The head coach hiring process in the NHL has traditionally been a revolving carousel. The same 30 names seemingly get circulated through the hiring and firing cycle over and over. From a hockey management point of view this is understandable. After all, it’s difficult to take a chance on a newbie when there’s an NHL experienced coach waiting on the sidelines. There are only a few dozen people in the world with “NHL Head Coach” on their resumes.
More recently there has been subtle shift in the hiring process. The old boys club, represented by names like Mike Keenan and Ron Wilson, is starting to be infiltrated by new coaches with different philosophies. Over the past decade the style of NHL play has changed and players expect a more cerebral approach from their coaching staffs. For the most part, hockey management has recognized this trend and is starting to look for new faces and fresh approaches. Although old-timers are still in the mix they are not necessarily considered the safe bet anymore.
The 2014-15 season is already half over and there has been four head coaching casualties. Paul Maclean was sent packing by Ottawa, Dallas Eakins was fired in Edmonton, Peter Deboer was let go by New Jersey and Randy Carlyle was ousted in Toronto. Interesting enough, with the exception of Ottawa, which promoted Dave Cameron permanently, the other three teams have decided to go with a variety of interim solutions. Interim coaches have traditionally not fared well. Remember Randy Cunneyworth in Montreal and, *ugh um*, Peter Horachek in Florida?
Interim coaches are usually considered as sacrificial lambs to organizations that are mailing in the season for a better spot in the draft. Although that may be the case in some instances (especially this year in the McDavid-Eichel sweepstakes), it looks like teams are showing more and more patience in order to get the exact coach they want. Whatever the case, there does not seem to be any urgency in Edmonton, NJ or Toronto in respect to solidifying the head coach positions.
There is lots of speculation that multiple teams are waiting for the Mike Babcock situation to play out in Detroit. His contract is up at the end of this season and there is no question that he is the best coach in the world. But who else is available? There are a number of good coaches that are either ready to make the jump to the NHL, or who have already found success in the NHL and are awaiting another chance.
This top 15 list is not a regurgitation of the usual suspects. All true hockey fans are familiar with the reputations of the NHL’s most recent firings, including Ron Wilson and Dan Bylsma. Train wrecks like John Tortorella, Mike Keenan, Mario Tremblay and Mike Milbury are also excluded.
Here is a top 15 list of coaches that deserve a first or second chance at leading an NHL club.
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15 Philippe Boucher – Head Coach, Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)
When Patrick Roy left Quebec to coach the Colorado Avalanche in 2013, the Remparts looked to Philippe Boucher to fill his boots. The organization lured Boucher away from the Rimouski Oceanic and tagged him with both general manager and head coaching duties. Although he only has one and a half seasons of coaching under his belt, Boucher is doing a magnificent job. The Remparts are currently fifth in the league but boast one of the best home records in all of the QMJHL. Their success at home is important to note because Quebec is hosting the 2015 Memorial Cup.
As GM, he made a number of off-season acquisitions to bolster his line-up. More recently, he traded for Memorial Cup and World Junior Gold medalist Zach Fucale. As a late Christmas present, Boucher also added NY Ranger Anthony Duclair to his roster. Primed with some of the best junior players in the world, Boucher is looking to secure a Presidents Cup and hopefully a Memorial Cup by the summer. If he can pull it off, he might actually follow in Patrick Roy’s footsteps to the NHL rather than simply filling his boots in Quebec.
14 Mike Kitchen – Assistant Coach, Chicago Blackhawks
Mike Kitchen has over 25 years of coaching experience in the NHL. The oddity is that he’s only been a head coach for three (2003-06, St. Louis). Kitchen has earned the reputation of not only being one of the best assistant coaches in the game, but one of the most respected men in hockey. Bruce Boudreau, the former Capitals head coach, stated in his book Gabby: Confessions of a Hockey Lifer, “I’ve never met a man I respected more.”
