With the bombshell that dropped on the hockey world on Wednesday that Mike Babcock would leave his post as the longest-tenured coach in the NHL and accept an 8 year, 50 million dollar deal to become the next coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, so ends the biggest head coach sweepstakes in recent memory. While Toronto fans rejoice as their new head coach heads across the border to coach the storied franchise, there are still three (potentially four) NHL teams with a vacancy in the head coaching position. While Buffalo, Detroit, and San Jose missed out on the big fish in the pond in Babcock, there are still plenty of great head coaching candidates that could lead these teams in the right direction.
Most recently seen at the helm of SC Bern, a team playing in the Swiss National League A, Guy Boucher has coached in the NHL before, leading the Tampa Bay Lightning all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011 before getting eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. While he was dismissed in 2013 after missing the playoffs, Boucher still represents a strong head coaching candidate. He is well-known for his creative thinking and innovative strategies, such as the infamous 1-3-1 neutral zone trap he employed while with Tampa Bay. Check out the NHL.com analysis of Guy Boucher’s trap below:
While not unanimously popular around the league, this kind of forward thinking is what makes Boucher such an attractive head coaching option. He has shown in the past that he is not afraid to challenge young players with big assignments and to thrust them into meaningful situations, such as in the 2011 playoffs with Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. His willingness to work with young players and create new tactics to get the best possible performance out of a young team makes him a perfect candidate for rebuilding teams stocked with young talent.
Best Fit: San Jose Sharks
The Sharks were also in on the Babcock sweepstakes, although they weren’t rumoured to be involved in a bidding war against the deep-pocketed Leafs or Sabres. The Sharks are a team stuck in limbo; they missed out on the playoffs this past season and have an aging core led by veteran forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. While the Sharks have some nice young talent coming up, including the likes of Tomas Hertl, Chris Tierney, and Mirco Mueller, previous head coach Todd McLellan was not renowned for his ability to incorporate youngsters into his lineup and make the most of their ability. Boucher successfully led a Tampa Bay team with a mix of veteran leaders (Eric Brewer, Martin St. Louis) and young players (Stamkos, Hedman) and was able to get the best performance out of his roster. He would be a great fit in San Jose, where his no-nonsense coaching style and innovative strategies could shake up a Sharks team that hasn’t advanced past the second round since 2011.
Paul MacLean was recently considered one of the best coaches in the entire NHL, winning the Jack Adams award as the league’s best coach in 2013. MacLean is another coach who is highly regarded for his ability to give his young players meaningful playing time and to get the most out of the ability on his roster. MacLean has had a very successful track record as an NHL coach, winning a Stanley Cup as an assistant coach in Detroit under one Mike Babcock before being hired as the head coach for the Senators in 2011. In his first year at the helm, he led a young team to a successful season, finishing 2nd in the Northeast division before bowing out in the first round. His Senators improved in his second season, leading a team missing superstars Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza into the postseason and advancing past the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens.
MacLean’s Senators were well above average in most advanced statistics, finishing the 2013-2014 season with a 52.4% Corsi figure, meaning that the Senators under MacLean got a good majority of the scoring chances over their opponents. While not every NHL team has bought into the advanced statistics movement, his promising numbers in these areas could be of interest to teams looking to invest resources in advanced statistics, such as the Buffalo Sabres (who happen to have a vacant coaching position).
Best Fit: Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres were one of the last teams in the running for Babcock and even reportedly thought they had landed the coveted bench boss. It’s easy to understand their high interest in the coach; Babcock has a long track record and great reputation for getting the most out of his young players. Buffalo, being one of the youngest teams in the league, were obviously interested in getting a coach with such a reputation to develop the impressive crop of young talent they’ve assembled over the past few seasons. MacLean, however, has a similar reputation regarding use of young players and squeezing the best results out of his roster. The Sabres still have a couple years ahead before they could potentially become true contenders, and adding a proven coach like MacLean could kick-start the stagnant Sabres and lead to great results like he produced in his first few seasons with Ottawa.
The man that has been leading the Red Wings’ affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, for the past two seasons, is seen as the next young star coaching candidate. Much like Jon Cooper’s successful transition to the NHL in 2013, Blashill has seen a lot of success at every level he’s coached at leading up to the AHL. Blashill’s record in the AHL includes an impressive 88-48-2-12 record, as well as a Calder Cup championship with the Griffins in 2013. Blashill’s player-friendly style has directly contributed to the famed Detroit Red Wings’ player development model in the past few seasons, pushing prospects such as Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, and Teemu Pulkkinen into important roles with the Red Wings. In addition to his impressive track record at the AHL level, Blashill also has a sterling reputation amongst the Detroit brass and around the AHL, leading to a shining endorsement from one recently departed Mike Babcock.
Best Fit: Detroit Red Wings
I know this is pretty cut and dried at this point, but Blashill is the most qualified candidate for the Red Wings job. The Red Wings are an organization that emphasizes internal growth and development, and a coach that made a name for himself and earned the trust of Ken Holland and company fits well into that category. Not to mention a strong rapport with a large portion of the current and future Red Wings core, such as the aforementioned Jurco, Tatar, Pulkkinen, Blashill seems like the best man for the job. Blashill could still entertain external opportunities, but he is still under contract with the Detroit organization and now that Babcock has departed, I doubt that Ken Holland would allow such a quality coach to walk away.
Joseph Aleong is an At-Large writer for THW from Toronto, Ontario. He is a graduate of Brock University in St. Catharines, ON. Follow him on Twitter @josephaleong11