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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.)

***

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.

Will coaching change be enough to give Ducks’ goalies some help?

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Since becoming the Anaheim Ducks’ starter, John Gibson has become one of the best goalies in the NHL.

For the first part of the 2018-19 season he was almost single-handedly carrying the team and helping to keep it at least somewhat competitive. He was not only in the Vezina Trophy discussion, but as long as the Ducks were winning he was a legitimate MVP contender. But for as good as Gibson performed, the entire thing was a house of cards that was always on the verge of an ugly collapse.

The Ducks couldn’t score, they couldn’t defend, they forced Gibson to take on a ridiculous workload in terms of shots and scoring chances against.

Eventually, everything fell apart.

Once Gibson started to wear down and could no longer steal games on a nightly basis, the team turned into one of the worst in the league despite having a top-10 goaltending duo. That is a shocking accomplishment because teams that get the level of goaltending the Ducks received from the Gibson-Ryan Miller duo usually make the playoffs.

How bad was it for the Ducks? They were one of only three teams in the top-15 in save percentage this past season that did not make the playoffs.

The only other teams in the top-15 that missed were the Montreal Canadiens, who were just two points back in a far better and more competitive Eastern Conference, and the Arizona Coyotes who were four points back in the Western Conference and the first team on the outside looking in.

The Ducks not only missed, they were 10 points short with FIVE teams between them and a playoff spot. Again, almost impossibly bad.

It is a testament to just how bad the rest of the team performed in front of the goalies, and it continued a disturbing trend from the 2018 playoffs when the Ducks looked completely overmatched against the San Jose Sharks in a four-game sweep. It was clear the team was badly flawed and was falling behind in a faster, more skilled NHL.

The problem for the Ducks right now is that so far this offseason the team has remained mostly the same.

They bought out the remainder of Corey Perry‘s contract, will be without Ryan Kesler, and have really not done anything else to change a roster that has not been anywhere near good enough the past two seasons.

That means it is going to be another sink-or-swim season for the Ducks based on how far the goaltending duo of Gibson and Miller can carry them.

It is a tough situation because the Ducks have made an absolutely massive commitment to Gibson as he enters the first year of an eight-year, $51.2 million contract. T

hat is a huge investment in a goalie, and for the time being, the Ducks have not really done anything to support him. Even if you have the best goalie in the league — or just one of the best — it is nearly impossible to win based only on that. Great goalies can help, they can mask a lot of flaws, and they can even carry a mediocre or bad team to the playoffs if they have a historically great season (think Carey Price during the 2014-15 season). But that still puts a ton of pressure on the goalie, and it is nearly impossible to ride that all the way to a championship.

There is, however, one small cause for optimism.

A lot of the Ducks’ problems defensively last season seemed to be based around their system and structure in the early part of the season under then-coach Randy Carlyle.

Under Carlyle the Ducks were one of the worst teams in the league when it came to suppressing shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.

They were 29th or worse when it came to shots on goal against, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, and 26th in total shot attempts against. This is something that always happened with Carlyle coached teams and they would always go as far as their goaltending could take them. In recent years, Gibson masked a lot of those flaws by playing at an elite level and helped get the Ducks in the playoffs. He was able to do it for half of a season this year before finally playing like a mortal instead of a goaltending deity.

But after Carlyle was replaced by general manager Bob Murray, the Ducks showed some massive improvement defensively, shaving multiple shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances per 60 minutes off of their totals.

They went from 26th to seventh in shots on goal against, from 29th to 19th in shot attempts, from 30th to 17th in scoring chances against, and from 29th to 17th in high-danger scoring chances against.

Still not great, but definitely better. Much better. So much better that even though Gibson’s overall performance regressed, the Ducks still managed to win games and collect points at a significantly better rate than they did earlier in the season. They were 14-11-1 from Feb. 10 until the end of the season under Murray.

That is a 91.3 point pace over 82 games. That would have been a playoff point total in the Western Conference this past season.

Under Carlyle, it was a 74.6 point pace. That would have been one of the four worst records in the league.

Coaching changes are very rarely a cure-all. It is still a talent-driven league, and if you do not have talent you are probably not going to win very much. But there are always exceptions and outliers, and sometimes a coaching change is a necessity and can help dramatically improve a team.

New Ducks coach Dallas Eakins has an incredibly short NHL head coaching resume so we don’t have much to go by when it comes to what he will do What we do have to go by came in Edmonton where it has become abundantly clear over the past 15 years that the problems go far beyond the head coach (because they have all failed there). The Ducks are still short on talent at forward and defense, but it should still be able to perform better than it did a year ago. And with a goalie as dominant as Gibson can be (with a great backup behind him) there is no excuse for them to be as far out of the playoff picture as they were.

The Ducks don’t need to be the 1995 Devils defensively to compete.

They just need to not be the worst shot suppression team in the league.

If Eakins can figure out a way to build on the momentum the Ducks showed over the final two months of the 2018-19 season, they might actually have a fighting chance.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Calgary Flames set with arena plans to replace Saddledome

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a tentative agreement for a new arena to replace the Saddledome.

The city, NHL team and the Calgary Stampede have agreed in principle to terms. The Stampede, a rodeo exhibition, owns the land.

