People love to talk about curses in sports. From being doomed by the Presidents’ Trophy to The Madden Curse, human beings crave patterns in the midst of chaos. Considering the fate of last season’s "coach of the year" finalists, we may have a new one to add to the list.
About a week ago, the Flames let go of 2022 Jack Adams winner Darryl Sutter. On Saturday, the Rangers “mutually agreed” to part ways with Gerard Gallant. The Panthers didn’t even give Andrew Brunette a chance to follow up a season where Florida won the Presidents’ Trophy and its first playoff series since 1995-96, firing him in favor of Paul Maurice last offseason.
With the dismissal of Gerard Gallant, this is the first time all three Jack Adams Award finalists from the previous season failed to last more than 1 year with their team since 1990-91
Brian Sutter (Blues) Tom Webster (Kings) & Mike Keenan (Blackhawks)
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) May 6, 2023
Maybe Brunette’s replacement Maurice earned the real award: startling longevity. Maurice has been an NHL head coach without many interruptions since 1995. While other coaches experience higher highs and lower lows, Maurice keeps plugging along, with this current Panthers run being one of the deepest of his jarringly persistent career.
When you start talking about "curses," you’re not always getting very scientific with your process. Let’s try to make sense of the paths for Brunette, Gallant and Sutter, then mull over the Rangers’ options in replacing Gallant.
Is there something to learn from all of this, or should we just give up and assume curses are real?
Brunette’s strange ride
In 2021-22, Joel Quenneville coached seven games before resigning in disgrace as Panthers head coach due to accusations from his time with the Blackhawks. You’d think such a disruption would throw off the Panthers. Instead, they went 51-18-6 under Brunette, outlasting the Avalanche for the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy. They also won their first playoff series in 25 years.
However, the narrative from that series win over the Capitals was that Florida didn’t win convincingly enough. After that, the Lightning clamped down on the Panthers in a suffocating sweep, and many condemned Brunette’s work. No doubt, the Panthers should’ve been more versatile when dealing with defenses that were ready for their attack. That said, Brunette may also have been the victim of small sample sizes. If you ran back those series, how often would the Panthers score on just 3.2 percent of their power plays and kill just 71.8 percent of their penalties?
It was cold, if bold, that the Panthers decided not to give Brunette another shot (and technically his first "full" season as head coach). Arguably, it was even more surprising that Brunette didn’t land a different NHL head coaching job, settling for a gig alongside eventual 2023 Jack Adams finalist Lindy Ruff. Brunette has definitely made big mistakes, but has also experienced bad luck. Plenty wonder if he’ll succeed Ruff (Devils fans were chanting for Ruff’s firing, though they quickly and amusingly apologized) but either way, he’ll likely get another chance to put this strange path behind him.
Sutter ruffled too many feathers
Jack Adams winners and finalists quickly losing their jobs is almost a trope, but the 2021-22 class took it to an extreme. If you want a little "circle of life" to go with curse talk, consider that this is the first time all three Jack Adams finalists were fired since 1990-91, when Darryl’s brother Brian Sutter did not last long after being a finalist.
Speaking of not lasting long: Sutter enjoyed the “longest” reign of the three coaches, by a hair. He took over the Flames’ head coaching job with 30 games remaining in 2020-21, then peaked with that Jack Adams season in 2021-22 (50-21-11 for 111 points, division title, one playoff series win).
We’re unlikely to ever truly know if Sutter’s acidic attitude had any influence on Johnny Gaudreau and/or Matthew Tkachuk leaving Calgary, but either way, the team lost the key components of what was arguably the NHL’s best forward line.
While the Flames weren’t terrible this past season, they missed the playoffs and exuded an air of true misery. Sutter’s relationship with now-former-GM Brad Treliving fell apart, and he was never a "players’ coach" to begin with. The Flames paralleled the Panthers as a team clearly fighting some bad luck, but Calgary didn’t get a chance to spin a new narrative by squeaking into the playoffs. What if Jacob Markstrom pulled off a Sergei Bobrovsky-type revival? That didn’t happen, and maybe a lot of it boils down to Sutter’s stubbornness, including not really setting the table to optimize Jonathan Huberdeau.
If you’re winning, people can put up with your grumpiness, and maybe even claim it as a virtue. When you’re clashing with anyone and everyone, that margin for error evaporates.
Another short run for Gallant
Gerard Gallant may be the opposite of Maurice: his stays have been remarkably short, but they’re full of dramatic highs and lows. After all, in an age of readily available information, few coaches have been fired as memorably as Gallant was when the Panthers sent him packing in a taxi.
Gallant has now coached five different NHL teams, yet never completed three full seasons with any of them. This has happened despite helping the Golden Knights quickly shed notions of what an expansion team can do, including making a stunning Stanley Cup Final appearance in their debut season.
His stay with the Rangers was his second shortest: just two tumultuous seasons. Last season, he earned that Jack Adams nomination while the Rangers defied underlying stats (and let’s face it: rode Igor Shesterkin and shrewd trade deadline tweaks) to the 2022 Eastern Conference Final.
As with many Jack Adams nominees turned coaching free agents, the price of overachieving one season can be that expectations rise too high for the next. The Rangers really didn’t slip that much in the standings, earning 107 points after last season’s 110. Things were clearly strained at times, however, and New York’s splashy trade deadline spending didn’t turn out so hot in another go around.
Like with Brunette, playoff disappointments likely sealed the deal for Gallant. After racing to a 2-0 series lead, the Rangers eventually fell to the Devils. Gallant criticized his team along the way, and the Rangers put forth a stunningly flat Game 7 effort. While Gallant got defensive when asked about his job security after the season ended, his reign as Rangers head coach indeed ended up short.
Few coaches experience the extremes of Jack Adams praise and abrupt firings quite like Gallant has lately. Even if you disagree with his coaching decisions and style, it is stunning just how quickly things tend to escalate for him.
Rangers on the hunt for a new coach after Gallant firing
If nothing else, firing a head coach eases pressure on an embattled GM — at least for some time. Chris Drury will only get so many chances to get this right, and a cramped salary cap could force the Rangers to take a step back (at least on paper).
Per @CapFriendly, the NYR will have just $10,069,642 in open cap space to resign Miller and Lafreniere, resign Mikkola, and decide if they want to keep or replace Kane and Tarasenko. https://t.co/scUbooB9mB
— Jess Rubenstein (@TheProspectpark) May 2, 2023
In other words, Gallant isn’t the only issue for this team. They’ll hope a different voice can get more out of less.
Interestingly, one big (disgraced) name might be out: the Rangers’ search doesn’t include Quenneville, according to Larry Brooks of the New York Post. Brooks adds that there isn’t an "obvious contender out there who is head and shoulders above the rest."
Indeed, you can quibble with plenty of other options. Would coaches like Peter Laviolette or Claude Julien bring stale ideas instead of structure? Bruce Boudreau may lighten the mood, but do they need someone with more acumen for X’s and O’s? Some call for a first-time NHL head coach such as Rand Pecknold, currently the bench boss at Quinnipiac University.
Some new blood would be nice, especially for a Rangers franchise that feels behind the curve more often than cutting-edge (and a team that’s flubbed developing its draft lottery winnings). At the same time, many have bad memories from the last time they gambled on an NCAA coach to make the NHL jump in David Quinn.
If you ask a wronged coach on the right day, they may claim that we’re simply rehashing that cycle once more: Jack Adams-type breakthrough, then a crash to unemployment after failing to meet big expectations. With the Rangers, expectations are rarely low, and patience isn’t often high.