Commentary

Laviolette's firing shows a coach's shelf life is short in postlockout NHL

Updated: December 7, 2008, 9:55 AM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

The head coach of the 2004 Stanley Cup champions was fired last season. The head coach of the 2006 NHL champs was canned Wednesday.

"I guess I'm next, then," Randy Carlyle, coach of the 2007 Stanley Cup winners in Anaheim, jokingly said.

All kidding aside, the Carolina Hurricanes' firing of Peter Laviolette shows you how short the shelf life of an NHL coach really is, perhaps now more than ever in the salary-cap era, as all 30 NHL owners equate parity with playoffs.

There's no doubt that parity exists in the postlockout NHL, but 14 teams still have to miss the playoffs, and only one team will win it all.

The flip side of the fact that all 30 teams now seemingly have a shot at the postseason? Someone will pay the price when his team doesn't deliver in that environment.

"That's all part and parcel of the salary cap," Carlyle told ESPN.com. "Obviously, it's changed the way the upper management in the NHL views their hockey clubs. And we have to live in that environment. Coaches are paid to win hockey games. And when you don't win enough, the perception is it's easier to change one guy than 20 guys."

That old saying -- "It's easier to fire the head coach than 20 players" -- has never been more true. Cap-strapped teams in the postlockout NHL don't make any big transactions until the trade deadline, when contracts are easier to absorb. Before the lockout, a blockbuster deal might have been just as effective as firing your coach. Today, that's not much of an option.

"No, there aren't a lot of deals," Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "Because you've got a number of teams up against the cap, so it's hard for them to make a trade that makes sense for them; and then, the teams that aren't against the cap, some of them have self-imposed budgets [like Carolina]. So, it's hard to make deals.

"There are trades out there to be made if you're in a position to take on more money. But nobody is in a position to do that. Especially in this economy."

So Laviolette joins John Tortorella as the second Stanley Cup-winning coach from the past four seasons to be dismissed. (Laviolette told ESPN.com via text message Wednesday he would wait a day before commenting.)

Truth be told, Laviolette almost didn't last into this season. Rutherford toyed with the idea of firing the coach more than once last season and again this past summer.

"When you look at something three or four times over a year or year and a half, you get to a point where you say, 'You know, why are we again looking at this? There has to be a reason,'" Rutherford said. "Even though you can't pinpoint one thing, there's something there. I have the utmost respect for Peter. He did a lot of things for us and played a big part in the team winning the Stanley Cup. But you know, sometimes it's just time."

[+] EnlargePeter Laviolette
Gregg Forwerck/NHLI/Getty ImagesAfter leading the Hurricanes to a Cup in 2006, Peter Laviolette hasn't returned to the playoffs.

It was time because Rutherford strongly believed his team was better than its 12-11-2 record.

"We probably have a handful of players that are doing what they should do, and that leaves an awful lot of players that aren't playing up to expectations," Rutherford said. "Players have to take some responsibility, and I hope with the change, the players can get their confidence back and we can get some good chemistry on the team."

Former Canes coach Paul Maurice comes back to Carolina for a second tour of duty with the Hurricanes. It didn't take long to persuade him to coach after he got the call Monday from Rutherford, who has remained a great friend.

"From a personal point of view, this is home," Maurice said at a news conference in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday. "I had my three kids here. It's home for me, and I couldn't pass this up."

It was almost five years ago, on Dec. 15, 2003, that Maurice was fired by Rutherford after eight-plus seasons behind the bench. But, in Rutherford's mind, Maurice returns a different man after having coached the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"If you're ever going to be a coach and you relate it to going to college, you really get your Harvard or Yale degree if you coach the Toronto Maple Leafs, regardless of how you do," Rutherford said. "That's a tough job. The maturing of those couple of years in his coaching and him personally I think really brings a lot of experience here."

The key in all of this, however, might be Ron Francis. The Hall of Fame player-turned-assistant GM of the Hurricanes was named associate coach to Maurice. The title wasn't by mistake. Normally, a head coach gets assistant coaches. Francis, however, will be more than your average assistant.

"These two guys will work very close together heading up the coaching staff," Rutherford said.

It's pure speculation on our part, but we think, whether it's one, two or three years down the road, Francis eventually will be the head coach of this team. In any case, this coaching arrangement is guaranteed only for the remainder of this season. The Hurricanes are offsetting the Leafs on the remainder of Maurice's previous coaching deal from Toronto, which will expire at the end of the season.

"It's always difficult for a coach to come in partway through the year," Rutherford said. "So we'll just see how this goes and how the chemistry goes amongst our coaching staff and how the team does. We'll see if we can fix some things."

We would expect Maurice to remain with the Hurricanes for the long haul, if not as head coach, then perhaps in the front office. Besides, given recent trends, it's safer there than behind the bench.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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