Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 5, 2019

All They Want For Christmas Is A Job

The remnants of the Thanksgiving turkey have been reduced to soup stock; the thrill, though that may not be the right word, of Black Friday shopping is over; businesses across the land have absorbed the dip in productivity from employees focused on Cyber Monday shopping rather than their jobs. New England, like much of the northern half of the country, lies under a fresh blanket of snow. These are all reminders that the holiday season is upon us, that warm-hearted time of goodwill to all, except those who take one’s parking space near the front door of Best Buy or Dick’s. Truly it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Unless, of course, one happens to be a head coach.

With the chase for a spot in the NFL playoffs reaching its peak, and both the NHL and NBA seasons far enough along to pass judgment on whether teams are meeting preseason expectations, December can be an especially hazardous time for those in the coaching profession. Just two days ago the NFL’s Carolina Panthers parted ways with Ron Rivera, a two-time AP Coach of the Year who led the franchise to four playoff appearances in nine seasons, including a berth in Super Bowl 50. But since falling short against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in February 2016, the Panthers have managed a winning record only once. After somehow finding a way to lose to Washington last weekend, Rivera’s team stood at 5-7, well outside the league’s postseason picture. The performance of the last few seasons, along with new owner David Tepper’s desire to put his own pick on the sideline, made the winningest coach in franchise history expendable.

Joining Rivera in the unemployment line on Tuesday was John Hynes, who had guided the New Jersey Devils since 2015. Although he was only 40 years old and had no prior NHL head coaching experience when he was tabbed for the Devils job by Ray Shero, who was then the newly named general manager, Hynes’s resume included a stint working for Shero in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. That connection was enough to land him a spot behind the Devils’ bench. But the lack of experience showed over four seasons in which New Jersey made just one trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Somehow that track record was enough for the club to give Hynes a contract extension last January. But eleven months later to the day, after a horrid start to the current campaign, Shero finally decided that performance outweighed friendship.

Rivera and Hynes don’t yet have a companion from the NBA joining them on the list of head coaches fired in December, but the month is less than a week old and the Knicks are 4-17. If the New York tabloids are to be believed, head coach David Fizdale may not want to splurge on his Christmas shopping. Whether Fizdale becomes the first coaching casualty of the NBA season or not, sudden dismissal is an integral part of the coaching job description. That’s evidenced by the fact that aside from the Panthers and Devils, 24 of the 91 other NFL, NHL, and NBA head coaching jobs have been occupied by the current incumbent for a year or less. Nor were this week’s firings the first of the new season in these leagues, with two other hockey jobs and one in the NFL previously turning over.

One of those earlier dismissals is the most compelling of all the midseason coaching changes to date, and likely to remain at the top of the list short of Bob Kraft suddenly deciding that he’s grown tired of Bill Belichick. Two weeks ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs fired Mike Babcock, who coached his 700th career victory not long before being shown the door. Babcock joined the Leafs prior to the 2015-16 season after first taking Anaheim to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first of two years out west, and then guiding the Detroit Red Wings to the postseason every season for a decade and winning the Stanley Cup in 2008.

Its status as an Original Six member of the league gives Toronto a special place in the NHL’s hierarchy of franchises. But while the Maple Leafs have hoisted the Cup thirteen times, no captain in a blue and white sweater has done so since 1967, when Babcock was four years old and many of the team’s fans weren’t yet born. Even worse, it’s not like the franchise has even come close to a championship of late. When Babcock was lured away from his successful run in Detroit, Toronto fans had been able to buy tickets to postseason hockey just once in the previous decade. At the time the opinion in this space was that he was either courageous or crazy.

Given the recent history of the franchise, Babcock appeared to have Toronto headed in the right direction. After missing the playoffs in his first season, the Maple Leafs saw Stanley Cup action each of the last three years while winning forty or more regular season games in all those campaigns, a decided improvement over recent history.

But it turns out that even coaching royalty needs to maintain good relations with the front office. Babcock made a point of preaching patience when he was introduced as Toronto’s new leader, but he was joining a franchise that had churned through five head coaches in the previous nine years. Before long Babcock and GM Kyle Dubas were reportedly at odds over the type of team to put on the ice. The coach favored grinding, hard checking players while the executive wanted a lineup built around speed. In that debate Dubas had the upper hand since he oversaw the roster, and over time Babcock was left with a lineup that wasn’t much to his liking. His long record of success behind the bench may also have given Babcock an inflated sense of his own importance. More than a few players chafed at his domineering style, and in the wake of his firing a good deal of that anger has bubbled to the surface on social media.

With all those issues in play, a slow start to the current season proved just what Dubas needed to add “fired” to Babcock’s resume, for the first time in his coaching career. Now this coaching blueblood is joined by Rivera, who achieved but couldn’t sustain success, and Hynes, who was overmatched from day one. A few preceded them, and more are certain to follow – a widely divergent collection of professional ability that reminds fans that for head coaches, the holidays aren’t always a time of comfort and joy.


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