The firing of New York Rangers coach Tom Renney this past Monday is the final piece of a strange puzzle. All four teams that started the NHL season in Europe last October have now lost their coaches – Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Ottawa, and now the Rangers.
But far from being a sign of the difficulty of starting the year with the trip overseas, this is not only a weird coincidence – it is something that has happened only once before of the 15 teams that have played in Europe since 1992.
Indeed, the Montreal Canadiens played Chicago at Wembley Stadium during training camp of the 1992-93 season and went on to win the Stanley Cup. The next year, the Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs held part of their training camp in England and played two exhibition games for the French’s Cup, yet the Rangers finished the season as Cup champs as well.
This NHL season has also featured two other coaching changes. Chicago fired head coach Denis Savard after just four games, and Carolina let go Peter Laviolette mid-season as well. Coaching changes are made because of poor team play and disappointing results, not from playing in Europe. And, no, there is no connection between the two, as previous records indicate.
Consider Michel Therrien in Pittsburgh. He took the Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals last year and was promptly signed to a three-year contract extension in the summer. But he was obsessed with defence with a lineup that has the top two scorers in the league, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Imagine Glen Sather in the dressing room exhorting Wayne Gretzky to play more defensively! Therrien lost his job because (a) he didn’t know how to handle his greatest assets, Crosby and Malkin and (b) the team is currently out of a playoff spot.
The fact that Barry Melrose was fired in Tampa Bay cannot be considered surprising. From all reports the Lightning are a dysfunctional family. Consider also that Melrose was as in tune with coaching in 2008 as his mullet was with hairstyles. He last stood behind an NHL bench in 1995 and had been working in television pretty much ever since. The real surprise is that he was ever hired in the first place.
Craig Hartsburg’s short reign in Ottawa is also not a surprise. He brought six years of NHL coaching experience to the Senators when he was hired last fall, during which time his teams (Chicago and Anaheim) won a total of one playoff series. He later coached Canada to consecutive gold medals at the World U20 Championship, but the core of those teams was chosen and developed by his predecessor, Brent Sutter, who has gone on to be a perfectly successful head coach in New Jersey.
In Renney’s case, it was a question of delivering big hopes early and then reality settling in. Renney had the Rangers in first place in mid-December before the house fell apart. With 151 goals scored, only Ottawa, Nashville and the Islanders have scored fewer goals so far this season. The team’s prime free-agent signings, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, have 12 and 15 goals, respectively, hugely disappointing numbers, and free-agent defenceman Wade Redden has also been a disappointment. Indeed, the team doesn’t even have one 20-goal goal scorer and the top point getter is Nikolai Zherdev, who is 61st overall in the league.
If you want coincidences, here’s a great one. The only other time a coach was fired during a season that his team started the year outside North America was when Renney was fired by Vancouver during 1997-98 and replaced by Mike Keenan. The Canucks and Mighty Ducks had played in Japan to promote the first Olympics with full NHL participation (in Nagano).
Another unrelated coincidence? The last two coaches to be fired – Therrien and Renney – were both let go after losses to Toronto. Does that mean anything? Nope.
In 1998-99, Calgary and San Jose came to Europe and kept their coaches for the full season. In 2000-01 all of Nashville, Pittsburgh, and Vancouver played in Europe without losing a coach. The year after, Colorado played, and in 2003-04, the Leafs returned, to Sweden. In 2007-08, the league opened with a pair of games featuring Anaheim and Los Angeles at London’s new O2 Arena. Nothing. All coaches survived.
For 2009-10, the NHL has already announced that four teams will open the season in Europe again – Detroit and St. Louis, Florida and Chicago. The chances of all four of these coaches being fired during the upcoming season are nil to none. The current season is a coincidence, weird and wacky, to be sure, but one without significant meaning.