For the third time this season, last night a team played the Flyers in Philadelphia immediately before or after firing their coach. Just two weeks into the season, the Atlanta Thrashers dismissed Bob Hartley after falling to the Flyers, 4-0, for an 0-6 start. On November 23rd, the Washington Capitals edged the Flyers, 4-3 in OT, immediately after Glen Hanlon had been relieved and replaced by Hershey Bears' coach Bruce "Gabby" Boudreau giving him his first NHL coaching victory after 32 years in the game as a professional player and coach. And last night the Flyers defeated the Ottawa Senators, 3-1, in the first game after former Flyer winger John "Too Tall" Paddock had been relieved and replaced by GM Bryan Murray with less than six weeks left in his first campaign behind the Sens' bench despite sporting a 36-23-6 record and having been sitting in first place in the Eastern Conference for all but the final day of his tenure.
As in the other two cases, again, unfortunately, another good coach had to take the fall for the failings of his players. I have known "Tall" as both a player and a coach for more than thirty years and can attest to his being one of the best hockey people I have ever known. I have known Bryan Murray almost as long, and know the respect he has for John and am quite sure that removing him was really the last thing he wanted to have happened. (And I also know from people within the Sens' organization that this "call" was really not made in the GM's office.) But as they say, you can't fire all the players...
John Paddock has had very considerable success as a head coach in the AHL over many years winning Calder Cup titles with three different teams (Maine, Hershey, and Hartford) as a coach and two more (Maine) as a player. The Sens were a juggernaut over the first month of the season, but, I think, still a flawed team in a number of ways, particularly in goal and in overall talent after the top line and the 210 points supplied by Alfredsson, Spezza, and Heatley which represent more than 40% of the team's total offense. These three players are also a combined +73 while all of the rest of the team together is +49.
Former Chicago Blackhawk coach Trent Yawney, another good man who had great success as a coach in the AHL with the Norfolk Admirals, was fired by the Hawks last year in a similar situation. Now a pro scout for Anaheim, I have had the opportunity to sit down with my old friend a number of times this season when he has been in Philadelphia to scout the Flyers and Phantoms and he said an interesting thing to me about coaching in the NHL as opposed to in the AHL and other leagues. "In the minors it is really a coaching job in the literal sense in that you are a teacher first and foremost," he says. "In the NHL, however, being the head coach is much more of a job 'managing' players, dealing with their various personalities and quirks, and getting them to play as a 'team' then it is teaching or the other aspects of coaching."
In the pressbox before last night's game I asked another old friend, Detriot Red Wings' pro scout Mark Howe, what he thought of that assessment and he agreed. "This is why Scotty Bowman was so successful," Howie noted. "because he knew just how far he could push every player he had to get the most out of him without pushing so hard as to lose him. They may not have always liked it, but Scotty made them win."
With the much higher expense of salaries at the NHL level, and the limitations imposed on what managers can do in tweeking their rosters by the salary cap, GMs are far more limited on what they can do to help the coach in adjusting the makeup of the roster. Coaches, however, are relatively inexpensive, are not under the Cap, and have no guarantees in their contracts other than it be paid off. And so another fine coach has paid the price for the failures of his players. Nothing is 100% anybody's -- players', coaches' or managers' -- fault, but I think things would have been much different if the considerable distractions and other difficulties caused by the problems in goal could have been resolved by a change in personnel in that department
"Tall" did not get "stupid" all of a sudden, and he will be back behind the bench of another professional hockey team again. It may not be in the NHL right away, but the next group of players who will be his charges will benefit greatly from his wisdom and talent as a coach ... and as a teacher. It's just too bad that some of the players on the Senators apparently were unable -- or unwilling -- to learn what he had to offer them.