Who Is on the NHL Hot Seat?

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Almost one-quarter of the NHL season is in the books, with several teams hitting the 20-game mark this week. And as usual, we’ve seen the usual array of goals, saves and bloopers, tight games and blowouts, inspiring upsets and outright tanking.

But something has been missing. Somehow, we’ve made it this far without a single coach or GM losing his job, which is rare. We usually get at least a firing or two over the first month, and last year we had one after just three games.1 But this year … nothing.

Or at least nothing yet. It’s inevitable that the pink slips will eventually start flying, and probably sooner than later. It’s never easy to see somebody lose his job, even in the big-dollar world of the NHL, but it does help to be prepared. So here’s a look at 10 seats around the league that are already getting warm or worse.

Sharks Coach Todd McLellan

Why he’s in trouble: McLellan has been on the hot seat for years, and his firing seemed like a sure thing after last season’s playoff collapse against the Kings. He was given a surprising reprieve by GM Doug Wilson, who vowed to overhaul the roster instead. That led into the summer’s odd standoff with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, and the team emerged without a captain but with essentially an unchanged core. So far, that patience hasn’t paid off, as the team has hovered around the .500 mark.

Their most recent effort, Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the lowly Sabres, will turn up the heat. It also doesn’t help McLellan’s case that the Sharks have a Stanley Cup–winning head coach on the staff in Larry Robinson, although Robinson has long maintained that he doesn’t want to run a team again.

What could save him: McLellan wasn’t the one who promised to reshape the roster and then didn’t deliver; that’s on Wilson, and maybe he’s the one who should be feeling the heat instead. That’s a mixed blessing for McLellan, since a GM under fire will often have to throw his coach overboard to buy time. But Wilson has shown patience so far.

More importantly, while the Sharks have been a disappointment, they haven’t been all that bad. They’ve been mediocre, sure, but they’re still right in the mix in a surprisingly tight Pacific, and one good week could have them pushing the Ducks for first place.

How hot is it? 4/10 now; 7/10 if they’re not in first place by February; 11/10 if they don’t win at least two playoff rounds.

Prediction: If the team is still stumbling along in December, the comparisons to the 2011-12 Kings will mount. That team made a midseason coaching switch to Darryl Sutter, who’s led them to a pair of Stanley Cup wins.

Flyers Coach Craig Berube

Why he’s in trouble: He’s the head coach of the Flyers, which is one of those positions where the seat starts getting warm on the day you take the job. That’s especially true when the team struggles to get over .500, which the Flyers have for much of the season. And he’s working for a GM who didn’t hire him; Ron Hextall was the assistant GM when Berube got the job last season, and could want to put his own guy in place now that he’s in charge.

What could save him: He’s been on the job for only a year. And last year’s Flyers struggled through the first few months, too, before eventually heating up enough to make the playoffs and then take the Rangers to a seventh game.

How hot is it? 3/10

Prediction: Berube makes it through the season, but needs another playoff spot to keep his job beyond that.

Coyotes Coach Dave Tippett

Why he’s in trouble: The Coyotes haven’t made the playoffs since 2012, and so far they haven’t looked like they’ll break that streak this year. Every coach has a shelf life, and Tippett has been on the job in Arizona for six years. The team may decide that it’s time to try out a new voice.

What could save him: He’s done a great job in an almost impossible situation, navigating the Coyotes through their ongoing ownership woes when others might have been eyeing the door. We know that there’s no loyalty in sports, but you’d have to think the organization at least owes him a little extra rope.

He also led the team to its best playoff run in 2012 and won the Jack Adams in 2010, all while building a reputation as one of the league’s better defensive minds. If he were fired, he’d immediately become a top contender for any openings around the league that followed.

How hot is it? 6/10

Prediction: He could be this year’s Bruce Boudreau — a guy who gets fired by one team, then snapped up by another within weeks.

Sabres Coach Ted Nolan

Why he’s in trouble: The Sabres are terrible.

What could save him: The Sabres are supposed to be terrible. Everyone knew this would be a bad team, and in fact it sure seems like a last-place finish is all part of the plan.

