In a span of some 12 hours, Mike Yeo (Blues) and Todd McLellan (Oilers) were fired early this past week from their coaching gigs. Ken Hitchcock, given the gate in St. Louis not so long ago to make way for the younger, snazzier Yeo, was named the new bench boss in Edmonton.
Ah, the NHL coaching life, nothing if not a little bit ironic.
When the ice chips and broken dreams settled in Edmonton late Tuesday morning, McLellan became the fourth coach to get the gate this season, following Yeo as No. 3 after a 2-0 loss Monday night in Los Angeles.
If you’re keeping score at home, the Kings previously dismissed John Stevens, and the Blackhawks, after 10 years and three Stanley Cup titles to his credit, bid adieu to Joel Quenneville. Total: Four coaches turfed in the first quarter of the season, their collective record 26-32-8 (.455). Leaguewide, coaches are falling faster than Bruins defensemen.
Meanwhile, with 12.9 percent of the Original 31’s coaches sent packing, all 31 GMs were still on their jobs. Coaches often make more than GMs nowadays, but theirs is a far riskier career path, controlled by GMs who too easily strike the “coach delete” button on their keyboards rather than fess up to the failed mechanics and misfit toys they’ve engineered into their rosters.
Rob Blake (Los Angeles), Stan Bowman (Chicago), Doug Armstrong (St. Louis), and Peter Chiarelli (Edmonton) still hold their GM jobs. They fired their coaches and went with the status quo, i.e. themselves, in the front office.
Of the four, though, Chiarelli looks to be by far on the shakiest ground. The ex-Boston GM made McLellan his coach as one of his initial moves upon being hired, and Chiarelli then went on to make it all the harder for McLellan to win by reshaping a roster that today can’t win on a regular basis with Connor McDavid, one of the game’s top talents, leading its offense.
The very worst of Chiarelli’s moves was dealing Taylor Hall to the Devils for defenseman Adam Larsson after the 2015-16 season. Granted, franchise defensemen are few, and all but impossible to trade for, but Larsson was never on that track.
Meanwhile, the gritty Hall last season, his second in New Jersey, put up a career year (93 points) and captured the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. Hall is a tiny tick behind that scoring pace this season (19 points in 19 games the day McLellan was fired), but he’s a force up front that Larsson never will be in back.
Also pegged high on Chiarelli’s boo-boo list, nearly on par with the Hall gaffe: the summer 2016 free agent signing of ex-Bruins winger/mauler Milan Lucic for a whopping $42 million/seven years. Looch was great for Chiarelli in Boston. The big fella had just turned 23 when the Bruins won the Cup in 2011. He was hockey’s Gronk: big, tough, productive — a unique force, some nights a spectacle.
But the game began pulling away from Lucic by his mid-20s, going to speeds he could not reach and fleeing with near-equal speed away from the fight game in which he excelled.
At his very best, Lucic played with an intoxicating, effective rage during his time in Boston. Then with the game flying by him, and with very few opponents willing to play victim to his fists and fury, most of his effectiveness was already shot as he was signing his name to that $42 million gusher in the Oil field.
He is 30 now, and his line going back to the start of last season up to the day McLellan was fired: 11-28—39 in 102 games. Painful.
Chiarelli hired Hitchcock, who will be 67 next month, in hopes that he’ll strike a match to the roster’s pilot light. Hitch is open and easy with the media. The Oilers, as a business, need that desperately right now. He is engaging, thoughtful, fun. Starting bid for a night on a barstool between Hitchcock and ex-Red Sox skipper Joe Morgan: $50,000.
McLellan, a good guy, was out of answers amid the free fall. Chiarelli, often uncomfortable with his media duties during his Boston tenure, has grown remote with the Edmonton press. Hitchcock grew up there, worked in a local sporting goods business, and initially will be embraced among the fandom as a favorite son who can talk the game with a zeal that a Zamboni brings to an 85-by-200 MDC sheet after a peewee tourney.
However, it will take more than talk to light that pilot light. The Oilers have the speedy, sublime McDavid to lead the offense, and every franchise should be so fortunate. McDavid plays at a pace few in the league can approximate, and as odd as it might sound, that’s a problem for most on the Oiler roster who don’t have the skills to help leverage his abilities. They may not render him lipstick on a pig, but right now he is their mascara.
