Duhatschek notebook: How to become an NHL head coach, coaching musical chairs and more
Since the NHL regular season came to a close last weekend, three head coaching vacancies have opened up already, with possibly one or two more to come.
NHL teams are rarely as cutthroat as their NFL counterparts where on Black Monday, non-playoff teams cut a swath through coaching staffs. In the NHL, only one coach was let go quickly – Jeff Blashill, in Detroit and that was largely expected.
Blashill’s contract had run out and after seven years, general manager Steve Yzerman determined it was time for the players to hear a different voice.
The other two openings, in Winnipeg and Philadelphia, were just as predictable. In each case, an in-season replacement – Dave Lowry in Winnipeg and Mike Yeo in Philadelphia – was elevated from assistant to head coach in the hopes that they would oversee a season-saving about-face.
It didn’t happen for either team. So, the search for the next coach is underway in both markets and will be tied completely to the personnel they have and the expectations going forward. Neither Winnipeg nor Philadelphia believes their downward spirals cannot be reversed quickly, with a few roster tweaks and a different leader behind the bench. In that respect, those jobs will probably feature more immediate pressure than in Detroit where Yzerman, when asked about the progress of the rebuild, pithily noted: “This is the end of Year 3. Next year is the start of Year 4.”
In terms of his willingness to share information about his team and his plans, Yzerman is the new Lou Lamoriello – playing his cards extremely close to the vest. As our Max Bultman noted in his postseason story, Yzerman acknowledged as much: That he was doing his best to talk a lot and say very little.
But in saying very little, Yzerman also gave a glimpse into his thought process as he ponders his most critical offseason move. Does he go with a known commodity behind the bench, someone that’s fallen into his sphere of influence over the years? Or look beyond that. The value of doing it the first way, which is also the more traditional path, is that Yzerman would know the successful candidate on a deeper level and they would start out on the same page. That carries less risk and NHL GMs tend to be a risk-averse group.
But as Yzerman was musing aloud about the process, he conceded he might need to push himself to look beyond his circle and consider candidates from other corners of the hockey world – a difficult concept to wrap his head around.
That shows some self-awareness and also got me thinking about the other key difference between the NHL’s hiring process and that of the NFL. Frequently, in the NFL, the next head coach of a non-playoff team comes from the senior staff of a playoff team — the offensive or defensive coordinators of successful programs will be in line for a head coaching position.
Procedurally, a lot of NHL teams don’t even allow their associate/assistant coaches to speak to reporters because they want consistent messaging and one sure way to get consistent messaging is to have one person deliver the message. Once in a while, there’s an exception, and that was especially true this year. Because of COVID-19 absences, you’d occasionally see an assistant coach step before the microphone. In Los Angeles, for example, Todd McLellan missed six games so assistant Trent Yawney was suddenly doing pre- and post-game availabilities. All you really ever got was a brief glimpse, but if you listened to Yawney in that cameo, you probably came away thinking, “there’s a thoughtful and intelligent guy.”
The Kings also have Marco Sturm on the staff, who oversaw Germany’s surprising silver-medal win at the 2018 Olympics. Sturm is working as NHL assistant in the hopes of eventually landing an NHL head coaching position at some point down the road. If the NHL were more like the NFL, then those two names would be circulated on all the lists of candidates for the current vacancies.
It’s similar in Calgary, where the Flames were another team projected to be on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Instead, they won the Pacific Division.
Darryl Sutter will likely win the Jack Adams Awards ahead of McLellan. Sutter’s approach requires a good support staff and this year that’s included associate Kirk Muller, a former NHL head coach, plus Ryan Huska and Cail McLean. At some point, Muller – like Yawney – probably deserves another crack at being a head coach.
A name that’s constantly being bandied about in NHL circles is Lane Lambert’s, who is currently with Barry Trotz and the Islanders. Lambert and Yzerman have a history that dates back to their playing days, so he would certainly fit the bill of someone that Yzerman’s familiar with.
The problem with casting his net further afield, as Yzerman nicely articulated, is how does he – as a prospective employer – genuinely evaluate the contributions of an assistant coach when teams deliberately go out of their way to make them so anonymous. It’s very difficult.
But Yzerman acknowledged that he’s at least thinking along those terms, by noting that his search might also include assistant coaches currently involved in the NHL playoffs.
It may also be the thinking that’s behind the Canucks’ decision to wait it out on Bruce Boudreau, rather than signing him to an extension right away. That created a bit of furor this week given how well the Canucks did under Boudreau – 32-15-10 as an in-season replacement for Travis Green.
The Canucks were really the opposite of Philadelphia and Winnipeg – a team that showed demonstrable improvement after the coaching change. But Canucks president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford noted in his postseason comments that when Boudreau was hired, it was to complete the season with the understanding that each side could re-evaluate its position once the season ended and walk away from the deal at season’s end.
Effectively, it left the decision in Boudreau’s hands and reminded me a little of a similar scenario that unfolded when Brian Burke first went into Anaheim to run the Ducks. Burke offered Mike Babcock a one-year extension on the grounds that he wanted to familiarize himself with Babcock’s method and approach. Babcock, instead, walked away from the team to sign a multi-year contract with Detroit. Ultimately, Babcock was behind the bench for the Red Wings’ 2008 Stanley Cup championship. That, in turn, opened the door for a record eight-year, $50 million contract from Toronto in May 2015 that created salary escalation for every other coach in the league.
Usually, an assistant or associate coach’s best chance of moving up into the top job is to do so internally. Buffalo gave Don Granato a chance after firing Ralph Krueger, and his interim position was eventually extended in a full-time role. In Columbus, same thing with Brad Larsen after John Tortorella moved on. Rick Bowness stepped in for Jim Montgomery. Craig Berube stepped in for Yeo won the 2019 Stanley Cup. Dean Evason replaced Boudreau in February 2020 with the Wild.
