The Chicago Blackhawks are rebuilding. With Kyle Davidson now the 10th general manager (GM) in franchise history and potentially a busy NHL Trade Deadline approaching on March 21, one position the Blackhawks need to address moving forward is the head coach.
Although current interim head coach Derek King has done an adequate job since taking over for Jeremy Colliton in early November, I’m not sure he is the right person for the position long-term. After Colliton was fired on Nov. 6 amid a 1-9-2 start, King, who was promoted from the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Rockford IceHogs, has looked comfortable in his shoes. However, while his humorous personality and laid-back demeanour have been a breath of fresh air, he has no other NHL experience behind the bench. A fresh, yet credible voice could certainly be useful for the Blackhawks if they want to regain relevance in the NHL.
While Davidson hinted at King being a possible candidate for next year’s head coaching job during his introductory press conference, I wanted to specifically evaluate external voices who could guide the Blackhawks beginning in the 2022-23 season. Here are five potential candidates who could end up as Chicago’s bench boss next fall.
Lane Lambert, who is currently an assistant coach with the New York Islanders, would bring some much-needed experience to Chicago. Since 2011, he’s worked alongside two-time Jack Adams Award-winner Barry Trotz, beginning with the Nashville Predators before moving with him to the Washington Capitals and, most recently, the Islanders. He has a Stanley Cup to his name, winning one with the Capitals in 2018 before heading to the Islanders that offseason.
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In Washington, Lambert helped develop players like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, and Dmitry Orlov while helping guide franchise centerpieces Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Bäckström. It certainly helps that he’s also worked alongside Trotz for many years, one of the smartest and most well-respected head coaches in the NHL today.
Lambert has never been an NHL head coach before, but he certainly has a credible mentor to look up to in Trotz and seems more than capable of leading his own team based on his successes. Trotz is known for his shutdown-oriented and defensive-heavy systems, which could pay off for the Blackhawks if Lambert came to Chicago and decided to emulate his mentor.
After a successful tenure as head coach of the University of Denver from 2013-18, the Dallas Stars hired Jim Montgomery as head coach in May 2018 for his first NHL coaching gig. He had a solid first season, guiding Dallas to a 43-32-7 record and the second round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The following season, Montgomery showed promise in Dallas, and many figured he’d be the Stars’ long-term solution as bench boss before he was abruptly fired on Dec. 10, 2019, due to off-ice issues which were later revealed to be alcohol abuse.
Before getting a second shot in the NHL as an assistant coach for the St. Louis Blues in September 2020, Montgomery used his time away from hockey to reflect, learn, spend time in rehab and ultimately become sober. There’s no doubt Montgomery’s off-ice issues will overshadow much of the success he’s had in his hockey career, but since his dismissal from Dallas, there’s been zero evidence that he’s relapsed to his previous behavior or has suffered any other issues.
Given his success in Dallas and at the collegiate level, having won an NCAA National Championship with the University of Denver, Montgomery deserves a second shot as a head coach. In his second season with the Blues, he’s working alongside 2019 Stanley Cup Champion Craig Berube and has helped guide the team to sustained success this season. Of course, the Blackhawks have suffered off-ice issues themselves and are working to revamp their image, so some would likely criticize this choice if it were to happen. However, if Chicago feels Montgomery has learned and is ready to become a head coach again, he could easily be a viable candidate.
Currently an analyst for the NHL on TNT, Rick Tocchet, 57, was most recently head coach of the Arizona Coyotes from 2017-21. Additionally, from 2014-17, he served as an assistant coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins, winning two Stanley Cups. While he didn’t exactly have that same level of success in Arizona, guiding the Coyotes to the Stanley Cup Playoffs just once in his four seasons, much of that was due to the on-ice product and not necessarily his coaching style.
