When the 2023-2024 NHL season begins, there will be six clubs with new head coaches taking charge behind benches across the league.
Three of those six will be head coaches in the NHL for the first time, and the other three are individuals that have already held the position for other teams.
That ratio matches the overall outlook of the league, where 16 of 32 coaches have never coached for another team in the NHL prior to their current gig, and the other half have all been head coaches for at least one other team in the league before — and for many of those 16, it has been more than one other team.
It’s a common debate whether or not you should go with an experienced hand that has been in the league and has at least some baseline level of success you can point to. One that, presumably, knows how to manage pro athletes. Or, do you look to hire someone new and fresh, swing for the fences and try to find the next great coach?
Every team in the league would sign on to hire the next Jon Cooper. But you might kiss a few toads along the way.
It only takes a quick look at a list of the league’s current coaches to see that five of the top six ranked by winning percentage are “rookies” that had never coached in the league before. At the same time, four of the five lowest ranked coaches by winning percentage are also first-year bench bosses.
Of the last 10 Cup winners, seven of those teams have been coached by guys who were “experienced” coaches that had led other NHL teams prior to winning it with a new club. The only two coaches that were hired and won with their first team were Cooper and Jared Bednar.
So, what’s generally better, a coach with experience or someone brand new? Let’s look at every hire from the last five years to see how coaches on either side of the ledger have fared.
Only four teams have not hired at least one head coach since the start of the 2018-2019 season: Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Colorado and Carolina (Rod Brind’Amour was hired that summer). Three of those four head coaches were rookies in the league while the one with prior experience, Mike Sullivan, went 10 years between head coaching jobs in the NHL. Unsurprisingly, all of those coaches have experienced high levels of success which is why they are still with their respective teams. We will still add their records to the bottom-line results here.
We did not count interim coaches that filled in to ride out the end of a season, like Bob Murray (Anaheim), Alain Nasredine (New Jersey), Marc Crawford (Ottawa) or Scott Gordon (Philadelphia).
So, not including the interims, any of the six brand new coaches just hired, and the coaches that were already in place before we started counting from the beginning of the 2018-2019 season — whether they are still coaching with that same franchise or not — there have been 47 coaching hires across the league in this time period.
Of those 47, 20 were first-time head coaches. That shows you the league tends to favor re-hiring a coach that has already been in the NHL over rookies.
Those 20 hired coaches oversaw a grand total of 39 seasons over the past five years (1.95 seasons per coach) and qualified for the playoffs 20 times — a make-rate of 51%.
That doesn’t include the three holdover “rookie” coaches though — Brind’Amour, Cooper and Bednar — and if you include them, that number balloons up to 40 playoff appearances in 62 seasons (nearly 65%).
In the postseason, it has been a tougher story. Rookie coaches hired over the past five seasons have gone 9-for-28 in playoff series, a roughly 32% success rate. The rookie coach who actually went the furthest is Dominque Ducharme, who went to the Cup final with the Montreal Canadiens in the bubble season, followed by Jay Woodcroft, who went to the Conference final with the Edmonton Oilers.
Including Brind’Amour, Cooper and Bednar, that number jumps up to nearly 53% of series won and three Stanley Cups between Cooper and Bednar, to say nothing of Brind’Amour winning at least one playoff series in four of his five playoff appearances.
On the flip side, the experienced coaches got a bit more rope to work through early failures. The 27 coaches oversaw 61 seasons (2.26 seasons per coach) and qualified for the playoffs on 33 occasions, or 54% of the time.
If you include the one holdover experienced coach, Mike Sullivan, the numbers go up to 40 out of 69 times (58%).
So, among coaches hired over the past five seasons, experienced coaches have generally made the playoffs slightly more, but they have received a longer rope to work with as well. It’s safe to speculate that an experienced coach getting hired in a less than ideal situation would be promised some time to work through issues compared to a rookie who will have to prove himself fairly quickly to continue.
For example, John Tortorella is slated to build a program in Philadelphia that will take years to develop. Lindy Ruff got time to build something similar in New Jersey and is now going into year four with the Devils. Dallas Eakins got four seasons in Anaheim even though they never really made any notable steps forward in that time and arguably got worse in his fourth year all things considered.
In the playoffs, however, the experienced coaches have generally fared much better. They have participated in 63 total playoff series and have won 39, which is an almost 62% success rate. That significantly outpaces the 32% among rookie coaches hired over the past five seasons and even the 53% when you include the highly successful rookie coaches with tenure.
If you include Mike Sullivan, the percentage roughly stays the same (somewhat quietly, Sullivan-led Penguins teams have lost in the first round in four straight appearances), but he did win two Cups in that time as well.
There have been some notable struggles under “rookie” coaches — Dean Evason and Sheldon Keefe are a combined 1-for-10 in playoff series, for instance.
There is some legitimate data to suggest that experienced teams trying to win right now should by all accounts be targeting experienced coaches in order to achieve playoff success. A playoff series is a different animal than the war of attrition and grind of an 82-game regular season.
In the most recent playoffs, three of the four Conference finals bench bosses were experienced coaches in their first season with a new team: Bruce Cassidy, Paul Maurice and Pete DeBoer.
On the flip side, if the goal is simply making the playoffs, the difference is negligible.
In fact, it should be noted that on the experienced side, coaches on their second team that didn’t experience success with their first team generally sink the experienced coaches even further.
Coaches like Eakins (0-for-4), Bob Boughner with San Jose (0-for-3), Ralph Krueger (one disastrous season with the Sabres) and Willie Desjardins (barely even a mediocre season with the Kings), tend to drag their numbers right down.
Understandably, that’s why experienced coaches that have results beside their name are in such high demand whenever they become available and more often than not can write their own ticket in terms of where they end up next and the quality options available to them. All three of the experienced coaches that just went to the final four walked into great situations, and to their credit, did well with them.
If you are trying to win right now and can hire an experienced coach that has already achieved some level of success, it’s a logical move to make.
Conversely, it’s also difficult to ignore the successes of Cooper, Bednar and Brind’Amour — three coaches that walked in as rookies and have built highly successful programs with longevity. If you are a rebuilding team, and you see the overall success rate of making the playoffs between rookie or experienced coaches is negligible, wouldn’t it make sense to roll the dice and try to find the next great, young coach? The risk is worth the reward.
Hitting on those coaches, among many other roster-related things, is leading to sustained runs of success for those organizations. Even if you hire a rookie coach that helps you climb back to being a playoff team before bringing in an experienced coach to take you over the top, it’s worth the gamble to try and find the next great playoff coach.
So the question might not necessarily be what’s better overall, but what’s better for where your team is currently in its development.