Sabres Have Good Options to Fill Head Coaching Position

With the Buffalo Sabres season going very different than everyone had thought, considering the offseason moves made by new general manager Kevyn Adams the team was forced to part ways with head coach Ralph Krueger midway through the 2020-21 season. While Krueger alone cannot be blamed for the team’s 6-18-4 record in the 28 games behind the bench this season, he was the first of many dominoes to fall in the organization. With the team facing another teardown, the search for a new head coach will likely begin in the offseason.

Kevyn Adams Buffalo Sabres
General Manager Kevyn Adams of the Buffalo Sabres, 2020 NHL Draft (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

There are plenty of potential suitors to land the Sabres head coaching vacancy. Finding the right fit to complement the current roster and direction of the team will be pivotal to turning the team back into a competitor. There are plenty of options that Adams has at his disposal to fill the void with varying degrees of experience and coaching style. This article will highlight some that should be good fits to lead the team through a rebuild and instill competitiveness and success back into the organization.

Front-Runners

Don Granato

Record as Head Coach: 7-10-3 (ongoing)

Years of NHL Head Coaching Experience: 0

Let’s get the easiest one out of the way, and that is the team’s current interim head coach Don Granato. He does not come with any experience as a head coach except for the time gained this year after taking over the Sabres job from Kreuger. Granato has proved to be a successful head coach in both the ECHL, AHL, and USHL before making the jump to the NHL level in 2017-18 as an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Buffalo Sabres Don Granato Dylan Cozens
Buffalo Sabres interim head coach Don Granato talks to Dylan Cozens (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

While the pedigree may not be there for him just yet, he has been able to make the team more competitive since taking over behind the bench and finally snapped the team’s 18-game winless streak. He has already matched Kreuger’s win total for this season with fewer games played, which should say something considering the team only got worse leading up to and at the trade deadline.

Sabres Record before Granato as Head CoachSabres Record with Granato as Head Coach
6-18-47-10-3 (through 20 games)

He is a new voice that should implement a system that is not what the team has had in the past, which could bode well considering their young core. He has a leg up on any competition, considering he has already built a relationship with these players through the season. If he can finish the season off strong, he may prove to his GM that he is the one that will be able to steer the ship in the right direction.

Mike Babcock

Record as Head Coach: 700-418-164 (including 19 ties between the 2002-2004 seasons)

Years of NHL Head Coaching Experience: 17

Of course, Babcock was going to make this list. He is arguably one of the best coaches the game has seen, despite his controversial coaching ways. He is an old-school hockey coach, which some may think may not be a good idea to have with a young core, but the truth of the matter is he did help bring the Toronto Maple Leafs through a rebuild and into a playoff contender. The team is also built somewhat similar to the Leafs team he helped develop with a franchise center in Jack Eichel, a star Blueliner in Rasmus Dahlin, and a few highly skilled prospects in Dylan Cozens, Jack Quinn, and Casey Mittelstadt.

Mike Babcock, Maple Leafs
Mike Babcock has not coached in the NHL since being fired by the Maple Leafs in November of 2019. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Although things may have soured in Toronto over time because of the difference between Babcock’s philosophy and the analytical regime of a younger management group, if Adams is willing to work with Babcock and commit to him as an experienced coach who implements strict systems, there could be a potential fit.

Related: Sabres’ Young Core Providing Reason for Optimism

The team has not really had a coach as hard and tough on players as Babcock is and could be a change needed to get players to buy in fully. We know from previous years that Buffalo was one of the final teams on Babcock’s list before he signed in Toronto, so he is likely willing to come to Buffalo. While it could be a good fit for the team, it could be as equal of a fit for Babcock to re-establish his coaching career after he was let go by the Leafs early in the 2019-20 season.

Gerard Gallant

Record as Head Coach: 270-216-51 (including 4 ties in the 2003-04 season)

Years of NHL Head Coaching Experience: 9

It came as a surprise when the Golden Knights walked away from Gallant midway through last season after two consecutive playoff appearances with an expansion team, including one in the Stanley Cup Final. After being replaced by Peter Deboer, the coach finds himself looking for a new team to lead to the promised land. Considering the Sabres situation, it may seem contradictory to bring in a “player’s coach” like Gallant, considering how young their roster is. Still, there is no denying the success the Summerside, P.E.I native has had throughout his career.

Gerard Gallant Vegas Golden Knights
Gerard Gallant was the Jack Adams Award winner in 2018 after a successful year with the Vegas Golden Knights. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Having a coach like Gallant may be good for the team to keep them loose and feel less pressure to perform. He can usually get the best out of any roster put in front of him by getting the players to all buy into his coaching style and system. He has a winning percentage above .523 since his second stint in a head coaching role back in the 2014-15 season. One of Gallant’s greatest strengths is being an excellent communicator with his players, and that should help younger players in the system feel more comfortable as they develop. His track record suggests that he can get the best out of his players, especially when nobody expects much success out of the team.

