The best midseason coaching changes in recent NHL history

The life cycle of an NHL coach is fickle and oftentimes unfair.

Cold starts, slumping stars, and frigid winter speedbumps can send even the most prestigious Jack Adams winner packing his clothes and heading to the airport — sometimes even by taxi — in the blink of an eye.

This season, despite being only a month old, already has at least half a dozen names on the hot seat to varying degrees, all struggling to get their teams out to the season starts that fans and pundits had them tagged for.

Teams like the St. Louis Blues, who dropped eight straight, and the Vancouver Canucks, who only collected their first win well into October, are amongst the loudest fan bases yearning for blood, but they’re far from the only clubs hoping a hockey mastermind may save their season.

Others, like the lowly Anaheim Ducks and Columbus Blue Jackets, and even the Toronto Maple Leafs, deep in their pressure cooker market at the centre of the hockey universe, have had coaching buzz surrounding them vary from a dull tone to a deafening roar, often leaning further towards the latter.

There's no guarantee that a midseason coaching change could turn a season around for an NHL team, but these hires will go down in history as some of the best. (Getty Images)
Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan took the NHL by storm when he replaced Mike Johnston behind the bench in 2015, winning back-to-back Stanley Cups. (Getty Images)

It all begs the question that lies at the heart of any franchise-altering decision such as those surrounding any bench boss: Can dumping a coach midseason turn around the fortunes of your club?

The simple answer is yes, however, it’s much more complicated than that.

For every 2022 Jay Woodcroft and his blistering .724 win percentage and Western Conference final appearance, a dozen more 2015 Peter Horacheks, each with their own busted ‘give-a-sh**’ meters are littered throughout recent NHL history.

So, who are the best coaches to hop into the fray midway through their team’s campaign? And have they all gone on to change the tone dramatically for their franchise?

The Good

Bruce Cassidy (2016-17)

On Feb. 7, 2017, with the Boston Bruins sitting outside of the playoff picture, Bruins general manager Don Sweeney sent longtime coach Claude Julien packing. Sitting at a middling 26-23-6 record, the Bruins had struggled to regain relevance since their trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 2013.

Julien’s club had missed the playoffs both of the previous two seasons, and it appeared his message had begun to grow stale for the Black and Gold.

His replacement, Bruce Cassidy, was a somewhat significant surprise at the time, as he hadn’t coached at the NHL level since before the 2005 lockout when he headed a hapless Washington Capitals club gunning for a generational superstar.

Cassidy nevertheless found a way to drag the Bruins out of their slump, finishing out the year a robust 18-8-1 as the interim bench boss, before his club bowed out in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs while earning himself permanent duties as head coach.

That run would mark the first of six straight Stanley Cup playoff appearances for the Bruins under Cassidy, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2019 and a Jack Adams win in 2020.

All that success unfortunately still wouldn’t be enough, as a failure to win hockey’s ultimate prize surprisingly cost him his job during the 2022 offseason. Regardless, it’s hard to call that midseason swap anything but a resounding win, even if it never culminated in the Bruins winning the whole thing.

Rick Bowness (2019-20)

Speaking of getting so close to the ultimate prize, Rick Bowness and his Dallas stars nearly won it all during his first season at the helm.

Replacing Jim Montgomery, who left the club due to personal reasons, Bowness didn’t actually lead the Stars to any improvement over his predecessor during the regular season, boasting a win percentage of .592 that was nearly identical to Montgomery’s .597.

Bowness' true shining moment, in fact, wouldn’t come around until after the NHL suspended operations due to COVID-19, and eventually returned to play in the now infamous bubble.

While isolated from the rest of the world, the Stars caught fire, making a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final as the fourth seed and nearly toppling the Tampa Bay Lightning’s dynasty before it began.

Perhaps the coach's greatest feat, however, was unlocking the offensive potential of Miro Heiskanen, who had 26 points in 27 playoff games as a 20-year-old in a breakout showing.

Unfortunately for Bowness, that success would not return in his following years as coach of the Stars. In the following two seasons, the Stars would miss the playoffs altogether in 2021, then fall in the first round to the Calgary Flames in 2022, signalling the end of his time in Texas.

Dominique Ducharme (2020-21)

While the Montreal Canadiens' catastrophic start to their 2021-22 season will always define Ducharme's tenure as Canadiens head coach, his shortened 2021 campaign was an absolute slam dunk for Montreal.

Replacing Claude Julien, who seems to be on the wrong side of these things a little too often, Ducharme’s regular season was, frankly, pretty horrendous all things considered. Taking over for Julien on Feb. 24, 2021, the Canadiens held a decent, albeit underwhelming, 9-5-4 record, having dropped five of their previous six, prompting the firing.

