Thursday, May 8, 2014
Gut decisions about the coaching carousel
By Scott Burnside
Here's the standard pattern when NHL coaches are hired: The new coach sits at a table or stands at a podium and describes how he wants to correct the mistakes of his predecessor, or outlines his philosophies and how he sees good things ahead for Team A or B or J. And then the first question the fan or the radio host wants to know is: Is he a good fit?
It's a great throwaway question and it's likewise prompts a great throwaway answer. But it's at the heart of whether the hire is a good one or not, and there is no way to know when the man is standing at the podium or sitting at the table whether or not it will be a fit. After doing all their due diligence about work ethic, planning and other tangible things, ultimately general managers make a decision based on their gut as to whether the new man will take his new charges places his predecessor couldn't go.
Well, we can do that too: Use our gut to look at the tumbleweed of coaching stories rolling across the NHL prairie. And for what it's worth, we agree with David Poile's gut feeling that Peter Laviolette, a veteran of the hockey wars at many levels, was the right guy for the Predators. Now, some of those wars Laviolette's won spectacularly, and in some he’s been vanquished. We have watched him excel in Carolina, where he taught them the "forever" value of a Stanley Cup championship in 2006, and we've watched him in tough places such as Philadelphia, where he somehow managed to guide an odd collection of the aging and the punkish to the Stanley Cup finals in 2010 -- a run that included a historic comeback from a 3-0 series deficit against Boston. Those are the kinds of experiences that will put Laviolette in good stead in Nashville. It will not shock us at all if the Preds are back in the postseason next spring, provided Pekka Rinne stays healthy in goal. We're pretty sure Poile's gut told him the same thing.
By a show of hands, who doesn't think John Stevens will be behind an NHL bench as head coach somewhere next season? Right now, the question is whether the current Los Angeles Kings assistant has another Stanley Cup ring to box up when he makes the move. Last summer, Stevens’ name was mentioned as a possible successor to Alain Vigneault in Vancouver, but we know how that turned out. Now that John Tortorella has been dispatched by new hockey boss Trevor Linden, many think Stevens is a natural to fill that void. We do too, but it was ownership that steered former GM Mike Gillis away from Stevens and in Tortorella's direction, so through no fault of his own, is Stevens too close to the former regime? Just asking. What might make all this super simple is if Laurence Gillman, the assistant GM to Gillis, gets the job as GM, as he would have been privy to the thought process heading into last offseason and would presumably be a good fit with Stevens (see, there’s that term again).
Lots of people have linked Barry Trotz to the Vancouver job, although it appears Trotz would like a smaller-market franchise. Hard to imagine a place where Trotz wouldn’t be a good fit, but let's say that Vancouver doesn't work out, wouldn't it be interesting to see how the longtime Nashville Predators bench boss looked behind the Florida Panthers bench? Lots of good young talent there and Trotz is both demanding and a natural teacher. This is a team that needs to move forward and, with Roberto Luongo in theory providing the Panthers stability in goal for the first time in a number of seasons, the expectations should be high for this team next season. Trotz has been through those kinds of situations many times over the years in Nashville, and we think he has the perfect personality for that job and the tools that GM Dale Tallon has assembled in Florida.
Kirk Muller, Kevin Dineen, Adam Oates
It's not much of a surprise that new Carolina GM Ron Francis cut ties with Kirk Muller after the Canes missed the playoffs again. They haven’t been to the dance since their surprise run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2009. Muller was the "it" guy a few years back after he was considered a key piece of the Montreal Canadiens’ coaching staff when they shocked Washington and Pittsburgh en route to the 2010 Eastern Conference finals. Muller, who spent five years as an assistant coach with the Habs, had 17 games of head-coaching experience (with Milwaukee of the American Hockey League) before the Hurricanes swooped him up to replace Paul Maurice. But the Canes were never really a factor in the playoff hunt in the parts of three seasons Muller coached there. Now, Francis must find a coach who can get more from Eric and Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin, and figure out how to improve a team that went from 25th to 19th in goals allowed per game last season but still has miles to go defensively to be a playoff team. Kevin Dineen, who did wonders in getting Florida to the playoffs in 2012, is an obvious candidate, but what about a cerebral guy such as Adam Oates? Sure, things didn't end up the way anyone wanted in Washington, but you can't argue against the production that Oates got out of Alex Ovechkin, at least offensively. Carolina had the 28th-ranked power play this season, and that’s right up Oates’ alley too, as the Caps were second overall with the man advantage.
Speaking of Washington, no real traction to the idea that Wayne Gretzky might end up in Washington in a president of hockey operations kind of role, especially given that it's not entirely clear whether owner Ted Leonsis is even considering such a position (Leonsis did not return an email seeking comment). But let's imagine for a minute that's the route he goes; why wouldn’t it make sense to have a guy like Gretzky at the top of your hockey food chain? This isn’t about gimmickry or glad-handing or publicity appearances, but making use of one of the greatest hockey minds of all time. Not sure we see Gretzky in a GM role, which is also open in Washington, but in terms of assessing the value of players and the elements that go into making a successful organization, you can’t imagine Gretzky wouldn’t be a wealth of information for any team. And of course, who wouldn’t want to see the dynamic between the greatest player of all time and one of the greatest yet most polarizing players of this generation in Ovechkin? There's nothing to suggest that it’ll actually happen, but it doesn’t stop us from pining for such a hockey meeting of the minds.
And, finally, we keep hearing that perhaps the Toronto Maple Leafs are nearing a decision on whether to bring back Randy Carlyle as head coach. We understand new president Brendan Shanahan needs to do his due diligence but, as we noted, won’t it all come down to gut for Shanahan and presumably GM Dave Nonis? Does it not come down to the basic question of whether management believes that Carlyle can return to the Leafs dressing room next fall after their precipitous fall from grace down the stretch and command the respect needed to return to the playoffs next spring? Yes, the Leafs are a young team that's still learning. Was this collapse just another part of the learning process? And is Carlyle the man who can help them learn from it, just as he was supposed to help them learn from their collapse in Game 7 against Boston in the first round of the 2013 playoffs? From our perspective, it’s hard to imagine that there would be enough confidence in that room to move the team forward if Carlyle returns. And the quality of people available would be the tipping point for us. Regardless of what happens, Shanahan and the rest of the management team owe Carlyle an answer one way or the other, and sooner rather than later.