NHL coaches: Nine lives

The NHL returns with nearly one-third of its clubs making coaching changes since the end of last season. There were nine changes in total, up from four the previous off-season.

New hires a diverse bunch

Barry Melrose returned behind an NHL bench as head coach for the first time in over 13 years on Sept. 20. ((Jamie Sabau/Getty Images))

The NHL returns with nearly one-third of its clubs making coaching changes since the end of last season. There were nine changes in total, up from four the previous off-season.

All but one of those four had previous experience in the NHL.  As well, over the last 15 years it has almost been more beneficial for candidates to possess Canadian junior coaching experience (e.g. Don Hay, Brent Sutter) than to have toiled as head man in the American Hockey League.

But it's clear this time around that the success of Bruce Boudreau in Washington and John Stevens in Philadelphia have made NHL general managers and owners pay closer attention to AHL experience.

John Anderson was hired in Atlanta after a lengthy AHL and IHL coaching career, while the highest level at which Todd McLellan (San Jose) and Scott Gordon (New York Islanders) have coached is also the AHL. Peter De Boer joins Florida after a very successful decade in the Ontario Hockey League.

"I think what happens is, we're a very trendy game," said Hockey Night in Canada analyst and longtime coach Marc Crawford. "The trend this summer seems to be to go to minor league coaches and junior coaches who have had to good stints and give them an opportunity."

The other trend this season is coaches returning for another kick at the can several years after their last NHL coaching job. Barry Melrose is the most intriguing, taking over in Tampa Bay after a dozen years spent mostly as a high-profile television commentator. Craig Hartsburg (Ottawa) and Terry Murray (Los Angeles) each last coached an NHL club more than eight years ago, while Tony Granato's previous experience ended just before the 2004-05 lockout.

All four figure to survive longer than the last example of a coach returning to the league after a lengthy absence. John Paddock was let go just 64 games into his second NHL stint last season, with Ottawa.

Ron Wilson, meanwhile, got back in the saddle right away. Wilson was unemployed for about a month between San Jose and Toronto jobs.

What Wilson does have in common with all other eight hires this off-season is that none have ever guided an NHL club to a Stanley Cup.

Here's at the look at the nine, with thoughts from Crawford.

John Anderson, Atlanta Thrashers

Curriculum Vitae: Fresh off his second Calder Cup with the AHL's Chicago Wolves, also won two titles when the team played in the IHL.

Anderson was heavily championed by Don Cherry of Hockey Night in Canada. What may have delayed his NHL coaching debut is a perception, right or wrong, that some of his AHL clubs over the years have relied more heavily on career minor leaguers than serious big-league prospects.

"I don't think there's anybody in hockey that's hoping for anything but great things for him," said Crawford.

Peter DeBoer, Florida Panthers

CV: Led the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL to two Memorial Cup appearances, including a 2003 championship. Posted 539 wins in over 12 seasons in the OHL.

DeBoer's roster should have six or seven Panthers who came through the OHL at some point during his tenure there, which will help with the transition, according to Crawford.

DeBoer will be working for the team's former coach, Jacques Martin, who is in his first year solely concentrating on general manager duties.

"Jacques stopped me from making a lot of mistakes as a young coach [in Quebec and Colorado] and he'll probably do the same thing with Peter," said Crawford.

Scott Gordon, New York Islanders

CV: Has spent the last five seasons as coach of Providence in the AHL, leading the Bruins to the best record in the AHL last season. Was previously a head coach in the IHL.

Of the nine coaches, Gordon probably has the most extensive experience in recent years working with young pro players. Over 80 per cent of last year's Providence squad was under 24, an important requirement for a New York team that doesn't attract many veteran free agents and is looking for contributions from young forwards Kyle Okposo, Sean Bergenheim and Blake Comeau.

"I know Scott's a very bright guy and his teams have always had a thoroughness to them, so if he gets that happening on the Island, they could be one of the surprises of the season," said Crawford.

Tony Granato, Colorado Avalanche

NHL record: 72-33-11, with 17 ties, with Colorado.

You have to wonder if Granato has "Fall Guy" embossed on his business card. He took the hit in Denver the first time around despite a glossy record over two seasons because of poor playoff returns with a talented bunch, which included Peter Forsberg, Rob Blake, Joe Sakic, and for one season each, Patrick Roy, Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne.

Now he gets to pick from a goalie tandem of Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft, with the other veteran acquisitions in the off-season the likes of Darcy Tucker, Brian Willsie and Dan Tjarnqvist. The silver lining for so little change is that he is familiar with about 90 per cent of the team from his last three years as an Avalanche assistant.

