The merits of changing coaches

Let’s talk about the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins.

Now, by no means am I saying the 2015-16 Calgary Flames are the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. They aren’t even remotely close. It’s laughable to compare the Flames in their recent or current states to any Cup contender.

But the Penguins did something in their 2008-09 season, before they won the Cup – before they even made the playoffs.

They fired their coach.

On Feb. 15, 2009, the Penguins were sitting 10th place in the eastern conference, five points out of a playoff spot. They were closer to the bottom of the division – 21 points – than the top – 27 away. Not particularly where they wanted to be, especially considering they had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on their team, and had just played in the Stanley Cup Final the season before.

So they made a change. A change that’s relatively easy to make, at least when you compare it to the struggles one can have in making a big trade that benefits your team. A change that will have greater impact than most trades will, as it results in an upheaval for the entire roster.

They sent Michel Therrien, who had been the Penguins’ coach since 2005, packing, and brought up Dan Bylsma, who was just in the midst of his first season as the AHL team’s head coach.

Under Therrien, the Penguins were a .518% team; under Bylsma for the rest of the season, they became a .800% team. Under Therrien, the Penguins were a 46.2% 5v5 CF team; under Bylsma, they were a 52.1% 5v5 CF team.

Not that that winning percentage was sustainable, but the coaching change sure gave the Penguins the shot in the arm they needed to secure themselves a playoff spot at fourth in the eastern conference. But considering how the Penguins followed up their 2008-09 season with 52.1% 5v5 CF in 2009-10, and then 52.7% n 2010-11, and then 54.2% in 2011-12; well, their possession rates were sustainable, and the Penguins were a team to compete against under Bylsma’s tenure.

The Penguins’ star players were pretty much developed by this point in time; currently, the Flames players obviously are not. That’ll come with time. But when the time came, the Penguins had that one last hump to get over, and they did by hiring a new coach.

Let’s talk about the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings

On Dec. 12, 2011, the L.A. Kings fired head coach Terry Murray. Under Murray, the Kings were 12th in the western conference, but still just two points out of a playoff spot. They hired Darryl Sutter to replace him on Dec. 17, 2011, and he made them an eighth seed playoff team with a five-point cushion.

Under Murray, the Kings were a .517% team with a 52.0% 5v5 CF. Under Sutter, the Kings became a .618% team with a 55.7% 5v5 CF. Although they still had to battle to make the playoffs, they very noticeably improved, and it’s paid massive dividends for the franchise. Murray had been coach since 2008, but the Kings hadn’t started making the playoffs until 2010; it took a coaching change to elevate them to the next level.

Rebuilding teams tend to get new coaches

On Oct. 16, 2008, Joel Quenneville became the Chicago Blackhawks’ next coach. Jonathan Toews was only 20 years old at the time; Duncan Keith, 25. The Blackhawks were still in their rebuilding infancy, having really only just gotten their top players. Still, the team replaced Denis Savard, and under Quenneville, they’ve had tremendous success.

Or if you want to look at an example of progress happening right now, look no further than the Buffalo Sabres. A team designed to fail the past few seasons, they finally said goodbye to Lindy Ruff, and embraced the tank with Ted Nolan at the helm.

When the Sabres acquired Jack Eichel, though, they showed they were done tanking. One way in which they did that was to acquire a number of veterans who would undeniably help them: Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly, Cody Franson. Another was to play the prospects they’d just gotten in key positions: Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen, Eichel. And another was to get a new coach, one who could be trusted to build these players up: Bylsma.

It’s extremely early yet, but remember: the Sabres were a 37.5% 5v5 CF team in 2014-15. To start 2015-16, they’re a 53.2% 5v5 CF team. The change has been noticeable, and it’s in part because they knew Nolan wasn’t going to help them grow further.

The Sabres didn’t even get their number one guy, though. The Toronto Maple Leafs replaced Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek with Mike Babcock, and they’ve gone from a 46.4% 5v5 CF team to a 53.9% 5v5 CF one. Again, it’s incredibly early yet, and the Leafs are expected to be pretty terrible this season, but it’s an upgrade they needed, and one that will have them playing better in the long run.

Who knows what happens regarding the Flames’ own coaching staff, but recent history would suggest Bob Hartley will not be the guy to lead the Flames to the promised land. And of course, you can’t pick just any coach to become your new head coach, and it may come down to a matter of timing and convenience. 

But at some point, it will probably happen. And it’s one of the next steps the Flames will need to take.

  • mk

    So – changing to the right coach means a jump in possession stats and winning too? Sign me up. I’d miss ‘Artley’s comments though.

    Any examples of this going wrong (big slides post change)?

    • DestroDertell

      Not sure if it counts, but the red wings going from Babcock to Bashill isn’t working out so far (still early).

      A better example would be the Canucks switching AV with Tort (-1.3 SA CF%).

    • piscera.infada

      Any examples of this going wrong (big slides post change)?


      Frankly, I’m not sure it’s the right time for a coaching change. I just don’t see an available wealth of replacements that would be an immediate upgrade on Hartley.

      I do agree, however that when this team is ready to move into true “contender” status, they will need a coach who is a much better tactician.

      That said, I’ve always been partial to going in the direction of a non-retread coach. Are there any highly-touted coaching “prospects” out there that might be a good fit?

  • 24% body fat

    “Ari first fell in love with the Flames during the city-wide madness that was 2004. She enjoys thinking about the Flames, writing about the Flames, and dogs. You can find 140-character versions of her yelling at @thirtyfourseven”

    isnt this when everyone in Calgary and all flames fans alive today became fans, and bought an Iginla Jersey.

  • Derbyherb

    Firing Hartley right now is just ludicrous! Hartley will & should get the rest of this year. If the team doesn’t turn around this skid in the next 2-3 weeks, I am sure BT’s marching orders to Hartley will be back to what they were last year. Focus on rebuild, development, seeing what they have in certain players & expect a selloff at the TDL. If we see this same scenario this time next year, well…. that will be a different story.

  • Skuehler

    Hartley could be canned, but who would the Flames replace him with? I can’t see them sacking Hartley so soon after an Adams award. As much as I agree with the analysis of his shortcomings as a coach, he still deserves more than 12 games to win as a team with this group. Hartley’s made some poor choices w.r.t. player usage, but he’s not the one telling the D to telegraph passes, and he’s not really responsible for the goaltending tire fire.

    If Hartley is fired though, #ABC – Anyone But Carlyle.