The Stars hoped Hitchcock could work similar magic last season for their roster, in what was his second go-round in Big D. He won a Cup there in 1999, to the eternal pain of Sabres fans who still wince over the tape showing Brett Hull’s foot in the crease on the winning goal. The Stars went 42-32-8 in Hitch’s redux, missed the playoffs, and he went off to a retirement that came to an abrupt end Tuesday.
Hitchcock is up against it in Edmonton, but not with the same pressure facing Chiarelli. The coach can finish out the season, and if he misses the playoffs again, he has the luxury of shaking hands, thanking everyone, and heading back to retirement. No harm done. A nice winter’s diversion.
Chiarelli, the former Harvard captain, is all but certain to be canned if the Oilers miss for a third time in four seasons. He initially appeared to have the franchise pointed in a promising direction, the Oilers posting 103 points his second season, even with Hall gone and Lucic on board. But the mistakes caught up, the game moved on, and now he’s left with the Hitch way or the highway.
Robinson has a job to do
Amid the Mike Yeo firing in St. Louis, the Blues also shifted senior consultant Larry Robinson to ice level to work alongside interim coach Craig Berube for the next few weeks.
Robinson, 67, the ex-Montreal Hall of Fame defenseman, no doubt will have his sights on righting Alex Pietrangelo, the club’s franchise blue liner. Pietrangelo, 28, stood a meager 3-4—7 the day Yeo was let go. That’s a steep plummet for a guy who last season delivered a career-high 54 points and who has averaged around 48 points a season.
Only a dozen defensemen had more points than Pietrangelo last season. Entering this season, he was tied with Los Angeles’s Drew Doughty for points (260) over the last half-dozen seasons. Not a guy the Blues can afford to have poking along with numbers worthy of a third- or fourth-line wing.
Robinson last coached regularly as a Sharks assistant in 2014-15. He is about the same size as Pietrangelo, the No. 4 pick in the 2008 draft, and his game in his heyday was similar, though more prolific in an era when goal scoring was considered part of the game.
During their last great Cup run, when the Habs rolled up four titles, 1976-79, “Big Bird” collected 251 points in the regular season and another 54 in those Cup runs.
Now it’s Big Bird’s job to give Pietrangelo a little goose.
Oilers are still wheeling, dealing
As a prelude to dumping Todd McLellan, Peter Chiarelli reached for another one of his Boston faves, Ryan Spooner, in an attempt to give the offense a jolt. He wheeled ex-Islander Ryan Strome to the Rangers for Spooner, who signed a two-year deal ($4 million annual cap hit) with the Blueshirts over the summer.
Strome came to the Oilers in another deal, June 2017, that had Chiarelli send the talented Jordan Eberle, the No. 22 pick in the ’08 draft, to the Islanders. So in the end, the Oilers netted Spooner for Eberle. Not a good day in the asset-management engine room.
Spooner showed spunk after arriving on Broadway last February (20 games/16 points) in the deal that brought Rick Nash to Boston. But he again flatlined (1-1—2 in 16 games) this season with his new contract. In his two games under McLellan, “Spoons” was 0-0—0 and a minus-4.
Eberle, more essential to the Islander attack in the wake of John Tavares departing for the Maple Leafs, posted 25 goals and 59 points for the Fish Sticks last year. But as weekend play approached, he was their fourth-most productive center (10 points), a dip that could make him expendable at the deadline with his $6-million-a-year contract about to expire.
Strome, though hardly an offensive force in Edmonton, was well-liked there by teammates. In that sense, his sudden departure was somewhat reminiscent of Johnny Boychuk’s exit from Boston on the dawn of a new season in October 2014. Boychuk, loved in the Bruins room, was gone in a blink, Chiarelli firing him off to the Islanders for the draft picks that became Brandon Carlo and Ryan Lindgren (now a Rangers prospect).
The Islanders, then with Garth Snow their GM, soon handed Boychuk a nutty free agent deal worth $42 million over seven years. Now about to turn 35, Boychuk has three more years remaining on that pact. Good guy, Johnny Rocket, lots of spunk in his heyday, but vastly overpaid for someone pegged to pick up only 20-25 points a season back there.
Wesley deal really delivered
The look back on the Glen Wesley deal in this space last week noted the players — Kyle McLaren, Johnathan Aitken, and Sergei Samsonov — the Bruins obtained with the first-round draft picks acquired from Hartford.
Over time, however, the Aug. 25, 1994, deal brought another dozen players to the Boston roster, including:
■ Via McLaren’s deal to San Jose, Jan. 23, 2003: Jeff Hackett (G) and Jeff Jillson (D). The Bruins later dealt Jillson back to San Jose for Brad Boyes (F).
