Monday, May 09, 2016

Seeking a Second Chance: Plenty of One-Time NHL Coaches Looking for Another Shot

Whether it's assembling a barbeque, having a second child or learning to ride a segway, the second time you do anything in life, you're always much better at it.

By then, you've learned what works. You've learned the hard way what not to do. You've accumulated real life experience that's irreplaceable. No amount of book smarts will ever fully prepare you for that first time.

Same goes for being a head coach in the NHL. While there are exceptions, typically those first stints don't last very long. One year, two years, maybe partially into a third year, that seems to be the typical shelf life for an NHL rookie head coach. After they've moved on, or were moved on from as is usually the case, I'm sure the hindsight machine spins non-stop.

What happens next is these folks move back into an NHL assistant coach role, or head to the minors in a head coach role, apply their learnings, then patiently wait for another crack at it, better prepared for that next time if another such opportunity does arise.

With Bruce Boudreau crossed off the list of candidates, one wonders if the next guy in line for the Flames coaching job won't be someone of this ilk. Someone eagerly awaiting a second chance. A well thought-of coach that due to team performance or a new GM coming in and wanting to start fresh, saw his first cup of coffee as an NHL bench boss cut short.

Three Categories of Coaches

As the coach search continues in two cities -- Calgary and Anaheim, I break the field of potential replacements into three categories:

1. Recycled - These are those older guys that have been around the block a few times. They are household names with multiple stops on their NHL head coaching resume. This was Boudreau. This was Marc Crawford, who was announced Monday as Guy Boucher's new assistant in Ottawa. This is Randy Carlyle, who brought a Stanley Cup to Anaheim. This is ex-Flames skipper Darryl Sutter, whose future in Los Angeles remains uncertain.

2. Second-Chance - These are the guys with less grey that fall in the middle. Coaches that have had one crack at being the head man, who as mentioned are looking for another chance so they can apply their learnings from the first go-round.

3. Rookies - The opposite extreme from the grizzled vets are these guys looking to be an NHL head coach for the first time. This includes guys ripening in the AHL and waiting to make the jump like Travis Green (Utica), Ryan Huska (Stockton) and Sheldon Keefe (Toronto). It also includes a college coach like Nate Leaman (Providence College) and major junior coaches like Dave Lowry (Victoria) or Benoit Groulx (Gatineau).

It's the second-chance guys as I call them, which I am focusing on today. Given the young core of the Flames, the analytical slant the game is taking on, maybe a younger, fresher voice over some of the retreads is a preferred path for Flames GM Brad Treliving. Coming on the heels of Bob Hartley, the club is looking for someone that does things a little differently, not for more of the same.

What you like about guys in this middle group is they've been there and they now know what it takes. They have the experience of knowing what they need to do differently the next time. Most have gone on to do further apprenticing under a seasoned head coach and are now anxious to get their own gig again.

Three Notable Candidates

1. Kevin Dineen, age 52
  • Current - Past two seasons as assistant coach with Chicago Blackhawks 
  • NHL Head Coach - Fired 16 games into 2013-14, his third season with Florida. 
  • NHL Record - 146 gm, 56-62-28 

His Time with the Panthers

Replacing Peter DeBoer, Dineen led the Panthers to a 38-26-18 record and their first division title in 2011-12. It was also their first playoff appearance since 2000. After missing the playoffs during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, a slow start the next year in which free agent goaltender pick-up Tim Thomas struggled and the under-talented team couldn't score, GM Dale Tallon dismissed Dineen just over a month into the season, along with assistant coaches Gord Murphy and Craig Ramsay.

Dineen was offered a different role in the organization but declined. At the time, Tallon said Dineen worked hard but his message was not getting through to the players, who were underperforming. “After 16 games it was clear that our team needed a change in philosophy and direction,” said Tallon in the press release. “We have not met the expectations that we set forth at training camp."

Coaching Background

Less than a month after current Flames VP of Hockey Operations Brian Burke arrived in Anaheim as GM in June 2005, he hired Dineen to coach the Ducks AHL affiliate in Portland. Dineen led the Pirates (featuring Ladislav Smid, Curtis Glencross) to a 53-19-8 regular season record, which was a 34-point improvement over the previous year. They also had a long playoff run before losing in game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. Capping off his rookie season, Dineen was named AHL coach of the year.

Dineen coached at Portland for five more seasons, the final three years they were the affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres. It was in the summer of 2011 that he was hired by Florida.

Just over a month after he was let go by the Panthers, Dineen was hired by Team Canada to coach the women's national team, who went on to win gold at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The next season, operating as an assistant under one of the very best in longtime Hartford Whalers teammate Joel Quenneville, he won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks.