Normally that would mean that Nolan’s job would be to focus on developing the young players on the roster, without too much concern for wins and losses. But some of the coach’s recent comments — he compared his roster to a “pee wee team” — sure sound like a guy who’s not onboard with losing. That kind of attitude is a good thing, unless it leads to him butting heads with his players or team management.

Nolan probably realizes that he won’t be around for the prime Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel years, so he may already be auditioning for his next job. Remember, it took him almost a decade to get another shot after he won the Jack Adams, so you can forgive him if he’s not especially eager to punt a season.

How hot is it? 3/10 over the rest of the season, assuming he can avoid any major blow-ups, but no guarantees beyond that.

Prediction: Nolan survives the season, the Sabres finish dead last, and somebody else reaps the benefits. Hockey is a tough business.

Panthers GM Dale Tallon

Why he’s in trouble: The Panthers haven’t won a playoff round since 1996, and have made only one postseason appearance since 2000. They’re young, but they’re no longer truly in rebuild mode, having acquired veteran Roberto Luongo and his long-term contract last year and spending big in free agency over the offseason. So far, they’re not all that much better.

The team has a new coach, Gerard Gallant, who’s been on the job only since the summer. Tallon has been the GM since 2010, so he’s had time to remake the team. If this turns into another lost year and somebody has to walk the plank, it’s probably him.

What could save him: A playoff run would probably do it, as would anything that reasonably looked like progress. New ownership wants a winner, and Tallon needs to show that he can deliver one.

He may well get it done. Remember, this is the guy who essentially built the Blackhawks’ 2010 Cup-winning team. But he’s running out of runway.

How hot is it? 5/10. Midseason GM firings are far less common than coaching switches, but they do happen (especially when a team is going nowhere, as the Sabres showed last year).

Prediction: Tallon is the next NHL general manager to be let go.

Blue Jackets Coach Todd Richards

Why he’s in trouble: The team is bad, losing nine straight at one point and dropping well back of a playoff spot. Richards was viewed as being on a very hot seat last year but saved his job by guiding the team to a wild-card spot. He may need to do the same this year, since he falls into the dreaded category of “head coach who wasn’t hired by the current GM.”

What could save him: The team may be struggling, but it’s awfully hard to lay that at Richards’s feet. They’ve had a ton of injuries to key guys, including their starting goaltender and much of their top two lines. Some of those guys are getting healthy again, and the team has responded with a few wins.

How hot is it? 8/10. You’d have to figure that Richards deserves a chance to show what he can do with something resembling a full lineup. But with the Blue Jackets’ playoff hopes fading, there may not be time for the patient approach.

Prediction: Richards doesn’t make it to the new year.

Stars Coach Lindy Ruff

Why he’s in trouble: The Stars have arguably been the season’s biggest disappointment. After a busy offseason that saw them add more offensive firepower to a team that was already lots of fun to watch, they looked like a good candidate to make the leap from wild-card contender to playing with the West’s big kids. Instead, they’re scraping along at the bottom of the conference standings, and they can’t keep the puck out of their net.

What could save him: Ruff is only in his second year on the job in Dallas, and before arriving he’d earned a reputation as one of the game’s better coaches. It’s one thing for a new GM like Jim Nill to get aggressive on the trade and free-agency fronts; it’s another to make what could be seen as a panic move by firing a coach you just hired 17 months ago.

How hot is it? 4/10. But add a point for every month the Stars are out of a playoff spot.

Prediction: Ruff survives into next season, when he finds himself with a starring role in every preseason hot seat article.

Senators Coach Paul MacLean

Why he’s in trouble: The rumor mill says he was very nearly fired at the end of last year, with a late-season win streak and some endorsements from key players narrowly saving his job. That would make him a prime candidate to go this year unless his team overachieves.

What could save him: For one, he’s a good coach. His shaky job status last year was puzzling, considering he won the Jack Adams in 2013.

The Senators have also enjoyed a reasonably good start to the season, although they’ve cooled off somewhat lately. They’re still in the wild-card hunt, and staying there all year would probably be enough to get MacLean through the season. But if they start to drop down the standings (and most of the predictive stats indicate that’s a very good possibility), things could get murky.

