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In-season coaching changes can work in the NHL

Mike Sullivan took over the Penguins in December 2015 and led them to a Stanley Cup last spring.AP file

In many ways, it was more surprising that the Bruins hadn’t made an in-season coaching change since 2002-03 than that they decided to move on from Claude Julien after nearly 10 seasons. No major American pro sport embraces coaching changes more than the NHL, which witnessed 39 midseason changes by 21 of the 30 franchises over the 10 seasons from 2006-07 through 2015-16.

There is a logic underlying that industrywide restlessness. After all, no sport has shown the sort of regular returns from coaching changes that hockey has.

Incredibly, three of the last 10 Stanley Cup winners have seen midyear coaching changes.


The 2008-09 Penguins won after turning their team over from Michel Therrien to Dan Bylsma; Pittsburgh repeated the feat last year when winning a title after firing Mike Johnston and replacing him with Mike Sullivan; and the 2011-12 Kings entrusted their roster to Darryl Sutter after 33 games, went on a solid run over the duration of the season, then caught fire in the playoffs.

Those best-case scenarios, of course, are outliers, and all represent cases in which rosters featured superstar-level talent (Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles). There also have been train wrecks following an in-season change, including some where teams on the fringe of a playoff berth collapsed under a new boss. Most recently, the 2014-15 Maple Leafs team that fired Randy Carlyle after a solid 21-16-3 start melted down to a 9-28-5 mark under Peter Horachek.

There are no guarantees that a coaching change will improve a team’s play. Teams had worse records after a change in nine of 39 instances (23 percent). And even though 30 teams experienced some improvement in their regular-season performance, that fact may reflect as much on how poorly the teams had been playing before the shift occurred. After all, 23 of those 39 teams (59 percent) missed the playoffs.


Even so, improvement has been common for teams that brought in a new voice. On average, between 2006-07 and 2015-16, teams fired coaches after 33 games in which their teams had averaged just under a point per game (0.95) — the equivalent of a 78-point season. Under the new coach, teams averaged 1.08 points per game — an improvement of 14 percent, and a performance that would project to an 88-point season.

Through almost exactly two-thirds of their season (55 games), the Bruins are on pace for 86 points. If they enjoy a 14 percent bump over their final 27 games, they’d finish with 90 points.

Such a total would hardly guarantee even a No. 8 playoff seed, given that in the last five non-lockout seasons, just one team (the 2015-16 Minnesota Wild) has claimed a playoff berth with as few as 90 points.

Even so, it’s close enough to realistic contention that precedent permits the Bruins to daydream about the impact of their change, even with a move that seemingly was made in response to a longer-term malaise that had settled over the organization.

Change of fortune

From 2006-07 to 2015-16, there have been 39 in-season coaching changes in the NHL. Here is how far those teams got:

Missed playoffs


First round


Second round


Third round


Lost Cup Finals


Stanley Cup


Source: Hockey-reference.com

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.