In the Mix

Mike Yeo

Record as Head Coach: 246-181-55

Years of NHL Head Coaching Experience: 8

After working his way up the coaching ranks from the minor leagues, Yeo got his first head coaching gig taking over the Minnesota Wild in the 2011-12 season. He spent five years with the Wild and was very successful, with only his first season being below a .500 winning percentage and leading the team to playoff appearances in three of his five seasons. He then served as an associate coach in St. Louis for the 2016-17 season before taking over for Ken Hitchcock midway through that season and for the next three years. He can sometimes be very demanding and hot-headed from time to time and will need to go back to what worked in his Minnesota days to find success.

Former St. Louis Blues head coach, Mike Yeo. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He was later replaced by Craig Berube in the 2018-19 season and has been an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers for the previous two seasons. There was some frustration between the team in St. Louis and Yeo’s revamped style to promote offense, but the ineffectiveness of this strategy likely led to his demise. If he can revert to his defensive-minded play and north-south offense, he could be a good fit for a young Sabres team with a lot of speed at both ends of the ice.

Bruce Boudreau

Record as a Head Coach: 567-302-115

Years of NHL Head Coaching Experience: 14

Another former Wild head coach could serve as a potential fit to fill the Sabres’ head coaching vacancy. Boudreau comes with a plethora of experience in coaching three different teams in the Anaheim Ducks, Washington Capitals, and aforementioned Wild. He has a career winning percentage of .635, which speaks volumes considering how long he has been coaching in the league, and has never had a season with a below .500 winning percentage.

Bruce Boudreau Minnesota Wild
Bruce Boudreau has not coached in the NHL since being fired by the Wild in February of 2020.(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The 2008 Jack Adams Award winner has always had a defense-first mindset as a coach who may not seem to fit with what the Sabres have on their blueline. Still, the Sabres have struggled mightily in keeping the puck out of their net, finishing no better than sixth-worst in goals against in the entire league dating back to the 2002-03 season. This is an alarming stat and could sway Adams into rethinking the rebuild strategy and build from the net out and hiring a coach who excels in defensive styles like Boudreau is a good start.

Wild Card Candidates

Steve Ott

Record as Head Coach: N/A

Years of NHL Head Coaching Experience: 0

This is the definition of a wild-card candidate, considering that Ott has no experience as a head coach at any level of the game. However, the former NHL pivot has been a member of the Blues coaching staff as an assistant since the 2017-18 season, including winning the Stanley Cup with the team in 2019. The recent addition of Jim Montgomery behind the bench before the start of the 2020-21 season could leave Ott looking to move on to a bigger role.

St. Louis Blues assistant coach Steve Ott
St. Louis Blues assistant coach Steve Ott (Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

In terms of a fit with the Sabres, Ott does have familiarity with the organization after playing with them between 2012-2014 before he was traded to the Blues. He was also a captain for a brief time with the Sabres and adored by many fans during his time in Buffalo because of his hard-nosed playing style.

(Photo: Andy Martin Jr)
Former Buffalo Sabres forward Steve Ott. (THW Archives)

While Ott may not have the coaching experience of some of these other candidates, his fiery attitude, leadership ability, work ethic, and competitiveness should allow him to build a strong relationship with the players and get them to play hard every night.

Jim Montgomery

Record as a Head Coach: 60-43-10

Years of NHL Head Coaching Experience: 2

Montgomery is most known for his solid coaching career at the University of Denver, which gave him his shot in the NHL. His only head coaching experience at the NHL level came with the Dallas Stars beginning in the 2018-19 season, in which he led the team into the second round of the playoffs. Unfortunately for Montgomery, he was fired by the team midway through the 2019-20 season for “unsportsmanlike conduct” due to his battle with alcoholism.

Dallas Stars head coach Jim Montgomery
Former Dallas Stars head coach Jim Montgomery (THW archives)

After rehabbing, Montgomery has since joined the St. Louis Blues as an assistant head coach and is now back behind an NHL bench. He looked like a great bench boss in his limited time with the Stars and is known for creating strong working relationships with his players and holding both himself and each player accountable, which is something the Sabres have seemingly been without.

Related: Jim Montgomery Seeks Fresh Start Behind Blues’ Bench

He is known for uniquely simplifying the game by breaking it up into objectives to keep his players engaged throughout the game and each shift while maintaining focus to strive for the common goal of winning the game. This idea of simplifying games could be something that bodes well for a rebuilding team into being effective and creating a process to find wins.

Finding the Right Fit

While there are even more potential candidates than the names on this list, the upper hand still belongs to Granato, considering what he has been able to accomplish with the team in a short period of time. He has been able to turn the Sabres into a much more competitive team, especially in a season where it would be easy to quit in the hope for the best chances in the upcoming draft lottery.

Related: Sabres Are Winning Games Since Historic Losing Streak

Ultimately the style of play and culture that Adams wants to instill in the team through this rebuild will play a major role in selecting a full-time bench boss. The most important thing to remember is that this process should not be rushed because of the repercussions it could have in delaying the team’s rebuild even longer. At this point, the organization cannot afford any more setbacks.


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