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Who should coach Sabres, Ducks, Oilers, Senators?

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When you look at the four conference finalists remaining in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, you’ll notice a variety of coaching stories.

There’s quite a mix with a midseason replacement (Craig Berube for the Blues), a rookie breakthrough (Rod Brind’Amour for Carolina), someone who’s been effective with an established team (the Bruins’ Bruce Cassidy), and a veteran running a star-packed squad (Peter DeBoer with the Sharks). There are many ways to skin the cat, and that point becomes clearer when you zoom out to other success stories, such as Barry Trotz’s fantastic work with the New York Islanders.

With Joel Quenneville readying his sunscreen for Florida, Alain Vigneault leading a band of former head coaches in Philly, and Todd McLellan landing his second California gig with the Los Angeles Kings, you’d think that the game of musical chairs that is coaching hiring would be mostly done for the NHL, but that’s not really so. As of Tuesday, the Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers, and Ottawa Senators are still looking for new head coaches.

Let’s take a look at the decisions these four teams face, from a broader look at what type of coach they should look for, to a more concrete set of targets they should prioritize.

Anaheim Ducks should seek: An innovator

GM Bob Murray needs to face reality: “old-school” just isn’t working so well for the Ducks any longer.

This team ignored warning signs that Randy Carlyle’s work was behind the times, and those warts really sprouted up during a pretty disastrous 2018-19 season. If you look at the Ducks’ salary structure, you’ll see some troublingly aging core players like Ryan Getzlaf and the injured Ryan Kesler (both 34) and Corey Perry (33).

We’ve seen teams face a slump where they miss the playoffs before getting back on track, though, and there’s a chance the Ducks could join that group if thing swing back in their favor.

That’s especially true if John Gibson remains an all-world goaltender. Combine Gibson with a still-solid group of defensemen and decent forwards (Getzlaf’s getting old, but he can still move the needle), and maybe the Ducks’ outlook can go sunnier quickly.

Ducks targets:

  • Dallas Eakins – The breath of fresh air Anaheim needs could be right with the AHL’s affiliate, as Eakins seems forward-thinking when it comes to resting players and analytics. He’s also had success basically everywhere he’s been … except Edmonton. Even there, it’s not as if he had a lot of time to fix all the leaks for the Oilers.
  • Todd Nelson – Another briefly-former-Oilers coach who’s had success basically everywhere else he’s been. Nelson’s both reasonably young and well-traveled, making him a worthy consideration for multiple teams, really.
  • Sheldon KeefeIn Elliotte Friedman’s latest edition of “31 Thoughts“, he reported that Keefe wouldn’t leave the Toronto Marlies, unless it was for a better situation. Maybe the young coach wouldn’t view the Ducks as an upgrade, although you rarely see perfect teams making coaching searches, right?

The Ducks could also go for an older coach if they believe that bench boss would drive immediate results in a way that a fresher face wouldn’t … but personally, I’d lean toward youngsters.

Sabres should find: Structure

For years, there’s been an uncomfortable question lingering for Buffalo: is this team underachieving, or is the talent simply not there?

Either way, the optics haven’t been great, as the Sabres have often looked rudderless. They’ve really struggled to find stability since the lengthy Lindy Ruff era ended, and it sure feels like Buffalo needs to find this year’s version of Barry Trotz: an experienced coach who can install systems that won’t collapse under the pressure of competition.

Sabres’ best target:

  • Dave Tippett – At 57, Tippett has already coached two teams (the Stars and Coyotes) for a combined 1,114 regular-season games and 74 playoff contests. His squads have been structurally sound, and Tippett often found ways to get the most out of limited Coyotes rosters. He won a Jack Adams Award in 2009-10, and while he hasn’t had a head coaching job since 2016-17, Tippett remains focused on the game.

There are other options, with Friedman reporting that another former Oilers coach Ralph Krueger possibly being the frontrunner but … frankly, I just really like the fit for Buffalo. Maybe Tippett wouldn’t view the Sabres the same way, though.

(UPDATE: The Sabres have decided to hire Ralph Krueger.)

Oilers need: An exorcist

Just kidding. Plus, you could argue the same for the Senators, and to an extent, the Sabres.

