PLAYERS GOT NOTHIN’ ON THESE COACHES
We call it a coaching “carousel,” but for many wannabe (or wannabe-back) NHL bench bosses, the ride is much wilder than that. It’s more like a rollercoaster, or the Tilt-A-Whirl, which made me throw up on my girlfriend at the Gloucester Fair when I was 17. Short relationship.
Coaching free agency is every bit as nerve wracking and high stakes as the players’ version. Especially for NHL newcomers. The past 72 hours are a prime example. When Pete DeBoer went to Barbados to meet with Eugene Melnyk, most figured it was the final “stamp-of-approval” step to him becoming the Senators’ new coach.
A couple of margaritas, a moonlight stroll on the lovely pink-sand Crane Beach near Melnyk’s estate, a couple of high-fives and Ottawa would have its man.
Instead, one or both of them didn’t like what they heard. Ottawa moved on to the very capable Craig Hartsburg and DeBoer moved on to the Florida Panthers.
Most people in hockey will tell you Hartsburg and DeBoer are both excellent choices to be NHL coaches. But the paths they’ve followed this spring read like some warped coaching version of
The Tortoise and The Hare.
Bryan Murray interviewed Hartsburg very early in the process, and then Hartsburg went home and waited, with little apparent interest from other clubs.
DeBoer, meanwhile, has been the coaching version of Steven Stamkos the past few weeks: a junior star with a glowing résumé that had a bunch of teams pursuing him. He has been a candidate for almost every NHL job opening so far. But he had to play a careful, dangerous game. Do you go to a contender where there will be tons of pressure? Or a bottom-feeder with lots of room to improve? How much do you try to leverage interest from other clubs to get you the best deal possible? Do you pass on taking one job to wait for the one you really want? Then what happens if that team goes with someone else?
There is little doubt these were factors in DeBoer ending up in Florida instead of Ottawa or San Jose.
“These are very tough decisions for an up-and-coming coach to make,” says Red Wings coach Mike Babcock.
“For your first NHL coaching job, you have to be successful or it could be your last. So you better find the right fit.”
Babcock knows of what he speaks. He believes his first gig in Anaheim was the perfect situation.
“The team had really struggled the year before and I knew there was nowhere to go but up. I had been with the minorleague team for two years, I knew the players, I knew J.S. Giguère was ready to be a star. It was the ideal situation.”
In one season, he took the (then Mighty) Ducks to the Stanley Cup final and instantly made a name for himself. That led to the Detroit job and a Stanley Cup ring this year.
That’s why a place like Florida might be a better fit than Ottawa for a rookie coach such as DeBoer. The Senators still have extremely high expectations, probably higher than their talent level justifies. That will be the challenge for Hartsburg. If this team plays the first half of next season like it did the second half of last season, he’ll be feeling the heat.
Same deal for new San Jose coach Todd McLellan, also a head coaching newbie. The Sharks’ goal is to win the Stanley Cup. Now. Anything less and you’re no better than the last guy.
But in Florida, the Panthers have missed the playoffs seven years running. There is a stock- pile of good, young players and a quality veteran goalie in Tomas Vokoun. If DeBoer can get them into the playoffs within two seasons, he’s labelled a winner.
For now, all we know is the three NHL coaching hires this week are first-timers or firstin-a-long-timers (Hartsburg). Ladies and gentleman, we have ourselves a trend. The NHL Blue Box Age of simply recycling old coaches is over … for now.
“The flavour of the week seems to be to hire new guys, fresh faces,” says another veteran NHL coach. “I can’t believe you have proven winners out there like John Tortorella and Joel Quenneville, but I guess that’s the trend. Who knows, next week the trend will go back to the veteran coaches again.” Or not. The next vacancy to be filled could be in Los Angeles, where the Kings fired Marc Crawford this week (after letting him wait for 66 days, but that’s another column). They had hoped to interview DeBoer this weekend. And L.A would be the perfect place for another fresh face. Last-place team. Good, young talent. More (second-overall pick) on the way. Nowhere to go but up.
Unlike Ottawa, where there are a variety of directions to go. Up. Down. Sideways. Or Tilt-AWhirl.
And Hartsburg knows only the first one is a fun ride.