For the third time in just over two years, the Buffalo Sabres will have a new head coach after general manager Tim Murray fired Ted Nolan at the conclusion of the team’s second-straight last place finish.
Nolan was brought in prior to Murray’s hiring, which made his firing an expected move after the team secured the rights to draft either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel in this June’s NHL Draft. Now, it’s Murray’s first search for a head coach as the GM of the Sabres, meaning there is a lot of pressure on him to get it right this time around.
Murray stated during a news conference to announce the staff changes that he wanted to gather the “biggest pool of good candidates” possible. He was also adamant that he wasn’t going to put a timetable on the search either due to the unknown of whether or not coaches that are still employed will be in the coming weeks and months.
This is bound to be one of, if not the, most important coach hiring in the franchise’s 45-year history. With one of the two “generational” talents coming into the mix next season, the man that Murray pegs to be the leader of the team has to be a perfect fit for those already here. But what coaches could be that fit that Buffalo needs going forward?
CANDIDATE #1: Luke Richardson
Richardson is the current head coach of the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League. He was once considered to be a man in line for an opportunity to coach Ottawa when Paul MacLean was fired in December, but the job was given to then Ottawa assistant Dave Cameron.
Richardson played 18 seasons in the NHL before becoming an assistant coach with Ottawa for three seasons. His first head coaching job was with Binghamton in 2012. He lead the AHL Senators to the Calder Cup Playoffs in his first two seasons before missing the postseason for the first time as a coach this year.
Due to Murray’s obvious ties with the Senators organization, Richardson could very well be one of the favorites to land the job of Sabres head coach.
CANDIDATE #2: Mike Babcock
The biggest fish in the pond this offseason could be the current Detroit Red Wings head coach. Babcock is slated to become a free agent at the end of the year after not signing an extension with the Red Wings.
Murray and Babcock go back to their time with the then Might Ducks of Anaheim in the early 2000s. They remain friends, and should Buffalo land McDavid this year, that, along with Sabres owner Terry Pegula’s deep pockets, could be enough to persuade Babcock to leave Detroit.
That being said, Murray is a GM who likes total control of the roster, which may not sit well with a personality like Babcock. Still, a compromise can easily be made between the two if it meant landing the Stanley Cup-winning coach.
CANDIDATE #3: Claude Julien
Just one year after winning the President’s Trophy for having the NHL’s best record, the Boston Bruins have found themselves hitting the golf course much early than anticipated. Due to missing the playoffs, Boston could be about to go through sweeping organization changes that may include the firing of Julien.
Should he actually become available, it would be wise for Murray to at least take a flyer on the man who helped lead the Bruins back to prominence as a yearly Stanley Cup contender. The 2014-15 season was just the second time in Julien’s NHL head coaching career that he failed to lead his team to the playoffs.
With a career record of 470-278-10-102, Julien is no stranger to success behind the bench, and could very well be the second-best option, behind Babcock, if he is ultimately let go by Boston.
CANDIDATE #4: Dan Bylsma
The former Pittsburgh Penguins head coach was fired after the 2013-14 season for failing to guide the team back to the Stanley Cup Finals since 2009. After a season away from the game, Bylsma is a coach that could be feeling the itch to get back behind the bench.
He’s spent the last year as an analyst on various hockey broadcasts for the NHL Network, so he hasn’t fully been away from the game. He was even in Buffalo as part of the broadcast team for the USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game last September, a game that featured Eichel.
Though some may believe he only had success in Pittsburgh, his only NHL head coaching job, due to having Sidney Crosby as his star player, a case can be made against that argument. Bylsma took over as Penguins head coach in the middle of the 2008-09 season after Michel Therrien was fired for not getting the team to play at a high enough level. He then went 18-3-4 in the regular season before guiding the team to their second-straight Stanley Cup Finals appearance, a series they won 4-3 against Detroit.
CANDIDATE #5: Todd McLellan
The final candidate on this list is another coach who is, as of posting, still employed by his current team. The San Jose Sharks coach has been the target of firing rumors and speculation for years due to not being able to get his talented teams over the hump, and into the Stanley Cup Finals.
After seeing his team blow a 3-0 series lead over the Los Angeles Kings during the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, McLellan went through this season dealing with question after question regarding his team’s overall chemistry.
McLellan has just one year remaining on his contract with the Sharks, which has led to a lot of speculation that the time has finally come for he and the team to part ways. Should it happen, I’d expect Murray to definitely interview the winningest coach in San Jose franchise history. Some may be worried about his lack of playoff success with the Sharks, but McLellan has shown he is a very good head coach in the NHL.
Michael is a former Managing Editor for The Hockey Writers. He’s covered the Buffalo Sabres, along with the NHL in general, for various outlets since 2009. His work has been featured on outlets such as Yahoo, Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports.