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NHL – Which Coaching Change Will Make the Biggest Impact?

Part way through the NHL season, three Canadian teams have already parted ways with their head coaches.

In early December, the Ottawa Senators, who were sitting four points back of a playoff spot at the time, let go of Paul MacLean and replaced him with former assistant Dave Cameron. MacLean was just two years removed from winning the Jack Adams trophy for coach of the year.

Then the woeful Edmonton Oilers dismissed Dallas Eakins, the once highly sought after coach who was supposed to return the franchise – and its myriad first-overall draft picks – to glory. Now, Todd Nelson has the reins in Oil Town.

Most recently, the struggling Toronto Maple Leafs fired coach Randy Carlyle (who led the Ducks to a Stanley Cup in 2007). Peter Horachek is now the head man in T-Dot.

Will these coaching changes spur the teams to new heights, or were they tantamount to giving CPR to a decapitated head? Here’s our take.

Ottawa Senators 

Prediction: Positive impact.

Paul MacLean was not well liked among the players. The Senators don’t have a great roster, but they do have a couple stars (Erik Karlsson and Bobby Ryan) and a number of young guns that could bloom into full-fledged standouts (Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, Mika Zibanejad, and Jared Cowen to name a few).

By getting rid of the unpopular MacLean now, Cameron will have the chance to work with the young players and truly make this team his own. Cameron is known for an aggressive coaching style and, one way or another, the Senators are apt to look like a different team with him at the helm. We expect a re-invigorated Sens team to make a playoff push in the weaker Eastern Conference.

Edmonton Oilers 

Prediction: Moderate improvement.

Dallas Eakins took over an Oilers team that finished 12th in the Western Conference in 2012-13. With recent first-overall picks Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov in the line-up (along with a blossoming Jordan Eberle), the sky was supposed to be the limit for Edmonton. But there were – and still are – two major problems: goaltending and defense. Edmonton gave up 270 goals against last year (worst in the NHL) and regressed to 14th (i.e. last) in the Western Conference.

This year didn’t start any better, as it took months for the Oilers to get their first win over a Western foe, and they are once again bringing up the rear in the conference (and the league). New, interim head coach Todd Nelson has never led an NHL team before. However, the Oilers don’t have anywhere to go but up – in other words, he can’t really do worse than Eakins.

The Oilers’ record is likely to improve a bit as the year goes on (they have the talent to put pucks in the net and the NHL is famous for parity) but don’t expect any miracles from the new coach as a thin D corps and shoddy goaltending remain huge issues that he won’t be able to solve.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Prediction: No real impact.

Maple Leaf fans are used to despair these days. The Bruins’ game 7 comeback during the first round of the 2013 Eastern Conference playoffs is the Leafs in a nutshell: they started on fire (jumping out to a 4-1 lead) but got outshot and crumbled late. That same story arc applies to the Leafs’ entire 2013-14 season, where a 2-12 finish saw the team fall out of a playoff spot.

Randy Carlyle was at the helm for all of the above. Is he to blame? Not really. The Leafs, like the Senators, don’t have a great roster. Both teams lack a true number one center (sorry, Tyler Bozak and Kyle Turris) and have an offensive-minded D corps that has trouble shutting down top players and teams.

Last year’s late-season collapse was actually predicted by advanced stats gurus, who were astonished at the Leafs’ early season performance given their proclivity to get badly outshot. While some may point to Carlyle’s systems as the root of the problem, we see it as more of a roster shortcoming. In sum, Carlyle was doing reasonably well with what he had. Don’t expect Horachek to do any better.

(Photo credit: Will C (Flickr: Head Coach Paul MacLean) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped.)

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