Ducks Wise Not to Fire Carlyle…Yet

With the Anaheim Ducks on their bye week and out of action until Feb. 2, things have calmed down on the “fire Randy Carlyle” front. However, the Ducks’ 12-game losing streak is still fresh in the minds of fans, and as soon as the Ducks play their next game, calls to dismiss Carlyle will return no matter the outcome. Luckily for Carlyle, Ducks general manager Bob Murray has been patient with his head coach and that’s the right move for his team.

Carlyle’s Time Is Limited Anyway

Just because Murray released a statement two weeks ago claiming he’s not going to fire his coach “at this time,” that doesn’t mean he won’t make a change at season’s end.

In fact, I think a change is virtually assured. Carlyle’s contract expires at the conclusion of this season, and although the team holds an option for 2019-20, it’s a much wiser decision to decline the option in the offseason than it is to fire someone in the middle of a playoff race.

In addition, Murray has a path to move Carlyle off the bench without firing his close friend; a relationship that has been well-established. Some people, like former Sports Illustrated scribe Nick Forrestor, suggested that their friendship played a role in Carlyle’s rehiring in 2016.

“Carlyle and GM Bob Murray are known to be good friends, and since Carlyle’s dismissal by Toronto, he has been a frequent visitor to the Honda Center.”

Another expert theorizes that Murray has a way to remove Carlyle from behind the bench without contributing to his unemployment. In a Q & A for The Orange County Register, Elliot Teaford said Carlyle moving to the front office is, “a very likely scenario.” (from ‘Ducks Q&A with Elliott Teaford: Who would replace Randy Carlyle as coach?’ – The Orange County Register – 1/22/19).

If you believe those rumors, you absolutely have a right to question the merits of moving someone who failed to adjust to a rapidly-changing NHL and may be benefiting from nepotism into a front office position, but at least he’ll be off the bench.

From the Gulls to the Ducks, Continuity Is Key

By all indications, San Diego Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins is the best-qualified man in the Ducks organization to replace Carlyle. Eakins is the only other Gulls or Ducks coach besides Carlyle with NHL head coaching experience, even if it was unsuccessful.

He’s received praise both verbally and monetarily from Murray for his success with San Diego. Speaking of Eakins contract extension in May, Murray said, “He has helped create a winning tradition and a successful development program with our AHL affiliate.”

The Gulls have qualified for the playoffs three out of the past four seasons with Eakins behind the bench and they have a number of prospects on the precipice of becoming full-time NHL players.

It’s obvious Eakins has the potential to help transition the Ducks to a younger, faster team, but patience in letting him take over is key. Anaheim’s move from Carlyle to a new coach and when it happens will determine the speed at which they evolve from old and slow to young and fast.

Dallas Eakins coaching the Edmonton Oilers
Dallas Eakins’ only NHL head coaching experience came with the Edmonton Oilers where he was fired after 113 games. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

Troy Terry, Max Jones and Sam Steel have had Eakins for most of their first professional season, and although they’ve been up and down, their adjustments to the professional game has largely happened in the AHL. The same goes for other Gulls prospects, including Jack Kopacka, even if they aren’t quite as close to being “NHL ready.”

If Murray fires Carlyle now and promotes Eakins, he would be forcing his prospects in the AHL to adjust to a new coach, possibly even an interim coach followed by another new coach in the offseason. Different coaches mean different coaching styles and new systems. By acting too quickly, Murray would run the risk of damaging the development of his vital young players.

Give Eakins the Best Chance to Succeed

Promoting Eakins in the offseason would give Anaheim’s players more time to adjust to his system while players he coached in the AHL will benefit from the continuity if they make the jump to the NHL from training camp.

Additionally, it’s no secret that Eakins didn’t have a successful first stint in the NHL. In one-and-a-half seasons as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers, he led them to a record of 36-63-14. Former Oilers GM Craig MacTavish fired him 31 games into the 2014-15 season after the team compiled only seven wins.

If Eakins isn’t successful in his next NHL opportunity, it’s likely he won’t be given another one for quite a while, if ever again. This means the pressure is on. Taking over a team scratching for a playoff spot on the fly and past the midpoint of the season is not a recipe for success. Regardless of the potential that Murray and fans think the team has, all parties would be better served by waiting.

Leaving Eakins in the AHL for the duration of this season would give him a chance to gain experience from another AHL playoff run and Murray a bigger sample size to evaluate Eakins’ qualifications.

Ducks Could Look Outside the Pond

Waiting until the offseason would also provide the Ducks a chance to complete a more thorough coaching search. There are many other candidates available in addition to Eakins. John Stevens, Mike Yeo and the sure to be well sought-after Joel Quenneville will all be candidates for open coaching positions. Given the volatility in Edmonton, who knows where Ken Hitchcock will be after season’s end.

Joel Quenneville lifting Stanley Cup
Could Joel Quenneville, the NHL’s second-winningest all-time coach, replace Randy Carlyle in the offseason? (Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports)

It’s clear he’s nearing the end of his coaching career after he retired last season, only to come back to coach the Oilers, but maybe he’d consider sunny, warm Southern California for the final chapter of his career. Although Dave Hakstol lost his job with the Philadelphia Flyers after they cratered earlier this season, he still led them to a winning record in each of his three previous seasons, including two playoff appearances. That’s a far better track record than Eakins’.

Speaking of a former NCAA coach, there are current college coaches to consider as well. NCAA coaches are becoming popular targets for NHL coaching jobs. The New York Rangers named former Boston University head coach David Quinn as their head coach last offseason. That happened three weeks after the Dallas Stars tabbed University of Denver head coach Jim Montgomery as their new bench boss.

Should the Ducks go in that direction? Considering Murray’s stated mission to move to a faster playing style, as well as the team’s transition to a younger core, drawing from the NCAA could be a good option. One of the most qualified names still in the NCAA would be University of Minnesota-Duluth’s head coach Scott Sandelin. The media mentioned Sandelin’s name in connection with the open Rangers job last season.

Scott Sandelin, Head Coach of the University of Minnesota – Duluth Bulldogs was named in multiple NHL coaching searches last offseason (THW)

Sandelin’s NCAA resume is gold-plated, sporting two NCAA titles. His Bulldogs are currently ranked third in the nation.

The Ducks Have Other AHL Options

If an NCAA coach is too much of a risk, there are other AHL coaches who are likely to get a crack at open NHL jobs. One of them is Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe. Keefe coached the Toronto Maple Leafs’ AHL club to a Calder Cup last season and two deep playoff runs before that.

Keefe has helped oversee the development of Maple Leafs prospects in the AHL while the NHL franchise has climbed from the league’s basement to two, going on three, consecutive playoff appearances. He would be a good option for the Ducks, although he lacks the NHL experience Eakins possesses.

It makes too much sense to wait until the offseason to let go of Carlyle. Patience would allow the team to sort through the plethora of available and qualified candidates to coach an NHL team. It would help the Ducks choose a coach they believe can continue to develop its young players while continuing to challenge for a playoff spot, because the Ducks are not a team in “complete rebuild” territory.

Whether that’s within the organization or outside of it, patience is vital for the Ducks.