NHL Firings Are On The Rise And Affecting AHL Teams

December 23, 2018
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NHL Firings Are On The Rise And Affecting AHL Teams

The pressure to win has never been higher for NHL head coaches, and the leeway they have to navigate any rough patches has never been smaller. After no NHL bosses were fired during the 2017-18 season, five have already met their demise before the halfway point. The latest was Philadelphia’s Dave Hakstol, who was finally let go Monday after a multi-day saga of rumors and speculation. Lehigh Valley Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon, at least temporarily, has taken his place behind the bench. If the situation sounds familiar, it’s because the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins were part of similar circumstances only three years ago. The Penguins started off 18-5 under coach Mike Sullivan in 2015, only to see him replace the fired Mike Johnston and lead Pittsburgh on the first of two runs to the Stanley Cup. Then-assistant coach Jay Leach filled in for three games before Clark Donatelli took over the team for good on Dec. 22. The Phantoms are off to a similar good start this season, sitting at 16-9-1-2 through Friday, but now must adjust to interim coach Kerry Huffman and his style. With Rockford’s Jeremy Colliton taking over the Chicago Blackhawks in November, it’s just the latest example of an NHL coaching change leading to adjustments for an AHL affiliate. “That’s the business,” said defenseman Tim Erixon, who was part of that 2015-16 Penguins team. “It’s standard. If you’re struggling like that, things are going to change. That’s just how it is. Whether it’s coaches, players or fans, something’s going to change.” Knowing that, however, doesn’t necessarily make the moves any easier. Sullivan went into that season determined to put his personal influence on the team culture, telling The Citizens’ Voice during training camp he had plans for themed practices and a heavy emphasis on conditioning. Based on their record, the Penguins clearly bought into his ideas. But when Sullivan was promoted, the players had no choice other than to adjust to Donatelli’s communication methods and make sure their own performance didn’t slip. “It was obviously a big change, but Clarkie was really good coming in,” Erixon said. “He’s a player’s coach. He talks to you and is always around. ... I think that was probably helpful when it’s the middle of the season. And I don’t know too much, but I assume that even in Wheeling, he still knew what was going on here.” In addition to putting its head coach on the hot seat, an underperforming NHL team often leads to organizational trades and transactions that can have dramatic consequences at multiple levels. Goaltender Matt Murray caught fire with Pittsburgh once he was called up in 2015-16 and was never seen in Wilkes-Barre again. Ditto for forwards Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary, who went on to combine for 10 goals in the Penguins’ postseason run. “Sully took a lot of those guys with him to Pittsburgh, which was great,” Donatelli said. “We had to almost, I don’t want to say start over, we had to rebuild. We had some guys in the lineup that were in Wheeling, and it took us a while to get going.” Wilkes-Barre/Scranton ripped off seven straight victories in January, but only had one win streak after that stretched more than two games. The team had finally started to jell by the postseason, but was eliminated by Hershey in Game 7 of the second round. One might expect Lehigh Valley to go through a similar lull, especially now with Flyers goaltender of the future Carter Hart shining in his NHL debut and reigning AHL MVP Phil Varone also producing in Philadelphia. Donatelli, though, said the team’s personnel is too good to assume that getting a new coach is ultimately a disadvantage. “(The coaching change) might even work in their favor sometimes,” he said. “My guess is they’re going to stay the same, if not just get better, because they’ve got some good players there. That’s how we look at it.” Contact the writer: tpiccotti@citizensvoice.com; 570-821-2089; @CVPiccotti on Twitter

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