Why Firing Tom Renney Would Be Asinine

Is there a problem with your NHL team? Are your players looking lackadaisical on the ice? Are you suffering through third period meltdowns, special teams inefficiencies, goaltending problems, a lack of toughness, a lack of discipline, or any other malady at all?

Some will tell you that these problems can only be solved by bringing in different players, or making carefully calculated choices that over time will improve your team. THESE PEOPLE ARE WRONG.

No, there’s a simple solution, guaranteed to cure any malady: Fire the coach!

The best part about firing the coach: you don’t need an actual reason to fire the coach. Just have an underperforming team, fire the coach, and VOILA! Not only will everything be better, but the explanations will just pour out from all corners. People will say that your coach lost the room. Is he a player’s coach, who gets along with his wards? Then he was too soft, he didn’t hold them accountable, and they tuned him out. Was he a taskmaster who held his players accountable? Than he was too hard on them, he didn’t really address their problems, and his harsh message and measures simply got tired over time – in the end, they tuned him out.

While I’m obviously being a little hyperbolic here, sometimes it seems like any poor play on the part of an NHL team is considered sufficient evidence of coaching problems. If the team is playing badly, it is considered self-evident that the coach isn’t doing a very good job. Coaches are fired early, and they are fired often.

Thirteen NHL teams have head coaches this season that they didn’t have in 2010-11. 27 of the league’s 30 teams have fired at least one coach since the NHL lockout. And while times where the team picks up their play immediately (St. Louis under Ken Hitchcock, Los Angeles under Darryl Sutter) are automatically credited to the coach, it’s a) sometimes a mistake to credit the coach with the turnaround and b) often forgotten how rarely the coach really makes a difference.

Let’s take the first part of that last sentence first. The Vancouver Canucks, expected to contend for both the President’s Trophy and the Stanley Cup, started the season 6-7-1. Coaches have been fired for starts that weak on a contending team many times before, particularly coaches like Alain Vigneault with a long tenure with the team. The Canucks kept Vigneault, and they’ve gone 22-8-3 since. Then there’s Claude Julien in Boston – Bruins management was under considerable pressure to fire the head coach in early 2010-11, but they didn’t. The Bruins turned things around, and won the Stanley Cup. Had they done it with a new coach, the story undoubtedly would have been about how the new guy changed things and improved the team – but that would have been a false narrative. Similarly this year, it’s easy to imagine that Julien only survived the Bruins’ 3-7-0 start because of winning the Cup the year before, but the team has gone 27-6-1 since.

There are dozens of recent examples of teams that struggled, teams that were under pressure to dismiss their coach, and then turned things around. Based on that, it is undoubtedly a mistake to assume that just because a turnaround coincided with the hiring of a new coach, the new coach is responsible. Sometimes it’s undoubtedly true, and sometimes it isn’t.

Then there’s the fact that switching coaches often doesn’t help at all. Montreal canned Jacques Martin back in December thanks to what the Canadian Press called, “sloppy play, blown leads and a poor record on home ice,” replacing him with the “somewhat younger, more tech-savvy” Randy Cunneyworth. The Canadiens were 13-12-7 at the time; they’ve gone 4-9-1 since dismissing Martin. The Washington Capitals fired Bruce Boudreau and replaced him with Dale Hunter – they’d gone 12-9-1 under Boudreau, and have since posted a 13-9-1 record under Hunter. Carolina, sitting at a woeful 8-13-4 record, fired Paul Maurice and replaced him with Kirk Muller – one of the most hyped head coaching candidates available. They have since gone 8-11-4.

In other words, of the six NHL coaches to take the job midway through this season (the full number is actually seven, but Todd Richards just inherited the top job in Columbus) fully half of them haven’t made any real difference or have done a poorer job than their predecessors. So while Ken Hitchcock and Darryl Sutter get the attention (Bruce Boudreau’s record is better than Randy Carlyle’s but it’s hardly turned the Ducks’ season around), the fact is that a new coach is as likely to make no difference as to turn things around.

(Digression: And even in Hitchcock’s case, there are mitigating circumstances. Under predecessor Davis Payne’s 13-game run, Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak had combined for a 0.903 SV%. Under Ken Hitchcock, that number is 0.938. So either a) Ken Hitchcock’s tight defensive style shifted Halak/Elliott from the worst tandem in the league to the very best or b) Payne got fired because Halak alone blew six of the team’s first 13 games, something that was never going to continue. I’m not arguing that Hitchcock doesn’t deserve some credit, but timing was a huge factor in the difference here.)

And now, at long last, to the main point here: Tom Renney’s future. Many fans believe he should be axed, for a variety of sins. Some have told me that he’s “lost the room,” something there’s no evidence of (aside from: the team is bad, therefore the coach has lost the room). Mostly, I think it comes down to the fact that when a team goes on a 9-23-2 run, people believe the coach should be fired.

My question is this: what would it accomplish? If Tom Renney’s dismissed, what will Ralph Krueger or Kelly Buchberger or Todd Nelson or random out-of-work coach do that will turn the team around? Given how far the team is from the playoffs, is there any realistic possibility that even Scotty Bowman in his prime could get the Oilers into the postseason? Or is it more likely that any improvement – even if the coach is capable of getting more out of this team – will simply result in moving the Oilers out of contention for the first overall pick and back into Sam Gagner territory?

