Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports
The history books will show that the Todd Richards era in Columbus was one defined by expectations: Low ones that were exceeded, and high ones that were not. Let’s rewind to the 2013-14 season in Columbus for a moment. The Blue Jackets, fresh off a season in which they traded their franchise cornerstone player in Rick Nash, exceeded all expectations and made the playoffs. It was a red-letter year for the Blue Jackets, a franchise that didn’t have a playoff win and only had one playoff appearance to show for 13 years of hockey in Ohio. But that all changed thanks to the influx of young talent that the Jackets had acquired and their new bench boss Todd Richards, who was able to do what predecessors Scott Arniel and Ken Hitchcock couldn’t do: win in the playoffs.
After taking two games from the heavily-favored Penguins in round one before being dispatched, expectations rose going into the 2014-15 season. Then injuries completely ravaged the Blue Jackets beyond recognition. Columbus lost a league high 502 man games to injury that season, which is sufficient reason for the team’s struggles.
But 2015-16 was supposed to be the year. The young talent had matured, the injured players had healed, and the man behind the bench had proven that he can take this team to the next level and succeed. Unfortunately, quicker than the Oilers could announce they were taking Connor McDavid with the No. 1 overall pick, it all unraveled, leaving Richards as the odd man out.
At 0-8, Blue Jackets’ GM Jarmo Kekalainen and President of Hockey Ops John Davidson had seen enough, and understandably so. The Blue Jackets were lackluster at best, and completely inept at worst. Their -22 goal differential was a joke and the entire team looked lost. Richards’ time had understandably run out.
Now in comes John Tortorella, who has the pedigree required to get the best out of the Blue Jackets and turn their season around. Early reviews of this change of pace firing are in, and it looks like the Blue Jackets made the right call as the Jackets find themselves on a two-game winning streak and trending upwards on all fronts.
But what about the Ducks’ head coach Bruce Boudreau, whose seat just went from being uncomfortably warm to the seventh-circle of hell hot after a brutal 3-0 collapse against the Dallas Stars last night? The Ducks are 1-6-2 and their star players in Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kessler have been bad beyond the point of recognition. But Boudreau is a bit of a different situation than Richards as he’s proven himself to be one of the best coaches in the NHL over the last decade or so.
Boudreau ranks third in NHL history in points percentage of coaches who have coached 100 games or more at .657, tied with the legendary Scotty Bowman. So needless to say, the odds of finding a better bench boss are slim.
However, a great piece by Andrew Berkshire of SBNation.com analyzed whether coaches’ being replaced mid-season actually had a positive impact on the club moving forward.
One of most notable examples came from the 2009 season when the Penguins fired Michel Therrien in favor of Dan Bylsma in February of that year. The Penguins recovered from the nosedive and went on to win the Stanley Cup. As Berkshire points out by analyzing the Corsi differential of the team under both coaches and realized that Bylsma reversed their negative Corsi trend and likely saved the season.
Now, does that mean in no uncertain terms that Bylsma is a better coach than Therrien? Absolutely not. Therrien was a victim of circumstance, granted most of which were under his control, while Bylsma was a benefactor of it. Will whoever replaces Boudreau in Anaheim be a ‘better’ coach than he is? Probably not, but that’s not the point of the change up.
As Berkshire pointed out, when a team is trending in the wrong direction, especially a team many expected to be competing for a Stanley Cup, a change behind the bench can work wonders. Right now, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kessler can’t score. The Ducks are -16 in goal differential, which is actually pretty amazing considering the fact that they have only scored nine goals in nine games. And on top of that, they’re stuck in the log-jammed Western Conference where making the playoffs is tough even for good teams. Will Perry, Getzlaf and Kessler rebound regardless of who’s behind the bench? Almost certainly.
Still, the Ducks are in desperate need of a shakeup, something to get the team back on the right track.
The coaching change is a last resort, it’s a tool – it’s a lever that sits behind a pane of glass in every general manager’s office with the words “break glass in case of emergency” on it. And that’s doubly true for teams with high expectations and coaches that are already in the danger zone. Short of a franchise-altering trade, there’s very little a general manager can do in-season to change his team’s fortunes like firing a head coach; and it’s sad that a statement like that trivializes the fact that we’re talking about a man’s livelihood here, but it’s true. It’s the X-factor, the ace in the hole, and it’s the last move a team has before realizing their season is probably all for naught.
Most times, it’s less of an indictment of the coach being fired than the exigence of the situation that the team finds itself in. And that’s the case for both Todd Richards, Bruce Boudreau, and most coaches when expectations aren’t met.
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for either of his other three teams.