Does Firing a Coach Mid-Season Improve a Team?

Claude Julien was the fourth head coach to be fired during the 2016-17 season, this led podcast co-host Carl to ask the following question:

In general, does firing a coach mid-season make things better?

Mid-season firings are part of sport but the NHL’s GMs seem to drop head coaches with alarming regularity. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, 15 coaches have lost their job mid-season. Specifically Claude Noel, Kevin Dineen, Ron Rolston, Peter Laviolette, Randy Carlyle, Peter DeBoer, Dallas Eakins, Paul MacLean, Mike Yeo, Mike Johnston, Todd Richards, Gerard Gallant, Jack Capuano, Ken Hitchcock and Claude Julien.

There’s a perception that bringing in a new coach part way through the season instantly brings success, at least in the short term. Change the man behind the bench and the players shoot more, hit harder and will do more to bring home the points. But what happens after the honeymoon period is over and it’s back to business as usual? After discussion, we decided that 20 games is long enough for that honeymoon period to pass. Since points win prizes, I’ve looked at how many points were scored in the 20 games prior to the firing, and compared them to the points scored in the subsequent 20 games.

Julien, Hitchcock and Capuano have not been included in these figures due to sample size. Where previous games have crossed over into the prior season, pre-season games have not been counted. Florida is in there twice as it fired both Dineen and Gallant mid season.

The Panthers picked up a point-per-game in the 20 games after Gallant’s firing, exactly the same the 20 games prior, although that’s thanks mostly to the loser point, and nobody likes those. We’ll look at win percentage later on to see how it differs. The Blue Jackets’ performance took a slight dip, as did the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they went on to win the Stanley Cup the very same season and it’s important to remember that. Taking nothing away from Mike Sullivan; it’s also important to consider that the Penguins would have probably won the cup anyway had Johnston not lost his job considering their talent-heavy roster. But that’s a debate for another time.

The biggest losers were the Toronto Maple Leafs. In Randy Carlyle’s final 20 games, the team scored 22 points. Peter Horachek’s first 20 games were less successful and the team scored just eight points. The team dropped in the standings and became the whipping boys of the Eastern conference.

The real winners, in the short term at least were the Minnesota Wild, scoring an extra 13 points on top after parting ways with Mike Yeo.

When look at win percentage instead of points, the numbers don’t massively change:

The Panthers’ points stayed the same, but their win percentage dropped to .300. This is because the team went from 10/10/0 to 6/6/8. That pesky loser point has a lot to answer for, making Tom Rowe look like a competent head coach, but that’s a whole other article.

Those are the short-term results, but what about longer-term? Did that increased success last until the end of the season and were the teams’ final league positions better or worse than the season prior?

Jury’s out on that. Four teams did better, four teams did worse. You’ll notice that Gallant is missing. This is simply because this season hasn’t finished yet. At time of writing the Panther’s are 20th in the league under Rowe. They finished last season in 7th. Go figure.

To come back to the original question, does firing a coach mid-season make things better? Short term, yes. But it makes little difference over the longer term. A bad team is still a bad team and a good team is still a good team. ¬†When you factor in different variables such as removing loser points (spoiler for another article) the standings don’t change all that much.

We opened the question to twitter:

75% of voters said no, and the numbers agree. Next time we’ll look at how mid-season firings compare to off-season firings.

What do you think? Comment below or join in the conversation on twitter.



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