Kitchen has coached alongside some of the best in the game, including Pat Burns, and has stood shoulder to shoulder with Joel Quenneville for the better part of 10 seasons. Admittedly, Kitchen’s record as head coach in St. Louis was less than impressive, but that experience was nearly 10 years ago and he has since won a Stanley Cup with Chicago (2014). Overall, Kitchen’s NHL experience is unparalleled and he deserves another look as an NHL head coach.
13 Kelly Nobes – Head Coach, McGill Redmen (CIS)
There are a wide variety of roads to the NHL. Kelly Nobes may be the most unknown coach on this countdown, but the 40-year-old already has a decade of success at the university level under his belt. His coaching pedigree includes three different CIS clubs, including Royal Military College (RMC), Wilfred Laurier and McGill. Nobes has set individual single-season win records at each of his assignments. Over the past four years, he has coached McGill to three CIS national championship tournaments, making the finals twice and winning once (2012).
This year, Hockey Canada rewarded him a job coaching Team Canada (Black) at the U-17 world hockey challenge. The path that Nobes is blazing may seem unique but consider that three familiar names, Mike Babcock, Guy Boucher and Martin Raymond, all coached at McGill and made it to the NHL in either a head coach or assistant coach role. If Nobes can build on his international experience, he may be closer to the NHL than most armchair GMs suspect.
12 Guy Boucher – Head Coach, SC Bern (Swiss A)
Guy Boucher is infamous for employing the dreaded 1-3-1 trap when he was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Although the system was initially successful, it was deemed a bit too gimmicky by hockey analysts and its effectiveness wavered as time went along. He was let go by Tampa in 2013 and he’s been unfairly ostracized ever since. The truth is that Boucher is much more than a one-system coach. He’s gathered a lot of success over the years by winning the President’s Cup with the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the QMJHL, as well as the AHL Coach of the Year award with the Hamilton Bulldogs. In Tampa, he led the Lightning to game seven of the 2011 Eastern Conference Final.
Last year, he was hired as coach of the Bern Lions in the Swiss A league. The Lions are currently sitting pretty in first place. Over Christmas, Boucher accepted the duties of head coach of Team Canada at the prestigious Spengler Cup tournament, where Canada lost a heartbreaker in the semi-finals. Boucher has much more to offer than the 1-3-1 and it won’t be long before he finds himself behind the bench of another NHL club, perhaps Philadelphia.
11 Marc Crawford – Head Coach, ZSC Lions (Swiss A)
Crawford is another experienced coach biding his time in Switzerland. Plain and simple, Marc Crawford is a Jack Adams award winner and a Stanley Cup champion. He’s coached four NHL teams, including the Avalanche/Nordiques, Canucks, Kings and Stars. Although his last five seasons in the league were less than stellar (his teams missed the playoffs each year), coaching was only a fraction of the problem on those squads. Crawford has since picked up the pieces and has found success overseas.
In his second season with the Zurich Lions he won the Swiss A title, a major achievement in Europe’s third strongest league. The Lions are having another stellar season and are currently second in the standings. Bob Hartley, Calgary’s current bench boss, also took a similar road back the NHL by leading the ZSC Lions to a championship.
Crawford has a calm demeanour and is still young. At 53 years old, he already possesses nearly a quarter of a century worth of coaching experience to his credit, including at the Olympics (1998).
Crawford will coach again in the NHL. In fact, during the 2014 off-season there were several reports claiming he was in the running for the head coaching jobs in both Florida and Pittsburgh. If the Wild are still struggling come season’s end, he might look good behind the bench in Minnesota.
10 Joe Sacco – Assistant Coach, Boston Bruins
Joe Sacco was recently hired by the Boston Bruins as an assistant coach after a cup of tea with the Buffalo Sabres last year. Prior to that, he was the head coach of the Colorado Avalanche for four years. Although his team’s performance in Colorado tapered off over the course of his tenure, it must not be forgotten that he was Jack Adams finalist in his first year (2009-10).
While some critics suggest that his bench coaching capabilities are average, he’s earned high praise for his ability to develop young talent. If the Coyotes can lure away Sacco from Boston he might be a good fit in Arizona.