My impression is that the Oilers could use optimism and positive, forward energy as much as anything else. It says a lot about their organizational dysfunction that you can almost forget that they have Connor McDavid, as well as some other key pieces.

Yes, the roster has issues, but maybe a more offensive-minded coach could get things going in a more modern direction, rather than trying to squeeze every drop of defensive potential out of this mix, as both Ken Hitchcock and Todd McLellan generally aimed to do? Considering how grim the atmosphere seemed to be, these players may benefit from a pat on the back after being barked at for some time.

Oilers’ options:

  • Sheldon Keefe – Would Keefe value having McDavid and Leon Draisaitl enough to risk leaving the Marlies for the Oilers? If so, what better way for Edmonton to show that its not some “old boys club” than to hire such a young head coach?
  • Todd Nelson– Ken Holland observed Nelson’s success with the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate for years, so maybe that would inspire Holland to allow Nelson to get another, more “real” shot with Edmonton this time around?
  • Scott Sandelin/Nate Leaman – I’d be surprised if the Oilers went bold with Keefe or either of these two NCAA coaches, but I also think they’re worth mentioning. Rather than going for a retread in the form of a former head coach (who’s had more legitimate chances than a Nelson or an Eakins), why not see if one of these coaches has a higher ceiling?

Tippett seems to be a rising choice for Edmonton, and the Oilers could certainly go in worse directions. It feels a bit more of the same, though, as bringing in Hitchcock. Maybe Nelson would be the best compromise between bringing in fresher ideas and appeasing … well, that old boys club?

Senators should look for: An optimist … and a stopgap

In the above cases, teams are hoping to finally take big steps forward, or in the case of the Ducks, to reverse a downward spiral.

Honestly, the Ottawa Senators are better off tanking in 2019-20, and probably for a year or two beyond that. They purged a ton of talent by trading away Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, Mike Hoffman, and others in recent seasons, and it’s tough to imagine overachieving doing much for the team’s bigger picture outlook beyond messing up their draft lottery odds.

With how dark things have been for the Senators, they could use a positive presence, preferably a coach who’s patient enough to help develop the Brady Tkachuks of the world. Put some smiles on some faces … just don’t win too much.

Ottawa’s options:

  • Marc Crawford – Becoming something of a coaching journeyman’s likely given Crawford some perspective. He served as interim head coach, so he already has some knowledge of the players and franchise, which can’t be underrated when you consider how … polarizing owner Eugene Melnyk can be.
  • Troy Mann– Carries much of the appeal of Crawford, as he’s coached the Senators’ AHL affiliate. He’d probably be cheap as a first-time NHL head coach too, which is, erm, appealing to Melnyk.
  • Scott Sandelin/Nate Leaman – A more sensible scenario for an NCAA coach to take over. Expectations would be low, so Sandelin or Leaman would get some time to acclimate to the NHL. Theoretically, at least. Might be a tough sell for either one to leave successful programs to try to fix the Senators, though.
  • Lane Lambert – Plenty of experience (and potential?) as Barry Trotz’s assistant, and hey, if you’re going to be bad, at least distract yourself with his amusing hair. (Note: Sportsnet’s John Shannon reports that the Ducks have also shown interest in Lambert.)

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None of these situations feel like easy or obvious fixes, and the best options might not be listed above. Then again, things didn’t seem very optimistic for the Islanders when Trotz took over, or for Berube when the Blues were ranked last during this season, and those scenarios ended up being wild successes.

Who would you go after if you were running those teams?

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.

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg being limited to a single point.

Things should regress in a positive way, even in the highly likely instance that neither Bishop nor Khudobin will rekindle that 2018-19 magic. Much like the slow-starting Wild, the Stars have played most of their games on the road (six of nine away from home) so far. After Saturday’s trip to Philly to play the Flyers, the Stars play six of seven games in Dallas from Oct. 21 through Nov. 5. The outlook could look quite a bit rosier by the end of that stretch.

It doesn’t change the fact that the Stars dug themselves a formidable hole. While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Nationals’ Scherzer drops ceremonial baseball before Capitals game

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The Washington Nationals have some time to kill before the 2019 World Series after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, so why not take in a Washington Capitals game … and maybe put a new knuckleball-like spin on a common hockey photo-op?

