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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.

Report: Hynes may be front-runner for Devils job (while Boucher’s out)

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The New Jersey Devils’ pursuit of a new head coach continues, and while they may once again come out and refute the latest reports, it sounds like we can cross off some names and promote another.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that John Hynes (coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) may be the current front-runner. Meanwhile, McKenzie notes that one can probably cross former Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher (pictured) off the list of possible candidates, as it appears that he’ll continue to coach in Switzerland.

That last bit of news may be a bummer to some, as many found some entertainment in hypothesizing about the source of Boucher’s Bond villain-style scar. The guy also tended to make some humorously dramatic facial expressions, as you can see from this post’s main image.

(You could also make a joke about upping the use of the 1-3-1 trap in New Jersey, if you’re into especially nerdy hockey humor.)

Hynes certainly makes sense from a familiarity standpoint, as new Devils GM Ray Shero is quite familiar with him. Beyond that, he’s enjoyed quite a bit of success in the AHL and seemed to have a good chance to nab the Penguins’ gig last summer, at least according to betting odds.

By no means is this official, but McKenzie does discuss what would happen next if the Devils do make the decision:

Babcock decision looms: ‘I’ve talked to all the teams I’m talking to’

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Plenty of teams have been said to show some interest in Mike Babcock, even if it sounds like it may come down to the Buffalo Sabres or Detroit Red Wings. Whatever the case may be, it sounds like #BabWatch won’t last a whole lot longer.

If nothing else, the lauded head coach told MLive.com that he’s close to making a decision, and his interviewing process is finished.

“Just going to re-visit everything one more time (with Red Wings GM Ken Holland),” Babcock said on Monday. “I’ve talked to all the teams I’m talking to.”

He noted that he expects to sit down with his family tonight and that he’ll probably announce his choice on Wednesday. Of course, with the nature of hockey news and these sensitive choices, it’s possible something will come up sooner (or perhaps even later).

Let’s hope for the former, because the scuttlebutt can get wild in times like these. Also, this Photoshop might be seared into a brain or two:

Yet again: Jacques Lemaire will not be the Devils coach next year

When the season ended, there were plenty of teams who were looking to replace their head coaches. It’s interesting that the Devils are the only team that had their coach retire; and they’re the only team that is still looking for their head man. Even the Winnipeg Jets, who still had a head coach, have since moved, fired Craig Ramsay, and hired Claude Noel. All while the Devils continue to take their time and still don’t have a head coach.

As time goes on, there have been some questions whether Jacques Lemaire may consider a return to New Jersey for yet another go-around.  After all, the Devils looked like a completely different team when Lemaire took over for the fired John MacLean in December last season.  Tom Gulitti spoke to Lemaire about the Devils head coaching position on NorthJersey.com—and it certainly doesn’t sound like he’ll be coming back anytime soon.

““I’m waiting for Lou to make his decision,” Lemaire told me via phone this afternoon. “I’m excited like the fans, I guess, to find out who it’s going to be.”

Lemaire said he has no idea who it will be, but knows for certain who it won’t be.

“It’s not going to be me,” he said.”

That is the 900th denial from Lemaire for those keeping track at home. Unfortunately, until Lou Lamoriello and the Devils find a man to replace him behind the bench, he’ll have to keep enduring the same speculation. Since he denied there was any chance of returning, the attention turned to former head coach Larry Robinson for a day. Robinson has been in town running the prospects camp this week for the Devils, but as Lamoriello said that he’s not a candidate at this time. Going further, he said that he’s not “going to get into who is or who isn’t a candidate.” For fans who want to speculate, he’s not really giving them much to work with.

Over the summer, a few names have been rumored for the Devils coaching vacancy. Guy Carbonneau’s name came up when he resigned from his positions with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens. Michel Therrien was the reported front-runner a week ago and Ken Hitchcock has been linked to the position since the day it became available. But as Lamoriello has said, he won’t comment on an potential candidates for the head coaching position.

One the one hand, it doesn’t seem like there’s any rush to name a coach anytime soon. The prospect camp is the only big event between the draft and training camp—and Robinson has already taken the lead. The draft was run by Lamoriello in June and the summer is just a time for preparation. From an organizational standpoint, the only real deadline they’re facing is training camp in September. But from an pragmatic perspective, this isn’t something any team would want to drag on for the entire offseason. The new coach will want to have his say for any potential assistant coaches as well as some time to get acclimated to his new lineup. There’s no rush—but sooner they decide on coach, the better.

All we know for sure is that Jacques Lemaire won’t be that man.

Anxious to find out who will coach the Devils? You won’t find out this week

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Aside from Lindy Ruff in Buffalo or Barry Trotz in Nashville, there aren’t many coaches who can say they’ve enjoyed genuine long-term job security in the NHL. Even keeping that general atmosphere of instability in mind, New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello has developed a reputation for being an especially reactionary executive when it comes to firing coaches.

(It’s not bad luck alone that explains why he will hire his seventh coach in seven seasons, after all.)

Perhaps that checkered past explains why Lamoriello is taking his sweet time to name a new bench boss this time around, then. The Devils are the only team in the league that is without a head coach, leading to plenty of speculation (some if it even reasonable) during the last few months.

Some thought that Kirk Muller or Guy Carbonneau might inject some new life into the Devils scheme. Others wondered if the team might go with a safer “retread” such as former Pittsburgh Penguins coach Michel Therrien or former Devils foe Ken Hitchcock. All kinds of interesting names have been bandied about, but nothing has come to fruition so far.

Lamoriello told assembled media members that the rumor mill will be able to keep generating hot air for at least the rest of this week, too.

“We will have a coach in the very near future, but not this week,” Lamoriello said.

Lamoriello was also asked if any of the coaches running the team’s camp, including Larry Robinson, Scott Stevens, Adam Oates, Chris Terreri, Jacques Caron, former Trenton (ECHL) coach Kevin Dean or Albany coach Rick Kowalski, would be in line for the position.

“I’m not going to get into discussions with reference to the coaching staff or anything of that nature,” he said. “There’s (no coach) that has been named, so you can interpret it any way you want.”

As usual, Lamoriello is doing things his own way. The most torturous part for impatient types is that he didn’t even commit to making a decision next week, either. That being said, he might want to make that choice soon with Zach Parise’s potential arbitration hearing on the horizon. We’ll keep you informed whether he makes that choice this week, next week or in a month or three.