Commentary

Is firing your coach the best policy?

Updated: January 16, 2009, 5:38 PM ET
By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Editor's note: Our weekly "Faceoff" features ESPN.com NHL writers Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Pierre LeBrun (based in Toronto), who duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!

This week's topic: Does firing a coach in the middle of the season, or at the first sign of trouble, really make a difference?

Scott Burnside: Bonjour, mon ami. (That's "Hello, my friend," en Français, non?) Hope you are staying warm in chilly Toronto. It's sure cold here in Pittsburgh, although it's hot at the old Mellon Arena these days with the Penguins playing at a nonplayoff rate. But I guess it's that time of the season when fans and the media start speculating on the fate of underachieving NHL clubs. Do you like the idea of making coaching changes to jump-start a team?

Pierre LeBrun: Hello, indeed, from frigid Toronto. And we're not just talking about the Maple Leafs. Coaching changes? Oldest trick in the book in sports. As they say, it's easier to do that than fire 20 players. I'm assuming you're talking about the Penguins. I have a feeling you and I will disagree on this one, but despite the fact I believe Michel Therrien is a terrific coach, from afar, I just get the sense the team isn't responding to him. I know he's got two more years on his contract after this season, but I think this is a team that would benefit from a change behind the bench.

Burnside: I just think it's such a knee-jerk reaction to fire a coach who has done so much for a franchise. I'm talking specifically about the Penguins in this case, but I think it's often just ownership or management's way of appeasing fans and the media. "Look," they say, "we're doing something. We fired the coach." But I think you have to think long and hard about whether it's really the coach or other factors that have contributed to a team's decline. You know the phrase I hate most? "The coach has lost the room." What does that mean exactly? What, he goes to the laundry room instead of the locker room? I hate that.

LeBrun: It means the players are no longer listening to the coach. Like the old Charlie Brown skit, all they hear is "Blah, blah, blah" when the mouth opens. I'm not sure that's happening with Therrien or not, but it's just a guess. Listen, I will give Therrien his due. It's because of him the Penguins became a much better defensive team when he took over. He taught them defensive discipline, and that was a key in their ride to the Cup finals last spring. But this season? There's been a lot of uninspired hockey from that team. I concede some of that is from injuries, and Sergei Gonchar especially has been a monumental loss. But look at the Washington Capitals. They were missing a third of their lineup for a big chunk of the season, but stayed with the program.

Burnside: I'm not saying coaches should never be fired. I thought the firing of Denis Savard four games into this season had the potential to be a disaster, and, as it turns out, GM Dale Tallon and the rest of the Chicago brain trust turned out to be right on the mark, as Joel Quenneville has that team playing at a high level and, I think, in position to make some noise in the playoffs. But are the Hurricanes any further ahead for firing Peter Laviolette? Not really. What about Ottawa? What goes first, the coach or a top player like Jason Spezza? I know they've won two in a row, but that's a bit of a mirage.

LeBrun: In the case of Carolina, the important factor there is Hall of Famer Ron Francis getting his feet wet behind the bench. If he likes it, I predict he'll be coach next year and Paul Maurice will move into management. But that's just my guess. Ottawa? I thought it was funny how poor ol' Pat Quinn had to keep taking calls from people like me all week long after the world junior tournament and insist he's never talked to owner Eugene Melnyk about a job. Turns out he was telling the truth! That was a media rumor that got some serious wings under it.

At this point with the Senators, if I'm Melnyk, I say to GM Bryan Murray, "Listen, let's turn the page here and prepare for next year. We'll get a good draft pick." They are too far down in the standings to make the playoffs now. But they've got a decent core. If they can add a top blueliner like Jay Bouwmeester on July 1 and Brian Elliott is the real deal in goal, they're not that far off.

Burnside: If that's the case, then it goes back to my original point: Murray has to decide whether or not he made a mistake in hiring Craig Hartsburg. If he believes in him, then you weather the storm and hope better days are ahead. If not, then I figure he has to make a move now. Perhaps a guy like Bob Hartley could move in and start to make changes that would put the team in a better place moving forward, even if it means missing the playoffs. I suppose the same principle is in place in Pittsburgh. If you believe in Therrien, then suck it up. I think he's earned that right, perhaps more than Hartsburg has in Ottawa. As for Quinn, his shadow has also fallen on Pittsburgh with rumors he could be the man to turn the Penguins around.

LeBrun: It's interesting what is happening with some of the coaching hires. Boudreau might have started something last season with his success. New blood seems to be the name of the game. Todd McLellan has got his first shot in San Jose and Peter DeBoer in Florida. Mind you, Terry Murray is the opposite in Los Angeles, and that seems to be working out at this stage. Quinn would be a good fit in Pittsburgh, in my opinion. For starters, there's a relationship there (kind of) with the Pens' GM since Ray Shero's father hired Quinn way back in Philly, right? The Pens' roster, meanwhile, is built to win right now, and Quinn has a good track record with teams like that. Again, I hope Therrien figures this out soon and stays on board, but if not, my vote is for Quinn.

Burnside: To me, the good teams are almost always built on stability. Look at Buffalo, up and down with Lindy Ruff, but he took them to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals and then came up short last season. They might come up short again this year, but you never hear that Ruff's on the hot seat. Likewise in Dallas, where the Sean Avery debacle and injuries have put the Stars in a deep hole. Yet Dave Tippett earned his stripes by taking the Stars to the Western Conference finals last season, and the team appears ready to ride out the problems without dumping the coach. At some point, it always, or nearly always, ends badly for an NHL coach. Nature of the beast. But you have to applaud those teams that don't just open the trapdoor at the first sign of trouble, because it sends a message to the players that they really aren't accountable, at least in my humble opinion.

LeBrun: I have to say, you're making a more compelling argument than me with Therrien. He might get the last laugh with another deep playoff run and I'll have to write some kind of mea culpa blog saying I was wrong about him. Wouldn't be the first time! What are your thoughts about Edmonton? You mentioned Ruff and Tippett; Craig MacTavish is another long-serving coach, and one of my favorites. But there were high expectations this season, and so far it's been an up-and-down struggle. We all know how tight MacT is with team president Kevin Lowe, which is why few believe the Oilers can fire the coach. Or at least during this season.

Burnside: Well, to me, the case for making a change in Edmonton is more compelling than in Pittsburgh, given the Pens' injuries and recent success. I, likewise, have a lot of respect for MacTavish, but having missed the playoffs twice since going to the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, the situation there is closer to reaching critical mass. But the Oilers are just a point out of the eighth spot with a game in hand. Again, the question GM Steve Tambellini and Lowe have to ask themselves is if MacTavish is still the guy to get them there. I don't really have a gut feeling one way or another.

LeBrun: My guess is they'll wait until after the season to decide where they are going with it. Which, going back to the original point, is probably the right time to make these kinds of changes. On that note, my friend, I wish you a great second half of the NHL season. Now the hockey really starts to mean something.

Burnside: Indeed. Already have a bit of playoff fever as we speak. Should be fun. Au revoir. That's French for "goodbye," in case you forgot.

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com. For the record, Pierre is not impressed with Scott's French-speaking skills.