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It Got Late Early for Stevens and Quenneville

November 6, 2018, 10:42 AM ET [5 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
Blogger •NHL Hall of Fame writer • RSSArchiveCONTACT
“It seemed like we were in neutral, not good either offensively or defensively. I had liked the defensive structure John had given us. We had offensive player who were cognizant of playing defensively but they were stuck in the mud. Players sometimes get bored playing a certain way. They need a new challenge.”

Flyer GM Paul Holmgren after firing John Stevens on December 4 2009 with the team at 13-11-1.

“We want to get the compete level up in our players. We’ve got to get the passion back up in our game.”

Kings GM Rob Blake, after dismissing Stevens on Sunday, the team at 4-8-1.

Even when a future Hall of Fame goalie is out long-term, as Jonathan Quick is now for Los Angeles, or when a coach less than two years earlier led a remarkable one-season Flyer turnaround from dead last in the NHL to the semifinals, GMs make in-season changes behind the bench in the midst of slow starts because sometimes they even work.

Stevens’s replacement in Philadelphia, Peter Laviolette, got the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals six months later. Even better, Blake’s predecessor, Dean Lombardi, went from Terry Murray to Darryl Sutter and in that same year, 2011-12, won the Cup.

So has Pittsburgh; Ray Shero replacing Michel Therrien with Dan Bylsma in 2008-09, then Jim Rutherford removing Mike Johnston in favor of Mike Sullivan in 2015-16. That’s winning Powerball twice. Gratification doesn’t have to come instantly, either. A year and change after letting go Denis Savard in favor of Joel Quenneville, the Blackhawks won it all in 2009-10.

Quenneville’s dismissal Tuesday morning made it 33 mid-season firings since 2009-10 and left Jon Cooper, a March hire just five seasons ago, as the Dean of NHL coaches. Mindboggling. Or, not. The vast majority of the changes only succeeded in exposing the shortcomings of a team, not the fired coach, but the reality is this: Besides eating a salary of a head coach and an assistant or two, there is little to lose with a shakeup,

Teams change coaches so often that the supply of people with at least some previous success always exceeds the demand. “Yeah, but who else is out there,” even in mid-season never is a reason to remain inert with a team stuck in neutral or reverse.

Gratitude for previous success brought by the coach who is being dumped passes quickly. And, hard as this sounds, sentiment is no factor either. “Terrible, very difficult,” said Blake about breaking the news to Stevens–on the morning after a solid win over a good Columbus team no less. Holmgren went tear-for-tear with Stevens while sitting across from his desk firing him.

There never has been a mid-season dismissal at which the GM has not put the players on notice that the next to go will be some of them. But reality is that contracts and salary caps don’t make it nearly that simple. Many of these guys, including expensive aging stars of which the Kings and Blackhawks have many, are on their way out over the next few seasons regardless

Meanwhile, the cynic suggests that firings buy time for GMS to correct screw-ups, both their own and inherited, and save themselves. The Kings, like the Blackhawks, aren’t fast or young and, at this stage of the cycle are not very promising, but they were well schooled, like every team Stevens and Quenneville ever has coached.

If Scotty Bowman, the all-time leader in Cups and regular season wins could got fired twice–and have to beat the posse out of Pittsburgh a year after winning it all there–then Quenneville, who is going to the Hockey Hall of Fame for winning three Cups in Chicago, did not have a job for life either.

It is a reasonable question of course, even after a three-season decline by the Blackhawks whether Jeremy Colliton can carry Coach Q’s briefcase. But voluntarily or otherwise, Quenneville wasn’t going to be around for the coming re-build regardless. So whatever the legitimacy of Stan Bowman’s hopes of saving this season, there really wasn’t much reason-beyond respect for what Quenneville did to revive the franchise–not to cut the cord now.

Arguments for fair or unfair are heard only in the court of history, not in pursuit of the next win, not with tickets for remaining games needing to be sold. Players all say the same thing: that they feel responsible for a good man losing his job, but they feel that way just a little, if at all. Once it happens, the pressure is off and team starts to do better, at least for a time.