From there, however, Ducharme’s Canadiens sputtered even worse, playing under .500 hockey during his 38 games as head coach, finishing 15-16-7, and only making the postseason due to a top-heavy North Division.

At least that’s what conventional wisdom said before the Canadiens' first-round date with the Toronto Maple Leafs, which we now know was a fool's errand.

Montreal would ride that momentum all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, shocking the entire hockey world, before finally succumbing to the Tampa Bay Lightning as their Dallas Stars brethren had done the year before.

Ducharme would, of course, last less than seven more months on the job and win just eight more games with the Canadiens before he was sacked in favour of Martin St. Louis.

Still, it’s tough to argue that Ducharme’s midseason replacement was anything other than a resounding success, at least initially, for the Canadiens that season.

The Great

Jon Cooper (2012-13)

Jon Cooper’s placement on this list is highly unlike any of the previous three noted, though this list would be incomplete without his inclusion.

Cooper struggled mightily in his first season as head coach, replacing Guy Boucher and his 13-17-1 record in March of the NHL’s lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

With his club already well on their way to the Nathan MacKinnon sweepstakes, Cooper was unable to translate his success with the Lightning’s AHL affiliate Syracuse Crunch into wins for the NHL squad, procuring a meagre 5-9-3 record en route to a third overall selection at the 2013 NHL Draft.

What followed, however, was nothing short of a Jon Cooper masterclass. The lawyer-turned-coaching savant completely turned the tide for the Lightning, getting them back into the postseason the very next season, then taking them to the finals the year after that in 2015.

Since then, the Lightning have been the class of the National Hockey League under Cooper’s tutelage. Save for an injury-riddled 2016-17 season, as well as an embarrassing first-round defeat in 2019, the Lightning have made the conference finals every year under Cooper since 2015.

Of course, they’ve also done a lot more than that, capturing two Stanley Cups as Cooper has rapidly etched himself into the annals of hockey history as one of the game's greatest coaches.

Craig Berube (2018-19)

On Jan. 2, 2019, the St. Louis Blues sat last in the entire NHL with a 15-18-4 record.

The club, which had spent the first 19 games of its season under head coach Mike Yeo, was struggling immensely, while interim head coach Craig Berube hadn’t done much better, sitting with his own 8-9-1 record at that time.

Just a few short weeks later, following the call-up of former top prospect goaltender Jordan Binnington from the club’s AHL affiliate San Antonio Rampage, the club had found a new gear.

Berube and his new starting netminder, who finished that season second in Calder voting, eventually went from worst to first, finishing the year with a 40-20-5 stretch, then running to the Stanley Cup final behind Binnington’s heroics.

Once there, the club became the first team to go from last place in the standings at any point after its 20th game of the season to winning the Stanley Cup, defeating the Boston Bruins in seven games to secure the club’s first-ever championship.

It’s pretty hard to do much better as a midseason replacement than winning the whole darn thing, but Berube did just that, dragging his team out of the doldrums to the league’s highest peak.

Perhaps he could turn to that club as inspiration following his team's mediocre start to their 2022-23 campaign.

The Very Best

Mike Sullivan (2015-16)

What could possibly top winning a Stanley Cup as a midseason replacement? Well, how about back-to-back championships as a midseason replacement?

That’s exactly what Mike Sullivan did in 2015-16 and 2016-17, as he led Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins to the NHL’s first repeat champion since the Detroit Red Wings did so in 1997 and 1998.

Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston, who had led the Penguins to a disappointing 15-10-3 start after the club pushed their chips all in over the offseason to acquire Phil Kessel.

Perhaps even crazier was that the Penguins had somehow added a provision to the Kessel blockbuster that would allow them to keep their first round pick if they missed the postseason, which seemed crazy at the time, but looked to be in play when Johnston was fired on Dec.12, 2015.

After the coaching change, things began to pick up for the Penguins, as the club turned around in a hurry. Crosby began to look like his former self after a slow start to his campaign, while Sullivan eventually united the Penguins' famous HBK line which was instrumental in the club’s first quest for Stanley Cup supremacy, ensuring that Kessel would eventually be a Stanley Cup champion.

Then, for an encore, Sullivan helped the Penguins improve their record to 50-21-11, two more wins than in 2015-16, and clinched the club’s fourth (and most recent) 50-win season in their then 50-year history. Once the playoffs rolled around, Sullivan helped solidify Crosby and Malkin's place amongst NHL history’s elite with the duo’s third ring.

That's hard to top.

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