We’re now several weeks into an NHL postponement and there is still no clear timeline on when professional hockey will return. While fans of the sport have received small tidbits of news over that time, including college signings and contract extensions, the thirst for discussion has rarely been quenched.
With that in mind, we’re happy to continue our new feature: The PHR Panel. Three times a week, our writing staff will give our individual takes on a question many hockey fans have been wondering about. If you’d ever like to submit a subject for us to discuss, be sure to put it in the comments. This series will run each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
To catch up on the previous edition, click here.
Today, we’ll each give our thoughts on potential coaching candidates.
Q: Which current unemployed coach will generate the most interest in the offseason?
Brian La Rose:
Gerard Gallant’s firing in Florida back in 2016-17 was rather stunning. So was his firing this season with Vegas holding down a playoff spot and the fact there were discussions on an extension not long before it happened. He’s known as a good communicator which is becoming more and more important now which certainly helps.
What will also help is that both of his recent teams had a first-place finish under his short tenure which will catch the eye of owners and general managers looking for a quick turnaround. The fact that he has had success with teams in a (re)building stage will be of interest to those types of teams as well. In other words, just about every club with a vacancy (current or future) should have Gallant at least on their shortlist. The underlying numbers and analytics may give a couple of teams some pause but if Gallant wants to be a head coach next season, he’ll have multiple teams to choose from.
One other coach that will likely get some consideration is Bruce Boudreau. While his playoff track record isn’t the best, he has shown an ability to get a lot out of his teams in the regular season. At 65, he’s not going to be looking at a long-term situation but rather one where he can go for another quick fix. There will be teams looking for a speedy turnaround which will have him on the radar.
Due to several coaching changes during the course of the 2019-20 season, there are many high-quality coaches that are available, including Peter Laviolette, Boudreau, Randy Carlyle, but probably most importantly, Gallant.
All will likely draw plenty of interest for teams looking to make changes at the coaching position, but Gallant is the likely prize of the bunch. The head coach did everything imaginable to lead a group of misfits to the Stanley Cup in his first year as head coach of an expansion franchise and continued to show his success in year two. That year ended early due to a bad call by the officials, but the veteran coach proved that he is good enough to coach any team and will be hired quickly.
Gallant does have a few detractors, who point to things such as sticking with his favorite players too long and his unwillingness to play forwards who lack quality defensive play, but for most teams, that’s a positive. Not entirely sure what team might be interested in his services, but he has proven an ability to work with all types of teams and should be a big success wherever he ends up.
Even if you feel Mike Babcock and Jim Montgomery are still off-limits due to past behavior and even if you think that Boudreau is played out, Laviolette and Gallant alone make this an elite free agent class of head coaches.
Laviolette has proven to consistently be among the best coaches in the NHL, making the playoffs in 11 of his 15 complete seasons. He has also done so with four different teams, showing an ability to quickly adapt to new rosters and personnel. Laviolette won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and has made an appearance in the Cup Final two other times with two other teams, including 2017 with the Nashville Predators. For a 55-year-old, Laviolette is extraordinarily accomplished and still has plenty of gas in the tank.
Gallant, 56, also has far more to give and is likely raring to go after a surprise firing this season. This is the second time that Gallant has been dismissed seemingly out of nowhere, the other coming in 2016-17 after leading the Florida Panthers to a division title the year prior. The 2018 Jack Adams winner deserves another chance after leading the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, an unheard of accomplishment in sports, and taking them to the playoffs again last season.
Both of these coaches are elite and there will draw plenty of interest, with a number of potential openings and a new expansion team lurking. However, if I had to give the nod to one, I would go with Laviolette based on greater experience and a longer history of winning. It’s also worth noting that his Cup title with Carolina is the closest thing in terms of shock and awe to Gallant’s run with Vegas in recent memory, while his most recent Final appearance came just one year prior to Gallant’s. In my opinion, Laviolette is still one of the game’s best.
It’s hard to argue against coaches like Gallant and Laviolette, but I think it would be foolish to overlook the aura that has always surrounded Babcock just because of the stories that followed him out of Toronto. There is a reason why Babcock pushed against the ceiling for coaches in terms of salary when he signed with the Maple Leafs in 2015, earning a whopping eight-year deal worth $50MM. He has been extremely well-respected around the hockey world for a long time and even though things certainly went south extremely quickly in Toronto, there will be teams that want him to come in and establish a winning culture.
No, I’m not by any means saying that Babcock would be my choice if I was looking to hire a coach this offseason. Even looking beyond the questionable motivation tactics he used during his time in Toronto and the stories of player frustration that have followed him around for a long time, there is reason to doubt Babcock’s actual results over the last decade. Since his last Stanley Cup Final appearance with the Detroit Red Wings in 2009, teams under Babcock have gone just 32-46 in the playoffs. In Toronto he was never able to make it out of the first round, though he did usher them to the playoffs in three out of four full seasons.
Still, a Stanley Cup and two Olympic gold medals will keep your resume at the top of the pile for a long time and if he wants to, the 56-year old Babcock will certainly have a chance to coach again in the NHL—a league that has a long history of hiring “hated” coaches after a short time out of the spotlight. Darren Dreger was even on TSN radio recently discussing Babcock’s future, and counted himself in the camp that believes there will be another opportunity for the veteran coach in the future.