Whenever a team begins to struggle - and I mean, really struggle - one of the first things that many fans will do is call for the team to fire their head coach. It’s understandable; it’s almost always one of the easiest moves to shake things up among a team that’s stagnant or falling hard; it’s certainly easier to fire a coach than to replace half of the team’s struggling players.
But at what point does it really become time to fire the head coach?
I’ll be honest - I don’t have the answer. I don’t think anyone really does. I think it depends on a lot of things: just how bad the team is doing, how big their losses are, how poorly their players are doing, how far from the playoffs they are, etc. Each situation is unique, and there’s no cut-and-dry formula for when a team “should” finally let it go.
Take the recent firing of Randy Carlyle by the Anaheim Ducks. It was a needed move, with the team in a tailspin and a seven-game losing streak. Their performance suffered greatly over the past two months, and they fell fast. The Ducks may not make the playoffs (they’re actually only six points out of a wildcard spot as of this writing), and it was said that the Ducks management doesn’t believe in midseason coaching changes, but at some point, you’ve got to say enough is enough.
So, for the Sabres - is enough now enough?
The other side of this conversation is: when is the underlying problem more than just the coach? What happens then?
The Buffalo Sabres have had five different head coaches in the past six years. They haven’t made the playoffs in any of those years. If Lindy Ruff was the problem when he was fired on February 20, 2013, and Ron Rolston was the problem when he was fired just over nine months later, and Ted Nolan was the problem when he was fired on April 12, 2015, and Dan Bylsma the problem when he was fired less than two years later..... well, I’d say it’s unlikely that the coach is completely the problem when you’re going through them like a pack of cheap cigarettes.
Unfortunately, that just creates even more questions. If the problem runs deeper than the coach, and you’re more than multiple years into a rebuild, what do you do? Is firing the coach still the best, or at least the easiest, option? When do you pull the trigger?
And what happens if you fire that coach - say, Phil Housley, at this point - and nothing changes, nothing gets better, or things even get worse?
Opinions aside, here are the facts: at one point in the season, the Sabres were the best team in the NHL and on an incredible 10-game winning streak. We were all amazed at the resilience, at the way the Sabres somehow found a way to win, night after night. But we also knew it wasn’t sustainable in the long run, especially since the Sabres had to fight so hard and scrap to find some of those wins.
But that all feels like a faraway dream now.
Since that streak ended on November 29, the Sabres have gone 11-15-5, including a five-game losing streak. They’ve allowed 103 goals-against and scored only 86. Their Corse-For is 49.0%. They’ve only put up back-to-back wins ONCE (December 11-13) and have really struggled getting any sort of momentum. Against Eastern Conference opponents, they’ve gone 6-8-5, including a recent loss to the Hurricanes that really needed to be a win.
With 56 games gone and 26 games remaining in the season, it’s definitely still possible for the Sabres to make the playoffs, but things need to change, and quickly. Of the team’s remaining 26 games, ten are against Eastern Conference teams who are currently in a playoff position.
So I return back to my earlier question - which, unfortunately, I still don’t have an answer for. When is it really time for a team to fire its head coach? What happens when the problem isn’t in the coach, but clearly lies deeper?
And what happens when a team is first place in the NHL in November, but finishes the regular season not even in a playoff spot? (Well, let’s hope we don’t find out, honestly...)