DETROIT — The Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets broke the seal on firing season in the NHL, showing some teams are short on patience even in a lockout-delayed year.
Buffalo got rid of Lindy Ruff, its coach since 1997, last month, just more than a week after Columbus fired general manager Scott Howson following five-plus years.
Some men behind benches and in front offices may not be resting easy these days.
Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz said each time the puck drops, it could be the last game for one of his colleagues.
He would know.
“There were times I knew I was on the hot seat,” Trotz said.
Trotz can recall vividly being told he kept his job Nov. 8, 2003, because Nashville rallied from a three-goal deficit to win 4-3 at Detroit. And Trotz still has his gig, trailing only San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in longevity among North America’s four major pro leagues.
“I’ve been fortunate,” acknowledged Trotz, who has been Nashville’s only coach since it joined the league in 1998.
Others might not be so fortunate this season.
San Jose coach Todd McLellan has helped the Sharks to the Western Conference finals twice, and won three straight division titles before finishing second last year. But he’s coming off a first-round exit with a franchise that hasn’t hoisted the Stanley Cup.
And, his slumping-yet-talented team wouldn’t be in the playoffs — for the first time in a decade — if the tournament started today after winning just two of their last 12 games.
“It starts with the coaching staff,” McLellan said. “We’ve got to go in and give them a plan, give them something they feel they can use in a game that can help them. We try to do that every day. After that, a lot of it is leadership, but it’s individuals, too. It’s reverting back to what you do well, what got you here, what skill set you have and are you applying it to the game night in and night out.”
Arguably, no one in the league has more talent than Washington Capitals superstar forward Alex Ovechkin. Even with the two-time MVP, though, Washington, with an Eastern Conference-low 15 points, is in danger of not playing in the postseason for the first time since 2007. First-year coach Adam Oates probably will keep his job even if the franchise doesn’t make the playoffs. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis likely would allow Oates to have a honeymoon into next season, but general manager George McPhee may not have the same fate if the team’s season ends April 27 in its regular-season finale.
Even though Dallas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan is in just his second season, he’s the third coach that has tried to get the once-proud franchise back to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Gulutzan, whose team is in a logjam between the Nos. 4 and 12 clubs in the highly competitive West, said scrutiny is simply a nature of his chosen profession.
“Do I consider myself on the hot seat? I think every coach does,” he said. “You want success and this is a tough league and you’ve got to get it.
“If fear is your motivator, it doesn’t last long.”
It’s been a long five years since the Minnesota Wild were in the playoffs. They tried to end the drought by making a splash last summer, signing highly touted free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to $98 million, 13-year contacts.
When Parise had a game-winning goal in overtime Tuesday night against the Calgary Flames, Minnesota coach Mike Yeo didn’t hide the fact that he was fired up about a victory in the face of pressure.
“I’m emotional right now, for sure,” he said. “That’s who I am. I’m not going to hide that. But I’m great. For me, personally, I love it.”
Ruff and Howson loved their jobs, too, and did everything in their power to help their franchises win.
The former Sabres coach, who was the franchise’s winningest, was fired with a 6-10-1 record this season and replaced by interim Ron Rolston, called up from the AHL.
Ruff saw it coming, leading a team that was getting booed — and even jeered when they crossed the blue line Feb. 19 in a home loss to Winnipeg — during a slow start nearly two years after Terry Pegula bought the team and instilled championship-level expectations. He wasn’t surprised when Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier showed up at his door to deliver the news.
Regier insisted he wasn’t worried about his future when he announced Ruff was fired.
“It’s not about me,” he said.
It was Howson who helped the Blue Jackets make their only postseason appearance in 2009, but it wasn’t a surprise when he was let go Feb. 12. A day later, Columbus president of hockey operations John Davidson hired Jarmo Kekalainen, reuniting with him after they worked together in St. Louis
The beginning of the end for Howson was when Davidson was hired in October to report directly to majority owner John P. McConnell and to oversee a lame-duck GM.
“I look more at the big picture,” Davidson said when he fired Howson.
Other teams may do the same soon.
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