In the highly competitive Atlantic Division of the NHL, there are three new coaches preparing for the upcoming season. In all three cities, there are, some would say, unreasonable expectations. For a variety of reasons, in Buffalo, Detroit and Toronto the season upon us brings trepidation along with the new coaches.
For the Sabres and Maple Leafs, patience for a turnaround may be short yet these two franchises brought up the rear in the division last year. Maybe it was a direct result of this underwhelming performance that both organizations went with perhaps two of the biggest names in tapping their new coaches.
The Buffalo Sabres have missed the post-season for the last four years. On paper, the roster is filled with names we know and ones we figure we ought to know soon enough. From captain Brian Gionta to this spring’s second overall draft pick, Jack Eichel, this team has an inventory of players most veteran coaches would relish to stand behind.
Dan Byslma is about as sharp as coaches come. He’s coached one of the most visible players on the planet for over five years. The expectations applied to every team he coached in Pittsburgh were astronomical. Of course, when you are a mid-season replacement whose team goes on to win Lord Stanley’s Cup just after you get to the 25 regular season game plateau, you have already exceeded any aspirations felt by you, your boss, your team, your fans and your city.
At 44 years of age, Bylsma is still young enough and certainly should be well rested after a season off last year. The question becomes whether or not Byslma has the horses to make a legitimate playoff run? Let’s look at his team.
At goalie, the Sabres gave up a first round pick for Ottawa’s backup, Robin Lehner. At six four, Lehner is a big man who covers up a big part of the net. It should be noted that just a couple of years ago, in April of 2013, the Ottawa hierarchy thought so much of Lenhner that they parted with Ben Bishop in a trade with Tampa.
On defense, there are strong veteran presence with Mike Weber, Josh Gorges, and Carlo Caolaiacovo but the defender that makes stand up and take notice is Zach Bogosian. The number three overall draft pick for the then, Atlanta Thrashers is no slouch. Hard-hitting blue liners that eat up important minutes are hard to come by but Bogosian fits that bill. Byslma has a top four group of defensemen that can play with anybody in this league.
Buffalo’s forwards are, at the least, intriguing. Unfortunately, there seem to be more question marks than answers, but Tyler Ennis, Zemgus Girgensons and Marcus Foligno are solid forwards. Add to that list, Gionta and Eichel as well as the enigmas by the names of Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly.
General manager Tim Murray has provided his new coach the roster that makes playoff talk feasible. How Byslma gets these players pulling the rope in the same direction is how he will be graded. Without a doubt, Buffalo should be in the hunt but missing the playoffs for the fifth straight year is not a part of Byslma’s plan.
Toronto’s Top Free Agent
In the frenzy that is the NHL free agent period that begins July 1st, one of the most coveted free agents was former Detroit Red Wing coach, Mike Babcock. The Maple Leafs signed Babcock to a reported $50 million contract. With only one playoff appearance in the last ten years, the onus is on Babcock to fix the Toronto ship straightaway.
Team President Brendan Shanahan also hired former New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello as the Leafs newest GM. With Babcock and Lamoriello along with Shanahan, the front office and coaching ranks are world-class.
The hurdle for Babcock in Toronto does seem a lot higher than Byslma but with his deal, Babcock probably has a longer period of time to get the Leafs into a playoff contender.
The unspoken incentive for Babcock is that he is coaching in the same division as the team he just spent ten years coaching. There are few who could doubt the talent Babcock possesses to coach NHL players. Most people would agree that the difficulty in turning this franchise around is perhaps at an all-time high.
Babcock will succeed in Toronto but to what degree? Will he simply get them into the playoffs? Could he be on the threshold of perennial playoffs for this franchise? Clearly, the moves made by and the players provided by Lamoriello will affect the timing of the expected success.
Jeff Blashill is the fourth coach for the Detroit Red Wings in the last 22 years. When you succeed names like Scotty Bowman and Babcock, the shoes you fill may seem like bozo-size loafers.
There may be some outside Detroit that are aware of Blashill as he coached their AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapid Griffins the last three seasons. If there were any questions about the pedigree of Blashill, in those two of those three years he won one Calder Cup as well as taking his team to the conference finals in another.
Of the three new divisional coaches, Blashill has the best roster on paper. He still has some question marks particularly at goalie although Petr Mrazek played well at the end of last season and in the playoffs.
Hockeytown is an intimidating place for opponents to play and it can be an overwhelming experience to coach there. The fan base is knowledgeable and boisterous. But Blashill while not very well known, has won in his coaching career. Won the Clark Cup in the USHL, the Calder in the AHL.
In a division that has the Tampa Bay Lighting and the Montreal Canadiens who most likely will battle for the division title, there are no easy marks on the schedule. While Boston is retooling their team, they still have one of the best goalies in Tuuka Rask to go along with many top flight forwards.
The Florida Panthers were knocking on the door of the playoffs last season until they were eliminated in the last week of the season. The Ottawa Senators made the playoffs last year and expectations are high in Canada’s capital city.
The three new coaches in the Atlantic division have their work cut out for them. Blashill, Byslma and Babcock are by no means assured of a playoff spot in this tough division. One thing for certain, the impact these three new coaches have on their respective teams will be felt from the opening drop of the puck.