Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Devils Desperate Play For A Playoff Run

When a team fires their coach (even a good coach), they usually have a shortterm improvement in their results. This comes for two reasons: first, rarely is a coach fired in a winning streak and thus improvement is likely in the shortterm regardless of the firing and second, players are uncertain where they stand under the new coach and may lose playing time or a roster spot unless they prove themselves to the new coach. The second reason is strongest during the long NHL regular season where (despite NHL propaganda to the contrary) it is physically and mentally impossible to give your 100% game in and game out. Once the do or die games of the end of the season and the playoffs begin, the stakes are so big and the games are so important that there is little to be gained in effort from a team by a coaching change. They are playing the best they can and a failure at this point is likely due to talent, injuries, puck luck etc., but not due to motivation.

Despite this conventional wisdom, in the 1999-2000, during a late season losing streak, the New Jersey Devils fired coach Robbie Ftorek and replaced him with Larry Robinson and they won the Stanley Cup. This was a good Devils team that was coming off of their fourth straight 100 point season and finished 2nd in the East Conference. They were built Martin Brodeur in goal, Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer anchored the defence and Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez lead them offensively. This was a team that was very capable of winning the Stanley Cup and quite possibly would have won it anyway under coach Robbie Ftorek.

From this, GM Lou Lamoreillo learned that a late season coach firing works. Thus, despite having 102 points and currently holding down second in the East Conference, the Devils fired head coach Claude Julien yesterday. Lamoreillo will take over as coach in addition to remaining on as GM (and President and CEO of the Devils). I think he hopes that this stunning move will motivate his Devils to play harder during the cup run. Since the GM will be on the bench it will be clear that players are playing for their roster spot next year and a new contract as well as the Stanley Cup (a point which should seem clear even if Lamoreillo is watching from a luxury box).

One possible motivation for this move might be that Pat Burns, the former Devils coach who left due to cancer, is expected to be healthy enough to coach the team next season and Lamoreillo would rather have Burns as coach than Julien. This is a way to remove Julien while possibly lighting a fire under his team when it counts.

Claude Julien was having a good season as coach and earlier this year, I wrote something where I praised Claude Julien and considered him a candidate for a coach of the year nomination. He will be picked up as a coach soon by an NHL club.

Often, a late season coaching change like this leaves the team looking stupid and desperate (see for example the LA Kings last year). Time will tell where it leaves the Devils. I bet they don't win the cup. I bet they do win a playoff round or two. I would have made the same prediction had Claude Julien been their coach for the playoffs.

Here is the TSN story on the Julien firing.

Devils ahould be fined by the NHL if they do not play their healthly players. Maybe a threat from the league of 1 million dollars may help
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