2. Kirk Muller, age 50
  • Current - Past two seasons as assistant coach with St. Louis Blues
  • NHL Head Coach - Fired after 2013-14, his third season with Carolina
  • NHL Record - 187 gm, 80-80-27

His Time with the Hurricanes

Replacing Paul Maurice a couple months into the 2011-12 season, the club went 25-20-12 under Muller's direction but were unable to make it all the way back into a playoff spot after that bad start. Carolina also missed the playoffs in each of the next two seasons.

When Ron Francis was brought in as the Hurricanes new GM, he waited only a week before firing Muller and most of the coaching staff, saying the team needed a "fresh start". Hurting the team in Muller's final season behind the bench, Eric Staal and Alexander Semin both saw their production drop significantly and Cam Ward struggled in net with a .898 save percentage.

Muller was described as a very positive, upbeat coach and solid communicator. Garnering the nickname of "Kirk is Work", he expects his team to work hard and play an aggressive forechecking style that is much like what his reputation was as a player.

Coaching Background

After his 19-year NHL playing career ended, Muller spent the 2005-06 season as a CIAU head coach with Queen's University. The next year, he was hired by Montreal as an assistant coach under Guy Carbonneau. He was in that role for five seasons, the last couple years under Jacques Martin. His primary responsibility with the Canadiens was special teams and the power play and penalty kill were both in the top half of the league all five of his seasons. In particular, the PP was one of the league's very best over that time:
  • 2010-11 - 7th PP, 7th PK
  • 2009-10 - 2nd PP, 12th PK
  • 2008-09 - 13th PP, 11th PK
  • 2007-08 - 1st PP, 15th PK
  • 2006-07 - 1st PP, 13th PK

After interviewing for a few open NHL head coaching jobs in the summer of 2011 but failing to get hired -- most teams looking for someone with previous NHL head coaching experience -- Muller set out to try and get head coaching experience in the AHL. He contacted Nashville Predators GM David Poile and landed the job as coach for the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals. His time coaching in the minors only lasted a couple months before Maurice was fired by Jim Rutherford, GM at the time, who brought in Muller.

After being dismissed by the Hurricanes, Muller was snapped up by St. Louis just eight days later where he joined Ken Hitchcock, one of his former coaches while he was a player.

3. Glen Gulutzan, age 44
  • Current - Past three seasons as assistant coach with Vancouver Canucks
  • NHL Head Coach - Fired after 2012-13, his second season with Dallas
  • NHL Record - 130 gm, 64-57-9

His Time with the Stars

Gulatzan was hired in June 2011 by GM Joe Nieuwendyk. He replaced the fired Marc Crawford. Interestingly, one of the people interviewed that he beat out for the job was Muller. Gulutzan was a known commodity to Dallas as he had spent the previous two seasons coaching the Stars AHL affiliate in Texas. At the time, Nieuwendyk said, "He just gets it. He understands players. He understands how to mesh players and how to get the most from their ability... We were highly impressed with the structure and the style of play."

After missing the playoffs both years behind the Stars bench, he was fired two weeks after Jim Nill took over as Stars GM for a dismissed Nieuwendyk. Also let go was Gulutzan's assistant coach Paul Jerrard.  "They are both quality coaches and men, but we have decided to go in a different direction," said Nill in the press release. He would go on to hire veteran Lindy Ruff.

In that second season with the team struggling, Nieuwendyk traded Jaromir Jagr, Derek Roy and Branden Morrow at the trade deadline. With the younger roster, the re-invigorated team played some of its best hockey of the season but weren't able to make it all the way back and ended up missing the playoffs by seven points.

Coaching Background

In 2003, he was named GM and head coach of the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL. As is typical of teams in the lower minors like that, he did a little bit of everything and worked some awfully long hours. Eventually while he was in charge, the Wranglers became an affiliate of the Calgary Flames. In the coach profile video below, Gulutzan said that stint in Las Vegas taught him a lot and opened up connections in the NHL.

In 2009-10, Gulutzan took over the Stars AHL affiliate in Texas, leading the team to the Calder Cup final in his first season. He got the team back to the playoffs again the next season.

Less than three weeks after his stint as the head man with Dallas ended, Gulutzan was hired by Vancouver as an assistant to John Tortorella. When Tortorella was let go, the club liked what they had in Gulutzan, who was retained to work under new coach Willie Desjardins. It was an interesting plot twist considering Desjardins had previously worked as associate coach for one season in Dallas while Gulutzan was the Stars head coach.

Responsible for the Canucks penalty killing, Vancouver has ranked 9th, 2nd and 17th in his three seasons. He was also was touted as the possible interim coach when Desjardins looked to be on shaky ground in February.