9 Kevin Dineen – Assistant Coach, Chicago Blackhawks
Kevin Dineen has hockey in his blood. His father, Bill Dineen, won a Stanley Cup as a player and later coached the Philadelphia Flyers in the early 1990s. Kevin played under his father and was able to learn from his leadership style. Dineen is a no-nonsense coach that has found success at every level. Over the course of six seasons with the AHL’s Portland Pirates he posted an outstanding record of 266-155-59.
In the 2011-12 season, he coached the Florida Panthers back to the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. He was let go in 2013, but bounced back by winning an Olympic gold medal as the head coach for Canada’s women’s team. He quickly followed that up with a bronze medal at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. It is only a matter of time before Kevin Dineen lands another head coaching job in the NHL.
8 Brent Sutter – Owner, GM and Head Coach, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
Like the rest of the Sutter family, Brent is a household name in Canada. Brent has five years of NHL experience, two with the New Jersey Devils and three with the Calgary Flames. Despite his winning record in the NHL (215-146-49) with two suspect rosters, Sutter is most famous for his success at the Junior level. He won the Memorial Cup with the Red Deer Rebels (WHL) in 2001 and has two gold medals to his credit as the head coach of the team Canada world junior team (2005 and 2006).
Sutter reappeared in the national spotlight last year when he again took the reigns of Team Canada’s U20 squad. He lost in the bronze medal game but did so with Canada’s youngest team ever.
The Red Deer Rebels are having a strong season at 26-14-6 and are third in the WHL’s Eastern Conference. Sutter is known for his strong leadership style and his ability to develop younger players. In 2012, Sutter was in the mix for getting the Edmonton head coaching job, but eventually lost out to Ralph Krueger. If Sutter is willing to undertake the massive challenge of rebuilding the Oilers, Edmonton should give him another look.
7 Kirk Muller – Assistant Coach, St. Louis Blues
With almost three full years of NHL head coaching experience (Carolina, 2011-14) to go along with his six years as an assistant in Montreal and St. Louis, “Captain” Kirk is still considered an up-and-comer. Although Muller struggled record-wise (80-80-27) in Carolina with a sub-par team, it is important to remember that Muller is only 48 years old. He’s already learned a lot in the past 10 years and is gaining even more know-how under the tutelage of one of hockey’s best coaches, Ken Hitchcock.
Muller still has one year left on his contract in St. Louis, but if the right fit comes along with another club Muller will almost certainly explore the possibility. Captain Kirk enjoyed some success as a player in Toronto. Being a native of Kingston, ON, he might be a candidate to plunge Leafs’ nation out of the gutter.
6 Dave Lewis – Head Coach, Belarus National Team
Despite presently working in obscurity in Eastern Europe, Dave Lewis has the requisite pedigree that’s necessary to make it back to North America. Lewis enjoyed some early career success as a coach. He helped guide Detroit to three Stanley Cups (1997, 1998 and 2002) as an assistant next to the legendary Scotty Bowman. He later won the Presidents’ Trophy as Detroit’s head coach before being hired and fired by Boston. Since then, he’s had quick stints in L.A. and Carolina as an assistant coach.
Lewis recently accepted a job as the head coach of the Belarus national team. Lewis is also tasked with helping to lead their entire hockey program. If Lewis can find any measure of success in Belarus, the NHL will definitely take notice and give him another shot.
5 Dale Hunter – Head Coach, London Knights (OHL)
Dale Hunter is the only player in NHL history to amass over 3,000 penalty minutes and notch over 1,000 points. The former superstar took ownership of the OHL’s London Knights in 2001. He is in currently in the midst of his 14th year as London’s head coach, where he has accumulated wins almost as quickly as he accumulated penalty minutes during his playing days. Hunter is the fastest coach in OHL history to accumulate 300 and 400 wins. He also won the Memorial Cup in 2005 and the J. Ross Roberston Cup in 2013 .