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Throughout his time in the NHL, Tocchet has established himself as an effective communicator. He would also bring great discipline to Chicago, something the Blackhawks need even as they rebuild. Tocchet, who’s had two NHL head coaching gigs with the Coyotes and Tampa Bay Lightning from 2008-10, would present the Blackhawks with an intriguing situation if the team considers him a candidate. He’s only made the playoffs once in his six seasons as a head coach, but he’s worked with rebuilding and inexperienced teams before in Arizona and Tampa Bay.
Because Tocchet has experienced the nuances of a rebuilding club and has seen the league long enough, I’d consider him a realistic candidate for the Blackhawks. He’d also bring the NHL experience King currently lacks if they specifically want a veteran.
Of the five candidates I’m profiling, there’s no doubt Claude Julien would bring the most experience to Chicago, as well as success. Julien served as head coach of the Boston Bruins from 2007-17, guiding them to a Stanley Cup in 2011 and seven consecutive playoff appearances in his first seven seasons. He then served as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens from 2017-21, where he posted a 129-123-35 overall record before the organization fired him in February 2021.
Like Tocchet, Julien is a well-respected veteran, but he brings a little more playoff-caliber experience. Along with a Stanley Cup, he also won the Jack Adams Award following the 2008-09 regular season when he guided the Bruins to a 53-19-10 record and first place in the Eastern Conference. He’s worked in two high-profile, Original Six markets in Boston and Montreal, so he’d probably be able to handle the external noise from fans and media if he went to Chicago.
Many fans would probably applaud this choice, but there’s one small roadblock I could see if the Blackhawks eyed Julien. After serving so many years as a head coach for championship-level teams in Boston, would he want to embrace a rebuild in Chicago, especially given that his tenure in Montreal wasn’t as successful? Just because the Blackhawks could have interest in Julien doesn’t mean he’d have interest in Chicago if he wants to immediately get back to winning.
Rickard Grönborg, 53, has never coached in the NHL before. He’s never coached in North America either. Honestly, I’m not sure if either of those matter.
Grönborg, a Huddinge, Sweden, native, is currently head coach of the ZSC Lions of the National League in Switzerland. When he first took over in 2019-20, he improved the Lions’ winning percentage from .550 to .680 before guiding the team to a .635 winning percentage in the 2020-21 season. He has a ton of international experience, having led Team Sweden to one World Championship gold medal as head coach, two as an assistant coach, and an Olympic gold medal during the 2014 Winter Olympics as an assistant coach.
From Daniel Alfredsson to Nicklas Lidström, Grönborg has worked and developed relationships with many of Sweden’s finest players. Along with his success as a coach, he also holds a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in management — two necessary disciplines for any head coach, regardless of the level.
Because of his extended success overseas, Grönborg seems due for an NHL gig, whether that be as a head coach or even as an assistant coach. While that could lend itself to some issues, like overcoming the cultural barrier or simply adapting to a new style of play, the pros in this situation seem to outweigh the cons. This would be an outside-of-the-box hire for the Blackhawks, but it would be one I’d applaud and one the franchise might need as it works to achieve success the right way.
Looking at the Bigger Picture
There are certainly other candidates Chicago could consider, including King. A few honorable mentions for me are current NHL on ESPN analyst and former Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella and former New York Rangers head coach David Quinn.
Now that the Blackhawks have solidified the GM role, I’m intrigued with how they will approach the head coach position for next season. King seems to be locked into the spot for the remainder of the 2021-22 season, but as I discussed, that doesn’t mean he’ll be back next year. There are many directions the Blackhawks could go with this role, such as considering in-house candidates like King or current associate coach Marc Crawford, hiring an established veteran like Julien, or bringing in a fresh face such as Grönborg or Lambert.
Regardless of what direction Chicago goes, though, as cliché as it sounds, fans need to trust the process and remember who may sound best on the surface might not be the best for the Blackhawks and their franchise. As he stated last week, while Davidson worked under former general manager Stan Bowman, that doesn’t mean he’ll bring a similar approach or philosophy, which fans need to keep in mind as the Blackhawks potentially bring in a new head coach. Hiring an effective communicator and leader is a must for Chicago as they move forward and work to once again become contenders.