Crawford said Granato and GM Francois Giguere are on the same page.

"They talk on a very regular basis and have the same thoughts towards the development of some their great young prospects and interjecting those young prospects into their lineup," he said. 
Craig Hartsburg, seen behind the Ottawa bench on Sept. 20, is hoping the third time as NHL coach is the charm. ((Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images))

Craig Hartsburg, Ottawa Senators

NHL record: 184-184-6, with 69 ties, with Anaheim, Chicago.

Hartsburg returned to junior hockey after his last NHL job in Anaheim and coached Canada to consecutive world junior championships in 2007 and 2008.

"I think that Craig learned probably the most about coaching dealing with that [Hockey Canada] Centre of Excellence program, the high performance Canadian junior team," said Crawford.

His may be the most intriguing of the nine scenarios as he takes over a club with a talented forward group that is largely unchanged, a defence corps that on paper looks much less impressive, and a goaltending tandem that is definitely more peaceable without Ray Emery, but not necessarily better.

Crawford doesn't see others developing lax practice habits in Ottawa.

"I think I see a lot more of a demanding coach now than I did before from Craig," he said.

Todd McLellan, San Jose Sharks

CV: Has a winning pedigree, with a Calder Cup title as the AHL's Houston Aeros head coach in 2003 and as an assistant the last three seasons with the Detroit Red Wings.

McLellan appears to have the most positive of all the new situations. He takes over a team that has gone into the second or third round in their last four playoff appearances yet still features a fairly young roster. Of course, he has the furthest to fall if the standards aren't met.

San Jose GM Doug Wilson has upped the ante and expectations by bolstering the defence with Rob Blake, Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich.

"They're saying 'This team is ready to win, now let's make sure we're all ready to try and get it done, so that's Todd's challenge," said Crawford.

Coaxing more goals out of a group that finished second in the NHL in points, but only 19th in scoring, will be a priority, McLellan has stated.

Barry Melrose, Tampa Bay Lightning

NHL record: 82-103 with 31 ties with Los Angeles. Reached Stanley Cup final (1993).

It was so long ago that it's easy to forget that Melrose was only an NHL coach for less than t hree seasons. Melrose helped guide Wayne Gretzky's Kings to the Cup final in his rookie year as NHL coach, but things went downhill from there.

It will be interesting to see how Melrose, not always a conventional thinker, approaches the current overtime and shootout format, which didn't exist the last time he coached.

"I remember watching his practices in Adirondack and Los Angeles, and I thought he was a really innovative guy and had a great command for the technical aspect of the game," said Crawford.

"He's got a great personality, and I'm sure the relationships he's going to be able to develop and maintain in Tampa Bay are going to be his strength again."

Terry Murray, Los Angeles Kings

NHL record: 360-288 with 89 ties with Washington, Philadelphia, Florida. Reached Stanley Cup final (1997).

Murray falls between Melrose and Hartsburg with respect to the years between NHL jobs. He wasn't as high-profile as the other two but he stayed closer to the game than Melrose, serving as a scout and an assistant coach with Philadelphia over the last several years.

Like Gordon and Anderson, he takes over a struggling club in a struggling hockey market. His advantage over those two men is a larger crop of promising young players, such as Anze Kopitar, Jack Johnson, and Patrick O'Sullivan.

"They've changed from a situation of a team that last year was half-pregnant," said Crawford. "We had all those [strong] young guys and then a bunch of older guys who couldn't fit the bill, and this year they're determined to eliminate the guys who acted as bridges.

Ron Wilson, Toronto Maple Leafs

NHL record: 518-426-46 with 101 ties, with Anaheim, Washington, San Jose. Reached Stanley Cup final (1998).

Whether a longtime coach should take a season off to recharge and get new perspective is an interesting question. Joel Quenneville, for example, reportedly was more interested in this approach than seriously pursuing a job with the Islanders. Wilson, however, has essentially gone from job to job since first coaching in the NHL in 1993, out of work for only 25 games at the start of the 2002 season before being summoned by the Sharks.

His first priority is to employ a defence-first system in front of Vesa Toskala so that Toronto's unimposing lineup can hang around in as many games as possible.

"His forte is detail, he's very technically sound, [and] he's very comfortable with his staff, bringing over [Rob] Zettler and [Tim] Hunter, which well help," said Crawford.

Like many, Crawford is looking forward to the inevitable exchanges between Wilson and the Toronto sports media.

"You need to be a big personality to work in that huge market, and he is a big personality."


Chris Iorfida

Senior Writer

Chris Iorfida, based in Toronto, has been with CBC since 2002 and written on subjects as diverse as politics, business, health, sports, arts and entertainment, science and technology.