Coaches-in-waiting most likely to land next open NHL job

In the last few days, we discussed Ron Wilson’s shaky hold on the Toronto Maple Leafs coaching position and also analyzed the danger Scott Gordon, John MacLean, Lindy Ruff and Randy Carlyle might be in.

(It seems like Carlyle is safe for the moment, but at the time, he was in serious trouble.)

Yet with all that analysis and speculation, we haven’t spoken much about the coaches who might replace them.

ESPN’s Scott Burnside took a look at some of the leading candidates for a potential job opening today. Here is a snippet.

We have to start with Ken Hitchcock. His résumé includes a Stanley Cup in Dallas and two Olympic gold medals as an assistant in 2002 and 2010. While offense isn’t necessarily his forte, he’s tactically terrific and defensively among the best. And he’s got instant credibility for teams looking for just that.

Hitchcock seems like a natural fit for the New Jersey Devils, a historically defensive-minded franchise mostly stocked with veteran players. He might still get under some players’ skin, but maybe that’s a good thing?

Running a close second will be Michel Therrien and Bob Hartley. We put the two French Canadian coaches together not just because they’re long-time pals, but because they bring a measure of old-school “beat them in the alley” mentality with their top organizational skills.

Therrien seems like a good “transitional” coach – he helped the Pittsburgh Penguins grow from cellar dwellers to legitimate contenders – while Hartley owns a Cup. I’m not sure if Hartley is that special, though. He almost seemed like a hockey world answer to Barry Switzer in that it seemed like anyone could help that talent-rich Colorado Avalanche team win a Cup.

In the minors, what about Don Lever, who won an AHL championship in Hamilton and is now coaching the AHL Chicago Wolves? He’s had NHL experience as an assistant for many years.

And then there’s longtime NHLer Kevin Dineen, who was thought to be in line for the Columbus job, but whom many believe deserves a shot at a head-coaching gig. He’s currently the coach in Portland of the AHL.

Burnside also mentioned Craig MacTavish, but I’d like to throw two other names in the hat: Pat Quinn (pictured, on the left) and former St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray. I already discussed the 66-year-old Quinn’s uphill battle to return to the coaching ranks, but Murray could be a nice fit with the right team.

I could see Murray helping anyone from a scrappy team like the Islanders, a mixed bag like Buffalo or even a defensively porous team like the Devils. He might even be the second best option behind Hitchcock.

Finally, the last coach to come to mind is Ted Nolan. He might not be an easy guy to work with, but he got a lot out of most of the teams he coached.

Anyway, who do you think would be a good fit for a team that might make a coaching change soon? Let us know in the comments.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Panthers down another goalie, injured Driedger to miss weeks

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida goalie Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury, the latest health issue at that position for the Panthers.

The Panthers announced the diagnosis Saturday, calling it a lower-body injury.

Driedger was hurt midway through the first period of the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He is 5-2-0 in nine appearances for Florida this season, with a 2.48 GAA.

The Panthers have also been without goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for much of January while he recovers from an upper-body injury.

Florida begins a stretch of six consecutive road games Saturday in Detroit. That six-game run also includes the All-Star break and the Panthers’ bye week.