Even if Renney is the problem, why rush things when it won’t make a difference this year? Renney has a long history on the development side of things; is another coach – especially an interim coach trying to hang on to an NHL job – going to prioritize development over winning or is he going to do everything he can to squeak out an extra win or two, and development be damned? Even if Renney must be replaced, does it make sense to pick from a limited field of coaches available now, or wait until the summer and conduct a thorough search for the best possible candidate? Finally, given that Steve Tambellini’s future is far from certain, does it make sense to put such a decision in his hands, or wait to hire a coach until such time as there is certainty in the general manager’s office?

Even if Renney is less than the best possible coach for the Oilers, firing him now makes no sense for a variety of reasons. Coaches are often fired for what are at best poor reasons anyway, but the Oilers pulling the trigger on him now would just be one more ugly error in what has been an ugly and error-prone five years.

  • The players and coaches (aka the team) have been changed often enough over the past 4 years that it is clear there are deeper problems here: management does not know how to build a franchise.

    Start from the top up… fire Lowe and Tambo, then let the new management team hire a coach that fits the long-term plan of rebuilding a franchise.

    Renney was a good junior coach and is great with the media, but he’s been mediocre at best in the NHL. I wouldn’t lose sleep if he was fired tomorrow.

  • O.C.

    I am guessing that ST is dead man walking or they would have extended him.

    That also must mean that KLowe is steering the ship until a new GM is hired. Otherwise how motivated is ST?

    TR? Too many injuries and spotty goaltending. He had them running early before the wheels fell off. Deserves another year. Trottier though…hmmmmm.

  • O.C.

    For management to fire Renney would not even be asinine, it would be suicidal. How can a group fire three coaches in 3.5 years and not acknowledge that they are the problem? All the potential incoming messiah has to ask himself is: was the coach put in a position to succeed? In this case the answer is no or at least not yet.

    I’m not a big fan of Renney but he has dramatically improved both special teams. Some of that is personnel but systems matter there too.

    The oilers are not good but they except for Anaheim, they don’t get blown out by 7 goals like two years ago. Even when they can’t compete legitimately they are rarely embarrassed.

    On the other hand, Renney lost the buffalo game by himself. And essentially all the veterans except Gilbert and khabbi a in the worst slumps of their careers. I don’t get that. In Hemsky’s case it could be the coach, but the rest of them? Maybe. I don’t know.

  • O.C.

    My reasons why I would not move on without Renney, and I take in account the injury situation.

    1. Never accomplished anything more then a couple nice regular seasons in NY. Wonderful articulate man with no track record except for in junior hockey and a couple nice regular seasons when he had all world players in Jagr, and King Henry. He`s a not an elite head coach this team has lacked since Mukky and Sather.

    2. Misuse of players.

    Belanger on the PP
    Horcoff playing 20 mins a night
    Eager played 5 minutes a night for half the season
    MPS has 4 points, confidence destroyed, and value diminished
    Omark, half his fault, half the organization
    Smyth too many minutes

    3. Same mistakes, regardless of players. How many times can you go into the third leading or tied and cough up goals, especially on broken point shots, and bad clearing attempts. No consistant five on five play. How many too many men penalties can a team take in one season.

    I got in argument with a guy who said the teams going in the right direction. I told him how hard is to screw up first overall selections. Hall or Seguin, RNH or Larsson. But this management has not made the playoffs for 6 years, drafted and flushed many players down the tubes, made many horrible trades for injury prone players, signed Horcoff to terrible contract. You guys can drink the coolaid you want. This team will be better with all the top rank draft picks we got, but do you honestly believe this management will have the ability to put the final finishes on a Stanley Cup contending team once we stocked the shelves with many young assets. Give me break.

  • O.C.

    The Oilers need to decide, right now, who they are as an organization. Are we winners or losers? Winners focus on solutions and take responsibility – immediately. Losers focus on problems and blame others and keep waiting for things to get better – without any real answers. Injuries are no excuse. Is it acceptable to be the worst team in the NHL for 3 years as an Oiler organization? Have we been injured all 3 years?

    This multiple-year losing feat is difficult to accomplish even for the NHL bottom-feeder teams with virtually nothing by way of elite talent. This does not describe the Oilers. We are under-performing. Changes should be made. Period.

    As a 25 year Oiler Fan I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly – but our current ability to rationalize under-performance is quietly creeping into the realm of ‘losers’. It is time for Daryl Katz to step up and help define a new attitude and a winning culture. This is not a union job. This is a world of very highly paid players and coaches measurement and is defined by performance and results. The long term winning sports franchises in North America never ‘accept’ year after year as the ‘worst’. In my opinion, our history should never permit us to accept a losing culture like some of the fringe US NHL teams that likely should not even be in the NHL. We are a Canadian NHL team with a rich history, a full building, and very loyal fans. Dead last for 2 years working on 3. Never should this be acceptable as an Oiler. Never.

    Daryl needs to make a statement and clean house right now. Get this new management and coaching in place for next season so we have time to reset for next season. This year is already toast – so use the time to re-architect for the beginning of next season.

  • Acumen

    I was with you when I read this article, and I’m not coming here to troll but legitimately asking, when the face of our franchise lets go on the coaching decision of pulling the goalie when the team is down 5-2 (which was most definitely asinine) ON THE ICE, does that give ample evidence of losing the room?

    I was in favor of keeping Renney until the offseason and praying for a full on purge at that point, but what happened tonight looks like something might be rotten in Denmark.