In November 2011, Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau as the head coach of the Washington Capitals and subsequently led the team to the second round of the playoffs. He was criticized for limiting superstar Alexander Ovechkin’s ice time and for implementing a defensive system on a team designed for offence. This criticism went by the wayside in the wake of his success (30-23-7). At the end of the 2011-12 season, Hunter decided to return to his family business in London.
If and when Hunter decides to dive back into NHL waters, a number of teams will be lining up to secure his services.
4 John Hynes – Head Coach, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL)
In the summer of 2014, the Pittsburgh Penguins hired 57-year-old Mike Johnston as their head coach. Johnston beat out the 39-year-old John Hynes by a hair. Despite Hynes’ young age, he has already impressed the hockey world by winning at every level he’s coached.
His track record speaks for itself. He got his start in college hockey before taking over the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP), where he won three medals coaching the American U-18 team. In 2010 he accepted head coaching duties with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (WBS) Penguins. In his rookie season he won the AHL Coach of the Year award. He is the second quickest coach in AHL league history to accumulate 100 wins and he also led WBS to the Eastern Conference finals in each of the last two seasons.
While Hynes may have lost the Pittsburgh job to Johnston, he was certainly not overlooked. Eventually, he will find a head coaching position in the NHL.
3 John Stevens – Associate Head Coach, Los Angeles Kings
John Stevens was such an integral part of the Kings two Stanley Cup runs (2012, 2014) that team management created a new position called “associate head coach” just to keep him happy. The L.A. Kings denied Stevens the right to talk with Vancouver, Carolina and Pittsburgh in the off-season about their head coach openings. With his new title in L.A., it is widely speculated that Stevens is being groomed as Darryl Sutter’s successor.
Stevens’ coaching career started with the Flyers' organization. He won a Calder Cup with the Phantoms in 2005 and was promoted to the NHL during the 2006-07 season. In 2008 he took the Flyers to the Eastern Conference Final before being let go in late 2009. Now into his fifth season with L.A., he’s refined his reputation as one of the best defensive coaches in all of hockey.
2 Benoit Groulx – Head Coach, Gatineau Olympic (QMJHL)
Benoit Groulx may be the hottest name in hockey after his recent gold medal win with team Canada at the world junior hockey championship (WJC).
Groulx is a consummate professional. During the WJC, he guided his team through all the complexities and uncertainties that are inherently part of a short tournament. He even pulled a “Salt Lake City Gretzky” maneuver by deflecting some media attention away from his team (he answered some post-game interviews in French, against IIHF rules, which ignited a media fire).
Prior to the World Juniors, there were questions surrounding Groulx’s ability to motivate more mature hockey players. He has the reputation as a no-nonsense coach that is able to hound his junior players into playing a particular style of hockey. His short two year stint with the AHL’s Rochester Americans was more or less a failure. However, at the WJC Groulx proved his critics wrong by coaching a group of soon-to-be NHLers to winning results. He managed to keep his gruff demeanor, yet maintained a dressing room that was confident, comfortable and motivated.
The gold medal is by no means his only success. He’s led Gatineau to three QMJHL championship titles in 11 years. He is most certainly one of the next names in line to grab a head coaching gig in the show. A logical next step for Groulx would be to take the quick drive across the Ottawa canal and coach the Senators.
1 Adam Oates – Co-Coach, New Jersey Devils
Ranking Adam Oates as number one on this list is borderline cheating, since he’s already charged with head coach-like duties with the New Jersey Devils. However, his selection is justified because he doesn’t officially hold the “head coach” title. The unorthodox coaching system employed by New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello, in which Oates runs the offence and Scott Stevens runs the defence, has worked wonders for a New Jersey team that was lacking imagination under recently fired Peter Deboer.
This is Oates’s second stint in Jersey, where he was an assistant for two season (2010-12) before being hired as head coach of the Washington Capitals. Oates is well respected by his players and is an excellent communicator. At the end of this season, expect New Jersey to step up and promote Oates as the undisputed heavyweight behind the bench.
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