When Kevin Hayes got off to a slow start with the Philadelphia Flyers, coach Alain Vigneault didn’t need to talk to him.
Assistants Mike Yeo and Michel Therrien took care of that. Because each had been an NHL head coach before, Vigneault encourages that direct communication.
“There’s a confidence factor with AV knowing that if we’re going to talk to a player, what we’re saying would be the same message that he would be delivering to that player,” Yeo said. “He wanted people that were comfortable and confident to go up to players, whether it’s correcting, whether it’s reinforcing, whether it’s patting somebody on the back. He wants us to be proactive about that.”
It’s not just Yeo and Therrien. Anyone interested in firing a coach this season is in trouble without a successor lined up because almost every potential candidate already has a job.
Of 31 teams, 20 have a former NHL head coach as an assistant and six have more than one. Concerns about having too many cooks in the kitchen are no match for the benefit of having experience dealing with players, handling game situations and scouting opponents.
“There’s nothing but positives,” Vigneault said. “I’ve got guys that understand exactly what I’m going through and understand exactly what I mean as far as feedback. Nobody understands a head coach better than a former head coach.”
Philadelphia’s three-headed monster is bested only by the Dallas Stars having ex-head coaches John Stevens, Rick Bowness and Todd Nelson on Jim Montgomery’s staff. Unlike Vigneault, who carries with him the gravitas of taking two different teams to the Stanley Cup Final, Montgomery is a first-time head coach and isn’t at all bothered by having guys directly reporting to him who have done his job before.
“I’m a guy that wants information from other people,” said Montgomery, who’s in his second season as Stars coach. “As much information they can give me before I talk to the team, the better knowledge I’m imparting to the team so that we can have quicker points and get right to what we think’s going to help us win hockey games.”
Four of the NHL-tested assistants – Detroit’s Dan Bylsma, Chicago’s Marc Crawford, Anaheim adviser Darryl Sutter and St. Louis part-timer Larry Robinson – have won the Stanley Cup as a head coach, and Sutter did it twice. Many more have connections to championship teams or won in the minors.
“There’s a lot of little fires that coaches have to go through – head coaches – and I think when you have a staff with experience, they can put those fires out before they get to you,” said Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet, who has Phil Housley and John MacLean on his staff.
Often, a personal connection is enough to create instant chemistry on a staff. Montgomery and Stevens played together in the American Hockey League and won the Calder Cup in 1998, while Vigneault and Therrien have known each other for two decades.
Washington’s Todd Reirden in his first head NHL job wanted an assistant with similar experience and hired Scott Arniel without knowing him. After being on a Pittsburgh Penguins staff under Bylsma with former head coaches Tony Granato and Jacques Martin as fellow assistants, Reirden understands the importance of leaning on someone who’s been there before.
“I think I had had 10 or 11 years of assistant or associate coach (experience),” said Reirden, who was Barry Trotz’s top assistant when the Capitals won the Cup in 2018. “But not being a full-time head coach in this league, and I thought it was important to have someone like Scott that had gone through the same type of thing: Good things that worked for him, in the same breath things that he wished he could do over and positives and negatives we could work on together.”
Settling in to life as a lieutenant isn’t always easy for former head coaches.
Therrien hadn’t been an assistant since his first job in junior in the early 1990s, while Stevens is coming off being fired by the Los Angeles Kings less than a year ago.
“When you’re the head coach, you’re used to speaking all the time,” said Stevens, who has coached the Flyers and Kings and won the Cup twice as an assistant with Los Angeles. “As an assistant coach, you’ve got to listen and speak at the right time. … A coaching staff functions like a team. I think you put egos aside.”
Fired almost exactly a year ago as Blues coach – St. Louis went on to win the Cup with replacement Craig Berube – Yeo still sees the game as a head coach but changes his messaging from talking directly to players to whispering down the line to Therrien so Vigneault gets the gist.
It could be disconcerting for a young coach to look over his shoulder at one or more potential replacements. But some, like Montgomery, New York Rangers coach David Quinn with Lindy Ruff and new Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe with Dave Hakstol could do their jobs even better with some extra experience.
Vigneault felt that way during his first job in Montreal in the mid-1990s when he hired Dave King as an assistant. As the CEO behind the bench, he thinks it’s smart for coaches of all ages to take whatever experience they can get.
“As a young coach, it was real beneficial to me,” Vigneault said. “With my experience now, I can probably use them even better than I did when I started.”