The Anaheim Ducks made their first signing of the offseason, whisking away Joel Bouchard from the Laval Rocket, the Montreal Canadiens’ AHL affiliate, and naming him the new head coach of their AHL affiliate, the San Diego Gulls. Bouchard had been head coach of the Rocket for the past three seasons.
This also marks the end of Kevin Dineen’s tenure as Gulls head coach after two seasons, in which the team went 56-36-9. The likelihood is that Dineen will pursue a higher position elsewhere, perhaps with an NHL team.
The Bouchard Effect
The Rocket were experiencing some troubling times prior to the hiring of Bouchard in 2018. They made the playoffs just once during the tenure of their previous head coach, Sylvain Lefebvre, and finished dead last in the league during the 2017-18 season. This understandably led to the termination of Lefebvre and the introduction of Bouchard.
The Rocket went 83-67-24 during Bouchard’s time as their head coach and his impact on the players was widespread. Not only did he get production out of the younger players on the team, but the veterans as well. Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling were both players who struggled in adjusting to the NHL level and received demotions to the AHL. Kotkaniemi improved his game significantly while playing for Bouchard and it showed when he came back to the Canadiens. Poehling has yet to return to the Canadiens, but he finished the AHL season on a high note and was one of their top performers.
“He did an awesome job with the prospects and put our development pipeline back on the rails. Laval won the North Division in 2020-21 comfortably.”-Melissa Boyd, Montreal Canadiens writer, The Hockey Writers
Others like Jake Evans and Victor Mete were able to prove under the tutelage of Bouchard that they are capable of playing in the NHL on a regular basis. While Mete is no longer in the Canadiens’ organization, he has found a footing with the Ottawa Senators and is now considered one of their most valuable defensemen.
Evans, a former seventh-round pick, went so far as to credit Bouchard with why he’s even an NHL player. To receive such an endorsement is a sign of how influential Bouchard has been for the Rocket.
Rookie phenom Cole Caufield also made his professional debut this season with Laval under Bouchard and his ease in transition instead of going from college hockey straight to the NHL helped prepare him for the rigors of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s clear that Bouchard has had a profound impact on the Canadiens’ younger prospects.
Eakins on the Way Out?
It’s not exactly a lingering issue just yet, but the contracts of both Ducks head coach Dallas Eakins and general manager Bob Murray are up at the end of this season. There’s been nothing to indicate what the future holds for both of them, but results from the past couple of seasons mean that the 2021-22 season will be one with plenty of implications.
Like Bouchard, Eakins has been able to get production out of the younger players on the Ducks. He was able to do that during his previous head coaching job as well with the Gulls, where he coached for four seasons before becoming the Ducks’ head coach.
The issue for Eakins has been getting production out of the veteran players on the team at the NHL level. Ryan Getzlaf has tailed off as age catches up with him, but players like Jakob Silfverberg and Kevin Shattenkirk did not have productive seasons. The special teams issues don’t fall on Eakins’ shoulders alone, but it seemed like Max Comtois was the only player who compiled close to a productive season from start to end.
Eakins wasn’t hired with the idea that the Ducks would be at the bottom of the league and he would be the ill-fated captain to steer the ship and endure the dreadful results while the team stockpiled draft picks and developed their young talent.
But due to the performances since his hiring, it appears that that is what inevitably became the result. Unless this season bears a surprise wild card berth, or something more, it’s likely that Eakins’ association with the Ducks will end after the 2021-22 season.
Bouchard Ready to Be a Head Coach?
Because of how similar Bouchard and Eakins’ impacts have been at the AHL level, it’s understandable for Ducks fans to meet the idea of Bouchard potentially becoming the next head coach with skepticism. The NHL is a totally different beast from the AHL and making the transition — whether as a player or a coach — can be a steep learning curve.
“Jordan Weal and Joseph Blandisi played very well for the Rocket, (Bouchard) kept a good balance of veterans to prospects — what you can in the AHL — and really knew how to find good line combos. The Rocket were the top team in the league until injuries hit.”-Trege Wilson, Montreal Canadiens writer, The Hockey Writers
The difference will be maintaining consistency at the top level and that can be difficult throughout the grind of the 82-game regular season and into the playoffs. Bouchard has been able to get production out of both prospects and veterans on his team, but so was Eakins. However, Bouchard doesn’t have the jagged coaching history that Eakins has from his time coaching the Edmonton Oilers. (from ‘”My bad.” Edmonton Oilers coach Dallas Eakins admits a mistake with “swarm,” tries to correct it.,’ Edmonton Journal, 10/31/2013)
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Bouchard’s head coaching journey has been relatively free of hardship in terms of team performance since he manned the helm for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada beginning in 2014-15. He’s only had one season since then where the team he’s coached has missed the playoffs (not including the shortened 2019-20 AHL season) and it will be interesting to see how he deals with adversity.
Of course, it’s a bit conclusive to assume that Bouchard will eventually be tabbed for the Ducks head coaching job, but he would be a viable candidate. A positive performance in his first season coaching the Gulls would push him to the front of the line.