Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Argument For A New NHL Coaching Award

To be a member of the NHL's coaching fraternity is to work in an environment where the sword of Damacles is forever perched above one's head, waiting to strike. Usually one expects a coaching purge amongst the NHL's bottom-feeders at some point during the regular season, but this year we have seen seven teams change coaches during the season, and five of those teams are in playoff position (as of today).

Some GMs will tell you their team needs a shake-up, and since you can't trade all your players, the coach is the most logical next target. By that logic, the shake-up has had virtually no effect for three of the teams who switched coaches this season: the Tampa Bay lightning have a 0.009 increase in winning percentage since firing Barry Melrose, the New York Rangers 0.075, and the Carolina Hurricanes 0.080. This is by any standard a holding pattern.

One team, the Montreal Canadiens, actually has a worse winning percentage under their new coach. Since firing Guy Carbonneau, Bob Gainey's team has seen a 0.348 drop in winning percentage. By contrast, the team with the highest gain in winning percentage is the Ottawa Senators with a 0.333 change under Cory Clouston.

Pittsburgh's Dan Blysma has a .706 winning percentage since taking over from Michel Therrien. Joel Quenneville was the first new coach, hired only 4 games into Chicago's season, and he carries a 0.552 winning percentage.

Which brings us to the focal point of this article: if being a head coach in the NHL is tough enough as it is, how much tougher is it to be a replacement coach mid-season, when fan expectations and pressure to improve are at their highest?

The coach who took over the worst situation was Cory Clouston. The Senators were 0.292 under Craig Hartsburg, and fans in Ottawa were starting to wonder if perhaps a place in the NHL draft lottery was possible. Clouston's first four games started L-OTL-OTW-W, a gradual progression in the right direction. Bryan Murray did very little in the way of trades, acquiring Mike Comrie and Chris Campoli for Dean McAmmond and a draft pick. His biggest trade came on deadline day when he acquired Pascale Leclaire and a draft pick for Antoine Vermette, a move which actually subtracted from the line-up as Leclaire can't play this year due to injury. And yet during Clouston's 15-6-3 run, the Sens are incredibly 7 points back of a playoff spot with 10 games left to play, still mathematically in it, although it will be very tough to win out.

The fact that the Senators even have a chance is thanks to Clouston, whose demeanour behind the bench reminds one of a young Brian Kilrea. It's something in the eyes. Clouston means business, and the players have responded like gangbusters. But Clouston has also demonstrated a quality quite rare in the game today - the ability to make adjustments on the fly. Whereas some coaches follow a system with an almost religious fervour, Clouston has not been shy to rip up his game plan and go back to the drawing board in the middle of a game. Clearly Bryan and Tim Murrary knew this guy was good, but did they really know he was this good? First he coached the Binghamton Senators into a playoff position before his promotion, and now he has effected an almost miraculous transformation of the big club into a contender, and not thanks to a huge influx of new talent.

If there was an award given specifically to coaches hired in mid-season, Clouston would deserve consideration. I tend to think if there was such an award he would be far and away the front-runner to win it, even if the Senators don't make it all the way to the playoffs.

If the Sens do end up clinching a playoff spot when all is said and done, how scary would they be as an 8th seed going into the playoffs? They are the hottest team in the league over the past 10 games, and seem to be getting scoring from everywhere, and hot goaltending to boot. But can they play error-free down the stretch to give themselves a chance? It's the question on Sens Army members' lips, but I haven't felt this excited about a stretch run since the first year the Sens made the playoffs, when they required a regulation win in their last game of the season against Dominik Hasek and the Sabres to get in... and they did.
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