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Hiring the right coach: An inexact science

Posted on May 26, 2015 by 40 Mile Commentator

By Rob Ficiur
This week the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers believe they hired the coach that will take their team to the next level. During the off season there will be eight new coaches hired – each one of which the teams will believe is the right person for their team. The following are quick facts about 30 NHL coaches:
-When the season starts in October 2015 only 12 teams will be with the same coach that they started the 2013-2014 season. (In two full seasons 18 teams changed coaches).
-When this season started (October 2014) eight teams were coached by men who had won a Stanley Cup at least once in their career. Four other teams were coached by men who had taken their team to an NHL final and lost.
-At this moment there are five coaches who have won a Stanley Cup who are not employed. If Boston changes coaches then there will be six Cup winning coaches looking for jobs.
-29 coaches have been fired in the last three seasons. Only five coaches hired to fill the vacancy were assistant coaches. Being an assistant coach does not seem to be the path to becoming a head coach with that team.
Here are a few observations on the coaching merry go round:
1. Coaches Have Been Cheap to Fire until Now – Mike Babcock signed an eight year $50 million contract to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs. Babcock’s average salary of over $4 million per year nearly doubles the previous record salary for head coaches in the NHL. For once coaching salaries are near the middle of players’ salaries. The lowest paid NHL coach is Carolina’s Bill Peters who made about 850,000 last year; a salary that is lower than the NHL minimum for players. If coaches get paid like fourth line wingers they are as easily fired (and hired) as fourth line wingers.
2. Elite coaches can shop themselves around. Mike Babcock interviewed with four or five teams to see what team was the best fit for him. Buffalo, San Jose and Detroit are among those who courted the two time Olympic Gold Medal coach. Don Cherry had a warning / suggestion for Babcock during his interviews. Cherry was the elite coach without a job during the spring of 1979. Cherry had had five successful seasons in Boston – what would be his next choice? Instead of choosing an established team that could win it all; Cherry chose the rebuilding Colorado Rockies.  To this day, Cherry blames Colorado general Manger Ray Miron for not getting a better goalie for the team. Babcock and other experienced coaches need to make sure their new spot will be a good fit with the personality of the General Manager.
3. On the Job Interview – The Edmonton Oilers hired former San Jose coach Todd McLellan without interviewing Babcock or anyone else. For two weeks prior to the hiring, McLellan coached Canada to a Gold Medal win at the World Hockey Championship. Edmonton Oilers stars Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall had first-hand experience with the potential new coach. Oilers management could observe the types of interactions McLellan had with these elite players. Not all situations allow for a two week interview with the core players; but the Oilers made it work this time; now it has to work on the ice.
4. Rising Coaching Stars come along – Philadelphia Flyers surprised everyone by hiring Dave Haskol as a head coach. Who? Flyers’ GM Ron Hextall knew this coach because he was his son’s college coach. Every year new coaches come along. Some, like Oilers Dallas Aitkens were thought to be rising coaching stars. It didn’t work for the Oilers and Aitkens. John Cooper was hired out of nowhere by Tampa Bay – and he is in the final four this year.
The only real way to know if team’s coaching hire was the right one is to look three years into the future. If the team is winning and improving, everyone believes they have the right coach. However, no matter what else is happening with players and personnel, when a team starts losing the interpretation is that a team now has the wrong coach (no matter how much he has won before). When the losing has gone on long enough, the coach is fired.  A new coach (the right one) is hired and he continues in the job until the team starts losing…and thus the cycle repeats repeats and repeats….

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