If it isn’t the assistant coach on a staff stepping up, teams and organizations alternately turn to the head coach of their minor-league team when they need a replacement. It’s how Mike Sullivan landed behind the Penguins’ bench. That was Rutherford too – hiring Sullivan originally from outside the organization to coach Wilkes-Barre and then having Sullivan work out the full term of his original contract before extending him.
Coaching musical chairs
Limiting ourselves just to the three positions that are currently open, where is the best opportunity for long-term success? Ideally, a new coach wants to go into a situation the way Jon Cooper did with the Lightning in 2012-13, with a team on the rise. Cooper was promoted to the top job for the final 15 games of that season by Yzerman, then the Lightning GM. Cooper had a modest 4-8-3 record in that first cameo but he was familiar with the prospects coming through the system because he coached many of them in the AHL for two years. In Cooper’s first full season, the Lightning won 46 games; in his second, they won 50.
There are some similarities between the Jets and Flyers. Both teams saw themselves as, at minimum, playoff contenders this year. Both collectively fell flat – which always raises the question about the player mix and if a team is properly constructed. But those questions were also raised about the Canucks under Green and without any major personnel changes, the same Vancouver players that struggled under one coaching voice thrived under the new one.
Presumably, the two GMs in charge of the process – Kevin Cheveldayoff in Winnipeg and Chuck Fletcher in Philadelphia – believe that if they can get this hire correct then maybe they don’t need to surgically alter their rosters too much.
So, going back to the original premise, do they then hire someone from within their own circle or go further afield?
In Winnipeg, for that ownership/management group, the known commodities would be Randy Carlyle, Scott Arniel and/or Pascal Vincent, who’d spent 10 years in the Jets’ organization before leaving to become the associate coach in Columbus on Larsen’s staff.
Carlyle’s name is intriguing because he demonstrates some of the old-school qualities that seem to be coming back in vogue again after the success Sutter has had in Calgary. Can someone who stresses accountability and believes in hard matchups thrive in today’s game? Maybe. It seems likely the successful candidate could be one of those three.
In Philadelphia’s case, Fletcher has a shared history with Boudreau, dating back to their Minnesota days. Given that Boudreau has until June 1 to make up his mind about whether to stay on in Vancouver, that’s a possible fit that could be explored. Of course, if Boudreau moves on, does that then make Paul Maurice the favorite to land in Vancouver, if the game of musical coaching chairs is set in motion?
Or does he fit in with what Yzerman is looking for in Detroit? Way back, Maurice coached the Detroit Jr. Red Wings (1993-94 and 1994-95) and got them to the 1995 Memorial Cup final. He played his junior hockey in nearby Windsor with the Spitfires. He was behind the Carolina bench in 2002 when the Yzerman-captained Red Wings defeated the Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Final. At the age of 55, Maurice is seventh on the all-time NHL coaching wins list (775).
Outside-the-box thinking isn’t always associated with NHL best practices. Maybe it should be.
This and that
• We’re only four days into the NHL playoffs but it’s bizarre how many of the storylines revolve around goaltenders. Nashville, Pittsburgh and Carolina have already deployed their respective No. 3s – Connor Ingram, Louis Domingue and Pyotr Kochetkov – and the last two each has a win already in relief of the respective starters.
For the Hurricanes, Kochetkov and before him Antti Raanta, both recorded their first-ever NHL playoff wins. Only the 1978 Red Wings have ever previously had two different goaltenders each record their first career playoff win in the first two games of a postseason: Ron Low and Jim Rutherford. The last time the Stanley Cup playoffs saw two goaltenders earn relief wins within a two-day span was back on April 25, 2015, when Karri Rammo with Calgary and Corey Crawford with Chicago turned the trick.
• Minnesota’s Marc-Andre Fleury won his 91st career playoff game the other night, moving to within one victory of Grant Fuhr for third on the NHL’s all-time wins list. In Dallas, Jake Oettinger will carry a shutout streak of 114 minutes and 59 seconds into Game 3 against Calgary. The Stars’ record is held by Marty Turco, at 167:05, back in the 2007 postseason. At a time when NHL scoring is on the rise, the Flames-Stars’ series looks very much like a throwback – a 1-0 Calgary victory, followed by a 2-0 Dallas victory, which included an empty-netter. Very Darryl Sutter-ish.
• You forget sometimes how precocious some NHL stars are. So, while Ingram is a 25-year-old rookie, playing for the Predators in place of David Rittich, the player who ruined Ingram’s impressive game was the 23-year-old Norris Trophy candidate Cale Makar. Makar has already tied the Colorado franchise record for game-winning goals by a defenceman with four (matching Sandis Ozolinsh) and with two goals already this postseason, is up to 30 now, if you include his regular-season totals. The last defenseman to score a combined 30 goals, regular-season and playoff, was Brent Burns in 2015-16.
• Not a great week for ex-Ducks who were dispatched at the trade deadline. Boston’s key add, Hampus Lindholm, was injured on a hit by Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov and isn’t available for Game 3. Meanwhile, the Penguins’ Rickard Rakell, who was fitting in nicely in Pittsburgh’s top six, is also out, after a violent collision with the Rangers’ Ryan Lindgren.
• Despite the many lopsided scores in the opening week, six of the eight first-round series were squared at 1-1. Only Boston and Nashville are in 2-0 deficits. Teams with a 2-0 lead (Carolina and Colorado) have an 86 percent chance of advancing to the next round. Last year, teams with a 2-0 series lead went 7-1 overall and 4-0 in Round 1. Fall behind 3-0, and it’s worse: 196-4 all-time.
(Top photo of Kirk Muller and Darryl Sutter: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)