The jilted coach mostly keeps his thoughts smartly to himself because it will help him to another job. Why he wants one is a mystery. So few will realize the joy of holding the Cup, that there must be some perverse gratification in watching players not do what you have instructed them to do and getting closer to the end every year. You will get a honeymoon for one run, as Stevens did in Philly but even Quenneville’s—goodness, just one bad first-round loss and one year out of the playoffs, after all he won–was short.

Mark Howe, who has been scouting for the Red Wings since his retirement as a player in 1995, was urged by his ex-wife Ginger to get a coaching job, where there is more money. Mark said he was told by every scout who ever had been a coach–which is a lot of them–that coaching was the worst job they ever had. So for the rest of his useful days, Howe, who would be a very good teacher, will happily remain in the press box and probably live longer.

Meanwhile, two of the best instructors of the game that we have known–Craig Ramsay and Terry Murray–are waiting for the phone to ring again, with so much still to offer a staff. Stevens, barely out of sight and mind, should get another job as an NHL assistant or an AHL coach, and Quenneville should have his pick of jobs next summer, but you never really know. In a tight knit NHL community who you know surely helps, but coaches bring in what they already know. Take a job, take your own guys along. Time to get to know anybody new figures to be short.

Even in what soon will be a 32-team league, there always will be more coaches than there are benches. Not that Dick Irvin didn’t win four Cups and 600 games as coach of three of the teams in just a six-team league, but the size of the NHL, while logically expanding opportunities, conversely become a hazard. The talent has become so spread out over the teams, leaving them so close in ability that, a Blake or a Bowman, however they might be overrating their players’ capabilities, correctly believe that more motivation and enthusiasm can still make a difference.

Over the last two decades, structure has undeniably become just as critical as motivation. Still, with rare exceptions, every team plays systematically, taught by better prepared, more highly-educated, coaches than ever, so there is little separation of club’s abilities.

Having been a phys ed teacher, Mike Keenan brought to the NHL ranks in 1984 a rare knowledge of exercise physiology, giving his Philadelphia, Chicago and New York teams a big edge in the way they prepared. The league caught up to him in that regard and so, of course, did some other things about a coaching style that supposedly won’t play anymore with the millionaires. But, right or wrong in his methods, Keenan was correct about every night and every win being about being getting his team more motivated than its opponent, by whatever means.

How you do that is to be yourself. Phonies are rooted out quickly. The quotes that led this piece indicated that Stevens got fired for being the same guy he always has been and his personality had outlived its usefulness. Stevens basically had been promoted to head coach for being the polar-opposite of his hugely successful predecessor, Sutter, as Sutter was a different cat from Murray. Fiery guy follows calming guy follows fiery guy is the way it generally works.

But especially in Philadelphia, where he inherited the youngest team in the league and took it to two finals in three years, Keenan was a teacher. The teacher from Hell maybe, in contrast with a measured, supportive and sometimes even professorial John Stevens, but a teacher nevertheless, just like all coaches have been since the end of the days of assuming the best players instantly will become the best coaches.

Whether a teacher stands in the classroom or behind a bench, the entire profession remains unappreciated and unsupported. As a whole, education fails to attract the best of the brightest because how relatively poorly it pays in relation to doctors, lawyers and hockey players. Coaches’ salaries are up sure, but their longevity is not.

So great is my respect for the difficulty of the job and the dedication and experience men bring to it, that only once can I ever remember calling for a coach’s head. It wasn’t a hockey coach, just a really bad guy. In the vast majority of cases, the coaches know what they are doing and are considered idiots on fan boards, social media and in the upper bowl by persons who have little clue.

Thus, we can completely understand the forces that lead to firings at the same time wondering why anybody wants to coach at a professional level in the first place. As being let go has happened to the best of them–Quenneville had lost jobs in St. Louis and Colorado before being the right guy at the right time in Chicago–at least the smart ones know not to take it personally.

It’s the profession that is being disrespected more than any particular coach. Two more good ones, John Stevens and Joel Quenneville, bite the dust.
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