Other Second-Chance Candidates

While I've cherry-picked a few names you're hearing more often, there are many others that fit into this bucket. Here are six more:
  • John Stevens, 50 - Took over in Philadelphia for Ken Hitchcock eight games into 2006-07. Flyers made the playoffs in his first two full seasons, losing to Pittsburgh in the first round both times. He was fired 25 games into 2009-10, replaced by Peter Laviolette. He joined the Kings as an assistant coach in the summer of 2010 and has been there ever since in the same role, other than a brief four-game stint as interim head coach between the exit of Terry Murray and entrance of Darryl Sutter
  • Mike Yeo, 42 - After a successful first year at the helm of Minnesota's AHL team in Houston, reaching the Calder Cup final, Yeo was promoted to the NHL and became the league's youngest coach. His first crack at NHL head coach lasted much longer than most and included modest success. Three out of four seasons Minnesota made the playoffs, each time being eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks. Yeo was fired 55 games into this past season, his fifth year behind the Wild bench. He's currently an assistant coach under Bill Peters with Canada at the IIHF World Championships, a team in which Treliving is the co-GM. 
  • Paul MacLean, 58 - Fired 27 games into 2014-15, his fourth season with Ottawa. In his first two seasons after replacing Cory Clouston, he got the Senators into the playoffs, reaching the second round in 2012-13. He spent the past season as an assistant coach with the Anaheim Ducks under Bruce Boudreau. The Ducks had the league's best power play and penalty kill last season. 
  • Todd Nelson, 46 - Coached Edmonton for the final 51 games of 2014-15 after taking over for the fired Dallas Eakins. Was not retained when the Oilers hired Todd McLellan. Prior to his stint in Edmonton, spent four seasons with the Oilers AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City. Nelson coached Grand Rapids (AHL) last season. Nelson has been a very successful coach in the minors.
  • Brad Shaw, 52 - Hired as an assistant coach with the New York Islanders under Steve Stirling in 2005-06, he took over as head coach after Stirling was fired. He went 18-18-4 and was dismissed at the end of the season. He was hired that same summer of 2006 as a Blues assistant coach and he's still there today. He was elevated to associate coach in June 2012. 
  • Scott Arniel, 53 - Fired 41 games into 2011-12, his second season as head coach with Columbus. After spending the next year as coach of the AHL's Chicago Wolves, he has spent the last three years as associate coach with the New York Rangers under Alain Vigneault

It would not be a surprise if most of these guys eventually get another shot in the NHL. It's just a matter of when. For Stevens and MacLean, it could be this upcoming season in Los Angeles and Anaheim. They're all coaches in and around a similar age range that carry some appeal given their overall track record. I wouldn't view any of them as colossal failures in their first shot at the NHL either. Some were more just victims of a new GM being hired and wanting to bring in his own coach as is so often the case.

Final Word

Given the volume of candidates out there, I don't see a need for the Flames to rush this important hire. With the Ducks vacancy the only one remaining at the moment, Treliving has the luxury of taking his time and interviewing as many possible candidates as he feels might be the right fit.

He has already said he'll be thorough and extensive

When he fired Hartley, he didn't elaborate on what he was exactly looking for in a head coach but did say he had a profile in his mind. He also said he'll know he's found the right match when he finds it.

With potential candidates operating as assistant coaches on teams still alive in the Stanley Cup playoffs, waiting for those teams to be eliminated could result in a delay to the process and that's fine. Given Treliving's involvement with Canada at the World Championships at the moment, that also adds a logistical hurdle.

I'd fully expect the coach to be in place by the draft but depending on how things go, maybe it's not until mid-June before an announcement comes. We'll see.

Bottom line is this is Treliving's first coaching hiring and it's an important one. It's a move he needs to get right so I don't seem him rushing it, unless as mentioned, the right candidate comes along and he sees no reason to interview any others.

Hire a coach, find a goaltender or two, re-sign his two star players. The Flames GM has quite a few projects on the go this summer. Hopefully he also doesn't have to assemble a barbeque because all joking aside, that's a weekend killer.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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  1. Gretz, coaching in Calgary ? Oh that would be just grand wouldn't it. Our friendly neighbors to the north would just love seeing him behind our bench.. lol

    1. and why would we care what they think, if he is the right man for the job?

    2. Honestly, I don't think his coaching record was that great. No offense, Michael Jordan hasn't been good at management either .

    3. My sense is Gretzky struggled with this era of athlete when he was in Phoenix. I keep expecting my kid to do things like I did them and he doesn't and for a while it drove me nuts, now I accept it. Not sure Gretzky could accept it. If I'm him, do I really need the aggravation? Love the game and all, I'm sure, but if I'm him, I think I'd rather just go golfing with Dustin Johnson!

  2. Thoughts on Gelinas as a head coach?