The deal was to be presented to the City Council on Monday and then put to a vote. Calgary citizens would then have a week to voice their opinion before a council vote next week to ratify the deal.

The Saddledome is almost 36 years old. The cost of the event center is $550 million to $600 million. It is to have a seating capacity of about 20,000 for sports and would be the heart of a larger revitalized commercial and residential district.

Penguins sign Zach Aston-Reese to 2-year deal

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Penguins and forward Zach Aston-Reese avoided arbitration on Monday, agreeing to a two-year deal that runs through the 2020-21 season.

The deal is worth $1 million annually. The two sides came together minutes before heading to arbitration.

”We were actually setting up for the meeting and kind of right before it started, right at nine o’clock, it got done,” Aston-Reese said. ”Right on time.”

Aston-Reese, 24, posted career highs in goals (eight) and assists (nine) despite being limited to 43 games because of a hand injury. Aston-Reese – who skated alongside Sidney Crosby on the top line but also put in work with the fourth line – gives the Penguins more options as they try to bounce back from a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

”Zach is a responsible player who plays a solid two-way game,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. ”He has a heavy style of play that is especially effective on the forecheck and penalty kill.”

Aston-Reese admitted he was relieved to get a new contract ironed out before going through arbitration.

”It’s a little bit awkward and I was just really happy to get the deal done before that meeting began,” he said. ”You hear stories of things like that and it’s no coincidence that only what, 5% actually go through with the meeting. I was happy to avoid that.”

How Phil Kessel can transform Coyotes’ offense

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The Arizona Coyotes made a significant splash this offseason when they acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins, adding a much-needed impact player to the top of their lineup. Getting him was a perfect confluence of events that involved the Penguins feeling desperate to shake up their roster, Kessel having almost full control over where he ended up going, and the Coyotes having a head coach (Rick Tocchet) the Kessel liked playing for in the past and wanted to play for again.

Despite an impossibly bad run of injury luck the Coyotes made a valiant push for a playoff spot only to fall just short, in large part because they did not have enough offense.

They finished the season 28th in goals scored, 20th in shots on goal, and 26th on the power play. None of that is promising.

One player alone can not fix all of that — especially a player that will be turning 32 at the start of the season — but adding a player like Kessel certainly helps.

A lot.

Acquiring Kessel is so significant because the Coyotes have simply not had a player like him in more than a decade. Maybe even longer.

A *bad* year for Kessel offensively is probably 25 goals and 60 points, while he is also still capable of being an 80-90 point player. Even the middle ground between those two is bonafide first-line production.

To put all of that that into perspective, just consider that since the start of the 2008-09 season the Coyotes have had only two players top the 70-point mark in a single season, and none since Ray Whitney did it during the 2011-12 season. No one has topped 80 points during that stretch.

Over that same stretch they have had only five 60-point performances (and only Clayton Keller has done it since 2011-12), only two 30-goal seasons (none since, again, 2011-12) and only three 25-goal seasons.

Twenty-five goals and 60 points are not huge numbers. Those are great second line numbers in today’s NHL and pretty good first line numbers. But even those have been almost unheard of in Arizona for the past decade. They just simply have not had anyone that is even close to being an impact forward.

Should Kessel be expected to be the same 80-or 90-point player that he has been the past two seasons? Probably not, not only because he will not have the luxury of Hall of Fame centers next to him, but also because he is also going to be another year older. There is a definite recipe for regression there, especially at even-strength. But he is still gifted enough of a player (and passer and playmaker, perhaps his most underappreciated skill) that he will still be one of the best and most productive offensive players to wear a Coyotes uniform in years.

But the area he should make the biggest impact is on Arizona’s dreadful power play.

The Coyotes have been one of the worst teams on the man-advantage for five years now, mostly because they just have not had anyone at forward that could really take over and run things.

The power play is where Kessel does a significant part of his damage.

Over the past three seasons Kessel is sixth in power play assists per 60 minutes (5.49), 11th in primary assists per 60 minutes (2.91), and third in total points per 60 minutes (7.47).

It is easy to write that off in recent years to playing alongside the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kessel was often the one that unit ran through and it was far less dangerous when he was not on the ice. His passing, vision, and playmaking made him an elite weapon and one of the most productive players in the league on the man-advantage.

The Coyotes have had no one that even comes close to that level of performance over the past few years.

Kessel definitely has his flaws, and his defensive shortcomings are very real, but he remains an impact winger and a player that can still completely help transform a power play unit. He alone may not make them the best unit in the league, or even one of the best, but he is going to make them better. Very likely a lot better.

The Coyotes have been assembling a promising roster that is pretty good defensively and definitely has the potential to grow into a good team in the not too distant future. The biggest thing they have been lacking in this rebuild is a forward that can change a game and be a difference-maker offensively. Ideally, that player would be someone younger and still closer to the prime of their career and would better match up with some of their core players, but those players are nearly impossible to acquire without a lot of luck or a top-pick in the right draft year.

Kessel may not be perfect, but can definitely still help give them a lot of the elements they have been lacking offensively and help bring some firepower to an offense that has been one of the dullest and least dangerous in the league.

Combined with the addition of Carl Soderberg and, hopefully, some better injury luck and that should give the Coyotes a fighting chance to make up that ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference)

Related: Coyotes acquire Phil Kessel from Pittsburgh Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.