from one of the darlings of the summer playoff bubble to the North Division basement. While the team has knocked in 67 goals (tied for third in the division), it has allowed 85 (second-worst). The power play lacks the oomph it had last year when it was 24.2 percent effective; in 2021, it’s at 15.9. It also doesn’t help that the team’s heavy hitters — Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes — have struggled on both ends and in all situations.
Here’s the thing, though: The Canucks have the potential to be one of the four teams to make the postseason from the North, but things are just not connecting right now. A big part of the reason is on the back end. It’s evident that the loss of Jacob Markstrom, who finished fourth in Vezina Trophy voting last year, left a big hole in net; his big stops covered up defensive lapses.
But the bigger loss has been two defensemen who left in free agency: Troy Stecher and, more notably, Chris Tanev. The veteran Tanev was not only a voice in the locker room but also the defense partner of rookie Quinn Hughes, who flourished last season and finished second for the Calder Trophy.
Without Tanev, Hughes’ average individual shot attempts at 5v5 per game have dipped slightly from 2.66 to 2.42 while his individual Scoring Chances For have seen a more staggering drop, from 0.71 to 0.54 (per Natural Stat Trick). Hughes has also taken more hits when on the ice at 5v5 without his protector in Tanev, and the team’s expected Goals For when Hughes is on the ice in all strengths have gone from 82.16 to a cringy 30.2. If you want to look at the most basic of stats, he’s minus-14.
Will Green be fired? It’s probably 50-50 when you consider the vote of confidence, the fact that Green’s contract expires at the end of the season, the lack of initiative they’ve shown and how bad the team has looked vs. how good it has also looked at times. He may end up being the scapegoat, but the guy who should really get cut is Benning for his roster construction.
John Hynes, Nashville Predators
Record: 9-11-0, sixth in the Central Division
Why: Hynes was expected to come in and shake up the Predators, who were struggling last season under then-head coach Peter Laviolette. Instead, there’s still a lack of twangy goodness in Nashville as the Predators continue their poor play in 2021.
Since Hines has taken over, the team is 31-31-1 over two seasons, which isn’t great when you consider the talent on the team, including 2020 Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi. But as with a number of other players — notably Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen and Ryan Ellis — Josi has struggled to put up points and the team overall has looked lost at times.
The Predators have one of the best Corsi For percentages in the NHL at 5v5 and is ranked second in the Central Division (53.51). It’s great that they have 121 more shot attempts than their opponents but when those 922 shot attempts translate to just 491 shots on goal and only 28 goals, it’s not great. At 5v5, per Natural Stat Trick, the team has just a 43.75 Goals For percentage. And things aren’t any better with the man advantage (16.9 percent); the only team worse in the division is the Red Wings.
After losing three straight (one to the Panthers and two to the Lightning), the Predators have reverted to the old reliable state: inconsistency. Win one, lose two. Win two, lose one. Not great for a club in the same division as the two teams that played in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, plus the Hurricanes and Panthers.
Will Hynes be fired? Maybe, but the question then is: Who would come in?
Ralph Krueger, Buffalo Sabres
Record: 6-9-3, eighth in the East Division
Why: Another season of hockey in Buffalo. Another disappointing season of hockey in Buffalo. Another disappointing season of hockey in Buffalo where the call for the head coach to be fired is ringing.
Things appeared to be looking up for the Western New York club when the team brought in Taylor Hall to complement the likes of Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. Instead, just shy of 45 days into the season, Skinner is a frequent healthy scratch and there are rumors Eichel, who is out with a lower-body injury, is on the trade block.
Buffalo has scored a division-worst 42 goals thanks to three shutouts and three games where they’ve buried just one puck. Considering that’s a third of the team’s games played, it’s understandable why they are where they are. But here’s a fun fact: They have the best power play in the East (32.8 percent).
The schedule hasn’t helped the Sabres, which could explain their lackluster effort. They haven’t had much rest due to a COVID-19-related pause in games and training, and they don’t have two consecutive days off until April 4-5.
You can blame the schedule all you want, but every team has tough stretches with the season being compacted and impacted by the pandemic. The biggest eye-opener for the Sabres: Hall has one goal, Eichel has two and Skinner has zilch. That won’t cut it.