Instead of dropping the ceremonial first puck before Friday’s Capitals – Rangers contest, three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer elected to drop a baseball instead. You can watch video of that fun ceremony (which vaguely reminded me of Auston Matthews doing a little Globetrotter spin with a Raptors basketball) in the video above. Sports city synergy is fun, is what I’m trying to say.

As a baseball not-knower, this brings up a lot of questions — some I can answer, some not so much.

  • Was it one of those new-fangled “juiced” baseballs? Scherzer probably doesn’t like those, if they’re really a thing.
  • I was wondering about Scherzer’s (maybe somewhat intimidating) different-colored eyes. Apparently Scherzer was born that way, although one eye was blue and the other was green, originally. (The blue eye turned bluer, while the green one turned brown.) Dany Heatley is a hockey player who comes to mind with that, but his story is less fun and more upsetting.
  • CNN clears up the Nationals’ connection to “Baby Shark,” which I wondered about thanks to this:

(Even Capitals fans would probably admit that this is swimming a bit close to San Jose’s waters.)

  • In case you were wondering, that sports city synergy went both ways, as you can see from Alex Ovechkin hugging Scherzer before a Nationals game in June 2018 (via Getty):
(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

As of this writing, the Capitals lead the Rangers 3-2 and the New York Yankees are trying to protect a 4-1 lead against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS. If the Astros win, they’ll face Scherzer’s Nationals.

… And that about concludes my baseball-knowing.

/chews imaginary tobacco/Major League Chew

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Devils, Hischier agree to seven-year, $50.75 million extension

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While the Devils don’t know yet if Taylor Hall will sign an extension to remain in New Jersey or find a new home next summer in free agency, GM Ray Shero has young locked down one of the team’s core pieces.

On Friday, Nico Hischier agreed to a seven-year, $50.75 million extension that carries a $7.25 million cap hit through the 2026-27 NHL season. The deal buys three unrestricted free agent years since the Devils forward has been playing since he was 18, per Cap Friendly.

“Nico is a special person who possess a team-first mentality combined with an inner drive to succeed,” said Shero in a statement. The entire organization is thankful to him and his family for believing in our future. We are excited that he will continue to play a prominent role with us for many years to come.”

According to the Devils, here’s the year-by-year breakdown:

2020-21: $7,000,000 (includes $3 million signing bonus)
2021-22: $7,250,000
2022-23:  $4,500,000
2023-24:  $7,750,000
2024-25:  $7,750,000
2025-26:  $8,000,000
2026-27:  $8,500,000

The extension also features a modified no-trade clause in the final three years.

In 157 NHL games, Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has 37 goals and 101 points while averaging over 17 minutes a night. His offense has been just fine with a 20 and 17 goals in his first two seasons, but his two-way game is what’s really boosted his talent.

The 20-year-old center joins the list of NHLers who passed on restricted free agency in 2020 to put pen to paper on a new deal, joining the likes of Alex DeBrincat, Clayton Keller, Thomas Chabot, and Sam Girard.

Mathew Barzal, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Dylan Strome, and Mikhail Sergachev are some of the other potential 2020 RFAs who will be looking for extensions before next season.

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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.

Helm fined $5K for slash on Flames’ Lindholm

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Darren Helm and Elias Lindholm had a little battle in the third period of Thursday’s 5-1 Flames win and it has resulted in a $5,000 fine for the Red Wings forward.

It all began during a face-off when Lindholm got taken down by Helm. The Flames forward took exception and skated after Helm as the puck entered the Calgary zone. The tiff continued on with Lindholm throwing an elbow at Helm, who responded by getting up off the ice and slashing Lindholm in the back of the leg.

“Their guy comes with an elbow that should have probably been called right away,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill. “Then Darren reacts to that as most guys would, you get an elbow to the face for no reason you’re going to react. We got to be more disciplined in those situations, but he slashed him. I don’t think the slash was that super-hard, but it sure looked hard the way he went down.”

The fine is the maximum amount allowable under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Helm was given a major for slashing and a game misconduct, while Lindholm got off with just an interference minor. Lindholm was helped to the dressing room and there’s been no update yet on his condition.

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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.