Countdown to camps: The new coaches
There are always a handful of coaching newbies sprinkled around the new season, men who will clamber up behind an NHL bench for the first time. Here's a look at who these new faces are (or familiar faces in new settings) and the challenges they face (in order from most challenging):
Tom Renney, Edmonton Oilers
Renney has a long history as a head coach at a variety of levels, including stints in Vancouver, New York (Rangers) and now Edmonton.
The good thing when you take over a team that finished dead last in the standings is there's no where to go but up. That said, Renney will have his hands full with a team that has failed to qualify for the postseason since their unlikely run to the 2006 Stanley Cup finals.
Renney's top defenseman, Sheldon Souray, wants out of town; but if the big man with the bigger contract isn't traded, he will likely be in camp to start and that will provide its own set of challenges. Then there's No. 1 goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who is appealing a 30-day jail sentence for drunk driving and faces further discipline from the team and the league. In his absence, there are young netminders Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk, who have yet to prove they are NHL-caliber material.
But there are lots of bright spots, starting with No. 1 overall draft pick Taylor Hall and top prospects Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, all expected to challenge for roster spots. Then, there are young Oilers like Sam Gagner, Tom Gilbert and Andrew Cogliano, among others, who have plenty of upside despite taking a step back during an injury-plagued 2009-10 campaign.
Renney is considered one of the best teaching coaches in the NHL and he's learned how to negotiate the odd hockey minefield in his time (witness his handling of Jaromir Jagr in New York coming out of the lockout), so the Oilers are in good hands regardless of how bleak things look. Look for Renney to quickly address issues like the penalty kill, where the Oilers ranked 26th last season, and the dead-last ranking in goals allowed, as the Oil begin their long climb from the bottom.
Scott Arniel, Columbus Blue Jackets
After a successful apprenticeship in the AHL, the former NHLer gets his first shot at an NHL head-coaching job with a Columbus team that endured a precipitous fall back after making its first playoff appearance in 2008-09.
The Blue Jackets saw their goals-against plummet from ninth overall (tied) two seasons ago to 24th last season. Much of the blame will fall at the feet of former rookie of the year Steve Mason, who seemed to think things were going to come easily in his sophomore campaign. They didn't, and Mason should provide better, more consistent goaltending, which will help the bottom line.
Still, Arniel will have to address a defensive game that was weak throughout the lineup and a defense corps that struggled to move the puck effectively out of its zone. Critics complain the team still lacks a true No. 1 center to work with franchise winger Rick Nash; but Antoine Vermette, picked up from Ottawa in the Pascal Leclaire deal at the 2009 trade deadline, was impressive with 27 goals. The Blue Jackets had four 20-goal scorers (Vermette, Nash, R.J. Umberger and Kristian Huselius), but they need some of the younger kids to step forward.
Given Arniel's success in the AHL in Winnipeg and his experience as an assistant coach in the NHL (Buffalo), the odds are he will get his players to do just that.
With the Ilya Kovalchuk fiasco and the attendant fallout from that (attempted) signing, longtime Devils player and assistant coach MacLean picked a fine time to step into his first full-time NHL coaching gig.
Assuming Kovalchuk ends up in a Devils jersey come training camp, MacLean still doesn't know just what kind of tools he'll have at his disposal. President and GM Lou Lamoriello will have to shed bodies (let's say, Bryce Salvador and Dainius Zubrus to start with) to get under the salary cap. Still, MacLean will be expected to keep the Devils in a playoff hunt and elevate them to contender status once again.
Kovalchuk's presence will help, as will the return of Jason Arnott, assuming the veteran center can stay healthy. Defensively, the Devils should remain near the top of the heap with the ageless Martin Brodeur in goal and the addition of Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov helping to fill the void created by the departure of Paul Martin.
It will be interesting to see how MacLean handles Brodeur's workload after the goalie started 76 games last season. Veteran backup Johan Hedberg comes over from Atlanta and one assumes he will help Brodeur more frequently in the hopes of keeping the NHL's winningest netminder primed for the postseason.
Up front, MacLean will want to coax more offense out of a team that ranked 19th in goals scored. He has promised a different Devils team than the one that bowed out in the first round for the third straight postseason, but sometimes that's easier said than done.
Craig Ramsay, Atlanta Thrashers
Ramsay, widely regarded as one of the top hockey minds in the game, will get his first shot at taking over a team from the get-go after having filled in briefly as head coach in Buffalo and Philadelphia (he filled in when longtime friend and mentor Roger Neilson was ill).
Ramsay, an assistant to John Tortorella when Tampa Bay won the Cup in 2004, takes over a Thrashers team trying to find a new identity in the post-Kovalchuk era. New GM Rick Dudley, once upon a time Ramsay's roommate when both were with the Buffalo Sabres, has supplied lots of fresh Stanley Cup experience in the form of former Chicago Blackhawks Andrew Ladd, Brent Sopel, Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Eager, along with a proven NHL netminder in Chris Mason.
One of the priorities for Ramsay will be in melding that experience with an interesting core of young players that includes Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane, Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya and prospects Akim Aliu and Patrice Cormier.
For a franchise that has never won a playoff game, Ramsay's challenge will be as much about creating a culture of winning as incorporating systems to correct a power play that ranked 25th overall last season.
Guy Boucher, Tampa Bay Lightning
Boucher was the hot coaching property in this past offseason. After being courted by a number of teams, Boucher took the job offered by new Bolts GM Steve Yzerman after just one season coaching the AHL with the Hamilton Bulldogs. Unlike some rookie coaches following a similar route from major junior through the AHL to the NHL, Boucher won't be expected to guide a team through a rebuild, but instantly get the Lightning back to postseason competition tout suite (that's French for fast).
Yzerman has provided the native of the Notre-Dame-du-Lac, Quebec, with a wealth of talent, bringing in Simon Gagne, Pavel Kubina and Dan Ellis to join established stars Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Ryan Malone, not to mention top young players like Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman.
The learning curve for Boucher, the youngest coach in the NHL at age 38, may be steep, although he has shown the ability to rise to the challenge in his meteoric rise to the NHL coaching ranks.
One of his chief challenges will be in getting Lecavalier back to form after the Bolts captain's goal production tailed from 52 to 24 in the past four seasons. Still, if Boucher is half as good as his resume suggests, look for Tampa Bay to be playing postseason games for the first time in three seasons.