Will Krueger be fired? Who knows, but the Pegulas do like to fire people (i.e., Jason Botterill and Chris Taylor) so they may pull the trigger.
David Quinn, New York Rangers
Record: 7-8-3, sixth in the East Division
Why: The Rangers have some of the top young talent in the NHL in Adam Fox, Alexis Lafrenière, K’Andre Miller and netminders Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev. They also have 2020 Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider and someone who may have hit 50 goals last year had the season not been halted in Mika Zibanejad.
Sounds great, right?
Well, instead, this team has struggled with consistency — and it was evident from the jump when it opened the season with a 4-0 loss to the Islanders and then followed it up with a 5-0 win over the same team two nights later. Like his predecessor, Alain Vigneault, Quinn has struggled with in-game adjustments, and as with 2019 second overall pick Kaapo Kakko, there are questions about how he is utilizing and developing Lafrenière. The first overall pick in 2020 has been spectacular at every level but only has two goals and an assist in 18 games. He also has not spent enough time playing with the top-tier talent he needs to be successful in his first season.
Outside of Friday’s six-goal explosion against the Bruins, the Rangers have struggled on offense. Entering that game, they had just 42 goals, tied for sixth in the division with Buffalo despite averaging 31.4 shots on goal. They also had the division’s worst power play (15.1 percent) but the most shot attempts (205) with the man advantage (they went 1 for 4 against Boston).
What ails the squad, according to Natural Stat Trick, is 5v5: 48.70 Corsi For percentage (seventh in the East), 48.64 Scoring Chances For percentage (sixth) and a 78.57 High-Density Save Percentage (sixth).
Will Quinn be fired? The one positive for Quinn is that this team does appear to show up for games; it just can’t get on the board. Zibanejad is snakebitten, which doesn’t help, especially with Panarin taking time off for personal reasons. He could still be on a short leash, which is why veteran bench boss Jacques Martin was brought in when Lindy Ruff moved across the Hudson River to the Devils in the offseason.
Geoff Ward, Flames
Record: 10-10-2, fifth in North Division
Why: It has been eight years since Miikka Kiprusoff manned the crease in the Saddledome, and it has been equally long since the Flames had a reliable netminder. This offseason, GM Brad Treliving went out and grabbed the top free-agent goalie on the market in Jacob Markstrom, spending a boatload ($36 million over six years).
That move, along with a sprinkling of other newcomers should have sent the message that the time is nigh to be a Stanley Cup contender. It looks as if that message did not make its way from the GM’s office to the locker room.
Inconsistency has been the keyword for the Flames this season. The lineup has clicked on all cylinders a handful of times, but more often than not it has looked atrocious from puck drop. Entering Saturday’s game with Ottawa, Calgary had scored a North Division-worst 12 goals in the first period and allowed almost double that total (23). (It did outscore Ottawa 3-1 in the first period.) The only period in which the Flames have a positive goal differential is the third, and they’re just plus-2 after Brady Tkachuk’s tally. Not a great look when you’re being outscored 47-38 in the first two frames.
And while they may come flying out of the gate at times, once they go down in the opening 20 their record is 4-8-0, or 33 percent. It’s even worse when trailing after two periods (1-9-0). That basically translates to: There’s no get-up-and-go, there’s no intensity, there’s no fight from this group when things start or get hard. Ward struggles with in-game adjustments too, and while he has used the old blender in recent games, he’s still not finding the right combos.
One thing Ward can do is try to fire up lightning rod Matthew Tkachuk, who recently put the onus on himself for the Flames’ poor play. The club’s top point-getter last season (61 points in 69 games) has been pretty much nonexistent this year (16 points in 22 games). He did show some bite in the Flames’ two games against the Leafs this week (one win, one overtime loss) but he needs to lead by example and bring that every night.
Will Ward be fired? Ward has just one more year on his deal and the Flames have made a number of coaching changes in the last few years. How many? Well, consider this: Captain Mark Giordano is on his eighth head coach in 15 seasons with the club. It would not be a good look if yet another coach is shown the door.
Having said that, if the team shows the same effort — or lack thereof — that it showed Thursday night in Ottawa, he just may be the next one to go.