The Bruins later traded Boyes to St. Louis for Dennis Wideman (D). And Wideman later was dealt to Florida for Gregory Campbell (F) and Nathan Horton (F).
■ Via Samsonov’s March 9, 2006, deal to Edmonton: Marty Reasoner (F), Yan Stastny (F), and the draft pick used to select Milan Lucic (F).
The Bruins later traded Lucic to the Kings for Colin Miller (D), Martin Jones (G), and the draft pick used to select Jakub Zboril (D).
Jones never played for Boston. Four days after being acquired, he was dealt to San Jose for Sean Kuraly (F) and the draft pick used to select Trent Frederic (F)
To date, with Frederic now playing for AHL Providence, the Wesley deal has delivered 15 players to the Boston roster. Three of those 15 — Lucic, Campbell, and Horton — played on Boston’s 2011 Cup winner.
Kings franchise defenseman Drew Doughty to a small collection of LA media soon after the firing of coach John Stevens: “This is the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my hockey career — I think all of us have had to deal with in our hockey careers.” The Kings were 4-8-1 when Stevens was shown the door. They bobbed along at 3-4-0 in their next seven under replacement Willie Desjardins . . . Former Harvard leading scorer Tyler Moy earlier this month had his contract with Nashville terminated after being demoted from AHL Milwaukee to ECHL Atlanta in his second year post-Cambridge. Moy, 23, then hooked on with Lausanne in the Swiss league. The 175th pick in the 2015 draft, Moy signed a two-year deal with the Predators upon graduation, put up only 16 points last season in Milwaukee, and now has a chance to regain his offensive mojo overseas . . . Ex-Bruins goalie Anton Khudobin moved up to No. 1 this past week in Dallas when the Stars lost Ben Bishop to injury. “Doby” had a 3-3-1 mark at the time. With Bishop, the ex-Maine Black Bear, expected out at least a week, the Stars called up prospect Landon Bow from AHL Texas. Bow played at WHL Swift Current with Bruins sophomore winger Jake DeBrusk and went on to play a fifth year of junior at Seattle, with Mathew Barzal lighting it up. He signed as a free agent with Dallas . . . Patrick Maroon, on the Bruins’ radar leading to last February’s trade deadline, has provided no pop (0-7—7 in 14 games) for the Blues after his UFA signing over the summer. Born and raised in St. Louis, Maroon has trade protection until Feb. 1, at which time he can be wheeled anywhere other than the eight teams he chooses to exclude. He signed for one year at $1.75 million, so he’ll be a cheap pickup for a contender. Dealt by the Oilers last January, he picked up 13 points in 17 games with the Devils before going 1-0—1 in five playoff games . . . Ryan Donato, 4-2—6 in his first seven games with AHL Providence, was smacked in the mouth with a puck during Tuesday’s WannaBs workout. Nasty lip laceration and a few damaged teeth, but he made it through the workout. Following Monday’s game in Toronto, the Bruins are home for two (Islanders, Red Wings). If there has been little pop off the wings on the varsity, it could be a good spot for a Donato recall . . . The string of Oilers coaches, dating to their 2006 visit to the Stanley Cup Final: Craig MacTavish, Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger, Dallas Eakins, Todd Nelson, Todd McLellan, and now Ken Hitchcock . . . Looks more and more like David Rittich will push out Mike Smith for the No. 1 goaltender job in Calgary. Rittich was 7-1-0 in his first eight decisions, while Smith, a workhorse throughout his career, was a pedestrian 5-7-1 with a career-worst 3.48 goals-against average . . . Larry Robinson, on the day last year when he was hired as a Blues consultant: “I do have one finger left for another ring.” . . . The Bruins are getting just what they hoped from prospect Jakub Lauko, drafted in June and assigned in September to Rouyn-Noranda in the Quebec League. The edgy Czech forward posted an 11-10—21 line in his first 18 games (No. 6 in team scoring). The Huskies are led by an undrafted center, 21-year-old Peter Abbandonato, who totaled a beefy 45 points in his first 23 games. Lauko, 18, was the 77th pick in last June’s draft. The Bruins felt the Quebec League would be just the right place for him to develop confidence as he adapted to the North American game . . . As weekend play approached, four of the five NHL leaders for shots on net were centers, including No. 1 Tyler Seguin (94), along with Jonathan Marchessault (92), Nathan MacKinnon (87), and Jack Eichel (86). Old enough to remember when centers dished the puck and it was the wings who got busy with it.