There has been plenty of speculation and guessing on who will be the Seattle Kraken’s first head coach. A few high-profile names have been mentioned repeatedly as candidates for the job. Gerard Gallant, Mike Babcock, and Peter Laviolette being the most prominent. Laviolette is now off the table after being hired by the Washington Capitals as their next head coach.
There is a reason why the same names resurface every time a job opens up. These are experienced, seasoned coaches who have won at the NHL level. For general managers, these choices always feel smart and safe. Many times, like in the case of coaches like Rick Bowness for the Dallas Stars and Barry Trotz for the New York Islanders, these decisions pay off with success. Although sometimes established coaches can’t find the same magic in a new setting.
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It may be time for teams to look outside of the box for their next hire. They may consider coaches who don’t have a lengthy NHL head coaching resume, but need to be given that first opportunity. Here is a look at two interesting candidates who are waiting for that chance.
Ducharme emerged as a rising star in the coaching ranks when he was hired as the bench boss of the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) in 2011. He would go on to lead Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, and the Mooseheads to a Memorial Cup championship in 2013. After three more seasons in Halifax, he was hired as the head coach and general manager of the Drummondville Voltigeurs, before departing after two seasons for the NHL and an assistant coaching job with the Montreal Canadiens.
He has been assisting Canadiens head coach Claude Julien for the past two seasons and was instrumental in Montreal’s resurgence. When Julien had to exit the NHL bubble with a medical issue, Ducharme and Kirk Muller were called upon to increase their roles. Ducharme was also the head coach of the Canadian World Junior Championship team in 2017 and 2018, leading them to a silver medal in the latter campaign.
Ducharme is respected by players and peers and is known for being a very good in-game bench coach. He has a great mind for the game and can make in-game adjustments on the fly. He helps Julien with the forward group and when he was in junior he was known as a tactician — skilled at creating positive match-ups.
There are thoughts that Ducharme is the heir apparent in Montreal, but nothing is set in stone, and Muller was named interim head coach in Julien’s absence. (from ‘Stu Cowan: Dominique Ducharme a head-coach-in-waiting with Canadiens,’ Montreal Gazette, 04/28/2018) Ducharme may not be ready, but he will eventually be running a bench in the NHL. If Seattle is looking outside of the box, they may want to set their sites towards Montreal.
Who is Rikard Gronborg? Gronborg is a decorated coach of Sweden’s national team, who, over a 10-year period, led them to gold medals in both the World Junior Championship and World Championship, along with capturing an Olympic silver medal in 2014. Last season — his first as head coach of the ZSC Lions of the Swiss NLA — he led them to a first-place finish before the playoffs were canceled due to the pandemic.
The New Jersey Devils had requested to interview Gronborg for their head coaching vacancy but were denied because he is under contract for another season. Seattle would certainly be anxious to have their coach announced by then, but the timing would be right with them not beginning play until the fall of 2021.
Gronborg has made his desire to coach in the NHL clear and believes the league is ready for a European head coach. He has lived in North America, playing collegiately at St. Cloud State, and held various assistant coaching jobs before returning to Sweden. He led the Swedish National team to unprecedented success and took the job with the ZSC Lions to add head coaching at the pro level to his resume.
Gronborg has had the opportunity to coach just about every high-profile NHL player that Sweden has produced over the last decade. He considers his approach to the game as a hybrid between the European and North American game. There was always the impression that European players were skilled, but couldn’t keep up with the physical style of the NHL. Watching the playoffs this season, it is evident that, while the physicality is still prevalent, if a player isn’t skilled then he is going to have a tough time competing. A coach like Gronborg may be able to be very successful in the NHL merging those two styles. Like Ducharme, Gronborg will most likely find a general manager to take the chance sooner than later.
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The coaches whose names continually surface when jobs open up, are good coaches and deserve the opportunity to be considered, but some teams may begin to look at the next generation of coaches. Innovation and youth continue to be trending in the NHL and a coach with fresh ideas has the same chance to succeed as the veteran coach with experience. If the league is ready for some fresh faces, Gronborg and Ducharme will be in the conversation and Seattle could be the team to set a trend.
Mark has been involved in hockey as a player, coach, general manager and scout for over 40 years. Currently scouting in the QMJHL and writing for THW.