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.
- 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 Keefe – In 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.