A few years ago, fellow scribe Adrian Dater and I were talking about — or more accurately, arguing about — whether an Avalanche coach should be fired.
Finally, a bit exasperated, Adrian said something along the lines of, “You never think a coach should be fired.”
That’s an exaggeration, but Adrian’s point was a valid assessment of my leanings.
Generally speaking, I’m the last aboard the fire-the-coach bandwagons.
It’s in my DNA as my default position.
Some of it is unapologetically playing the role of the contrarian.
It’s just so easy to blame — and fire — the coach.
Make no mistake, I don’t feel sorry for fired coaches. They know the system. They usually took advantage of it to land a job. They’re in the recycling rotation. They’re often buoyed by contract settlements.
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar would land another job in hockey, of course.
Yet with all that conceded, overplaying the cliched “hot seat” angle here, to the point of calling for the firing of Bednar in the wake of Colorado’s generally ugly play in a 4-5-1 start, is …
Well, it’s ridiculous.
To borrow from another friend, radio commentator Sandy Clough, give it a rest.
Granted, the sentiment might not be as pervasive as it looks on social media.
But it’s out there. It always is. This isn’t a strawman argument.
While covering the NHL off and on for much of my career, I’ve been frequently disdainful of the league’s traditional scapegoating of its head coaches.
I’ve covered Colorado NHL head coaches from Pat Kelly to Don Cherry to Patrick Roy to Jared Bednar, with others in between. Bednar and Kelly actually have a lot in common, and not only because Bednar held aloft the ECHL’S Patrick J. Kelly Cup both as a captain and as a coach. They were lower minor league journeymen who never played a game in the NHL and didn’t coach a day in it, either, until Colorado (Rockies and Avalanche) hired them.
So the NHL routine long ago was familiar to me: At the first or second bump in the road, fire the coach, stand by as hockey media compliantly parrot the-new-voice-is-fresh-air rhetoric for a few weeks until — in most cases, not all — reality sets back in.
The other day, Adrian and I sat down at the Blake Street Tavern to record Colorado Hockey Now’s “Can’t Hear What Jeremy Says” podcast.
(Adrian hogged all the fries) (Ed. note: I did not, Terry, you ignorant… – watch this 1975 “Saturday Night Live” skit here kids, as mentioned in the podcast, it’s funny and harmless).
When we talked about the pressure on Bednar, we pretty much brushed off an imminent firing as a possibility.
It would be a similar dynamic to when Pierre Lacroix made a rare misstep, firing Bob Hartley in December 2002. The Avs were 10-8-9-4 and Lacroix saw the chance to win a league-record ninth consecutive division championship slipping away. It “worked” in the sense that the Avs rallied and pulled out the division title under Tony Granato. But they ran out of gas in the playoffs, losing to the Wild in the first round. The point was, and still is, Hartley’s in-season firing was the rare instance when nobody saw a firing coming.
Speaking of not seeing it coming …
After Roy’s surprise resignation, Bednar was a surprise choice as his successor in 2016.
In his sixth season, Bednar already is fifth on the seniority list for NHL head coaches. He’s behind only Jon Cooper of Tampa Bay, Paul Maurice of Winnipeg, Jeff Blashill of Detroit, and Mike Sullivan of Pittsburgh.
Joe Sakic, who hired him, has shown patience in resisting the NHL’s Standard Operating Procedure.
During the horrific 2016-17 season, about the 17th time I asked Sakic either if Bednar’s job was safe for the rest of the season or the next season, he politely told me to stop asking those questions because the answers wouldn’t change.
There have been several other points during Bednar’s tenure when conventional NHL wisdom, if applied, would have led to his firing.
The most obvious was in a 5-16-6 stretch in 2018-19 before the Avalanche recovered, made the playoffs and beat Calgary before losing to San Jose in a seventh game.
Of course, that was the first of three straight second-round flameouts, and the one most held against Bednar by far is the collapse after taking a 2-0 lead on Vegas last spring.
So now the catchphrase of denunciation is “three straight second-round losses,” barely even conceding that the 2020 loss to Dallas in the Edmonton bubble came after the Avalanche darned near were down to David Ayres as their No. 1 goalie.
On the whole, Bednar, and assistants Ray Bennett and Nolan Pratt, have done good jobs. Throwing out cliches about the voice getting old or bluffing knowledge by citing power play positioning doesn’t make the criticism more credible.
The biggest threat to a continued Bednar tenure behind the bench would be a lack of front-office realism about how, quite simply, this team isn’t as good as it was a year ago when the Avalanche won the Presidents’ Trophy. While working the salary cap and re-signing stars, the Avalanche have been thinned out on the second tier, and it shows.
Plus, the top line hasn’t been together much because of injuries, COVID protocol and a suspension; and when it has been, the three — Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog — haven’t been productive enough. And Darcy Kuemper has been no better than OK in the net.
I’m fairly certain that, barring the calamitous scenario where even a playoff berth is slipping away, Bednar will stay on the job until the acid test comes in the playoffs.
If the Avalanche don’t at least advance to the Western Conference finals, yes, I think that raises the real possibility that Sakic — who was part of leaving one or two more Stanley Cup wins on the table, so to speak — MIGHT make a change.
He could phrase it that Bednar did a praiseworthy job and more than proved himself at the NHL level. But, yes, it’s “time for a change.”
Time to try someone — and something — else.
That’s the pressure on Bednar.
But it shouldn’t be anything that happens in November.
Terry Frei (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His web site is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html
His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here