What determines coach salaries? A look at NHL bench bosses

This summer, the drama surrounding Mike Babcock drew my attention to the salaries of coaches in general. What factors play into how much money a coach earns? Babcock is known as a coach who’s won at every level. Are Stanley Cup wins a factor in what a coach gets paid? Maybe playoff wins? Regular season won-loss records? Something else?

Babcock’s contract – a mammoth 8 year long pact worth $50 million to coach the Leafs – brought the subject of coaching salaries to the forefront. At $6.25 million per season, Babcock earns more than double the annual pay of any other NHL coach with a publicly known wage.

For the Leafs, spending huge amounts of cash on team personnel makes sense – there’s no cap on coach salaries so that Leafs can wield their monetary advantage to sign the best bench boss available. For Babcock, it’s difficult to fault the long-time Red Wings coach for taking the big pay day. Beyond enriching himself (which he really, really did), Babcock has been very open about his desire to push coach salaries forward by setting a new standard. He probably didn’t imagine he’d earn more than Joel Quenneville and Darryl Sutter combined or that his term would extend three years past any other NHL coach. But, as perhaps the game’s best coach, the Leafs were willing to pay whatever was needed to pry Babcock out of Detroit.

But what types of thinking go into deciding how much a team is willing to pay its coach? Did Babcock earn the money because of his vast experience? Or maybe his excellent regular season record over a decade in Detroit? What factors correlate with coach salaries?

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Blue Jackets Coach Todd Richards’ Firing, & Why the History Doesn’t Agree With Mike Harrington

Photo by user

Photo by user “Arnold C,” via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author

The Columbus Blue Jackets made a bold move today, firing their coach of 3 1/2 seasons Todd Richards in favor of noted firebrand and Brandon Dubinsky fan John Tortorella. The move, riding the coattails of a 0-7 start for the Jackets, was done unusually early in the season, so unusually I decided to spill a little ink on it.

Around the same time I was rounding up the data, the esteemed (Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame!) Sabres writer and analytics pot-shotter Mike Harrington decided now was the time to defend a decision that made little sense, about a team he doesn’t write about. It started with a reasonable tweet from Friend of the Blog Micah Blake McCurdy:

At which point Harrington followed:

Alright, Mike, let’s take a look at the “numbers that count,” according to you. There’s a fun history here.

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Using NHL Coaching Changes to Identify Historically Good and Bad Coaches

Iron Mike no like. - Photo by "Resolute", via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author

Photo by “Resolute”, via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author

Having now looked at the overall effect a coaching change might have on a team, and identified some outstanding examples where a coaching change had a drastic impact on a team, it’s now time to shift over to some juicier matters. For the most part, I don’t think one coaching change is necessarily sufficient to say a coach is good or bad; there is a possibility the previous coach was just that bad. But if the coach returns the same signal a couple of times or more, you are probably getting closer to a true reading on what they might bring to the table.

Across the 140 or so coaching changes these last 60 years where both coaches led the team 20+ games, there were 69 coaches who were a part of that change twice or more (which, to me, is quite a remarkable number). The full list, followed by an explanation of the measures:
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Where NHL Coaching Changes Did, and Didn’t, Help Their Teams

If you or anyone you know have seen this man behind your player, contact the front office immediately.  (Photo by "Dan4th Nicholas", via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author)

Photo by “Dan4th Nicholas”, via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author

Michel Therrien has an interesting distinction in the research I’ve been doing about NHL coaching changes: he’s given me 4 instances where he and his replacement have coached 20+ games within the same season. He’s also replaced or been replaced in three of those instances by legit coaching talent – he replaced Alain Vigneault for the Montreal Canadiens in 2000-01, was replaced two years later by Claude Julien, and lastly was fired in favor of Dan Bylsma for Pittsburgh in 2008-09. What’s incredible about these three cases is that, in every single one of them, there was a drastic change in outcomes for the teams involved. Using 2pS%, or possession measured by two-period shots-for divided by two-period shots-for and against together, the numbers tell a story:
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What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Does Switching NHL Head Coaches Make a Difference?

Bruce Boudreau

Photo by Matthew Miller, via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author

How good do you feel because your team has a new coach? I mean, really…it’s almost like a new-car smell. So many possibilities – This time, things will be different. With the exception of coaching changes due to disastrous, unexpected things, the typical hockey fan was ready for that moment, and were happy to see the coach go. But is that eagerness for change based on real results?

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