How hot is it? 6/10

Prediction: MacLean makes it through the season, but no further. He’ll land on his feet just fine somewhere else.

Everyone Who Works for the Edmonton Oilers

Why they’re in trouble: The Oilers have been a disappointment yet again, and they are already dangerously close to falling out of any realistic postseason hunt well before the new year. That would mark the organization’s ninth consecutive season without a playoff spot, and it seems like each year is somehow more painful than the last. At some point, the long-suffering fan base can’t be expected to stay patient.

That history of failure isn’t all on coach Dallas Eakins or GM Craig MacTavish, both of whom have only been in their current roles since the 2013 offseason.2 But they were expected to lead a turnaround, and it just hasn’t happened yet, and there are nights when it seems like the team has actually somehow regressed.

And then there’s Kevin Lowe, who’s had a hand in running things since 2000, first as GM and now as president of hockey ops. He seems to have a job for life from owner Daryl Katz, and even reportedly had his offer to step away earlier this year turned down.

Yes, Lowe helped build the 2006 team that fell one game short of a championship. Yes, he has six Cup rings from his playing days, as he’s happy to remind you. Yes, he’s a franchise legend. But at some point, you’d have to think the buck stops at the top.

What could save them: Winning. The Oilers need to get hot and get back into the race. That could certainly happen — the team has had stretches this year when it has looked good, and its best player just returned from injury. But the clock is ticking.

The other possibility is that the organization responds to more losing by making major changes to the roster instead, with MacTavish finally delivering on the sort of bold moves he promised when he was hired. Then again, midseason trades are becoming increasingly tough to make in this league, and you know the old saying about it being easier to fire the coach (or GM, or president) than the whole team.

How hot is it? 9/10

Prediction: There’s still time for a turnaround. But if this turns into yet another lost season, there will be intense pressure to hit reset on the entire organization. Something has to give.

Maple Leafs Coach Randy Carlyle

Why he’s in trouble: Everyone assumed he was gone after last year’s late-season collapse. The front office surprised us by retaining him, reportedly because it didn’t feel like there was a better option available. But management fired Carlyle’s assistants and made it clear he’d have to update his old-school approach.

The Leafs have been a little bit better, but they’re still inconsistent and prone to spectacular meltdowns. When that happens, Carlyle inevitably reverts to mumbling about compete level and character instead of sounding like a guy who has any actual answers.

This week, the team has already lost to the Sabres and Predators by a combined score of 15-4, and Leafs Nation is getting restless. The next three games are against the Lightning, Wings, and Penguins; the way the Leafs are playing now, it’s not inconceivable that Carlyle doesn’t make it to this time next week.

What could save him: It’s widely assumed that the Maple Leafs’ plan is to get through the season, then replace Carlyle with a big name. If a guy like Mike Babcock would be willing to come to Toronto (and that’s far from a sure thing), then it’s hard to imagine that anything short of a conference finals appearance would save Carlyle.

In the short term, team president Brendan Shanahan seems to prefer a patient approach, and he doesn’t seem like the type to overreact to a bad game or two. But Carlyle will still probably need to keep the team in the playoff hunt to make it through the season. There aren’t any slam dunk candidates available to replace him right now,3 but they could get through the season with an internal promotion. Assistant Peter Horachek has already done the interim thing in Florida, and the team could also decide to give Steve Spott some NHL head-coaching experience.

How hot is it? Very hot. Excruciatingly hot. Mind-bogglingly hot.

Prediction: “Steve Spott or Peter Horachek is the Leafs’ interim coach by Christmas; somebody currently behind the bench for another NHL team is the Leafs’ coach by next season.” Yes, I cut-and-pasted that from the season preview. Nothing’s changed.

Filed Under: NHL, San Jose Sharks, Todd McLellan, Philadelphia Flyers, Craig Berube, Phoenix Coyotes, Dave Tippett, Buffalo Sabres, Ted Nolan, Florida Panthers, Dale Tallon, Columbus Blue Jackets, Todd Richards, Dallas Stars, Lindy Ruff, Ottawa Senators, Paul MacLean, Edmonton Oilers

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

Archive @ DownGoesBrown