2011 Offseason: Head Coach Speculation & The New Jersey Devils

Welcome to the busiest period off the offseason.  The New Jersey Devils just made their selections in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft on this past Friday and Saturday - which I thought went well. There are more deadlines for decisions now. By 5 PM EST on Monday, they need to tender any qualifying offers to restricted free agents. Failing to do so will make the unrestricted free agents, which will begin on July 1 - this coming Friday. Buyouts can officially begin on this coming Thursday.  While not a lot had been do so far, expect a lot of news regarding players over the next seven days or so.   Lou will have a lot to do.

Oh, and then there's the additional matter of a head coach. The Devils don't have one as of yet, and that needs to be resolved before the next season begins.   When it will it be made? Given that these are the Devils, it'll happen when it happens.  It could even be in mid-July like when Jacques Lemaire was hired in 2009.

It's an issue I haven't really touched on yet because of the difficulty that comes with determining who would be a good head coach.  Good coaches tend to not be available.  The Devils have went through several coaches for varying different reasons.  There are examples of hiring a former NHL head coach to some success (e.g. Jacques Lemaire) and some failure (e.g. Claude Julien); as well as hiring someone with little head coaching experience in the NHL with success (e.g. Brent Sutter) and failure (e.g. John MacLean).

Most of all, it's not clear what this team actually needs in a head coach.  After last season, I got the sense that one key difference between Lemaire and MacLean was that Lemaire would work the guys real hard as opposed to MacLean.  After "getting them in shape" their performances got better.  Therefore, I think the Devils need some kind of disciplinarian.  Definitely not a player's coach.   Do I have any hard evidence of that? Unfortunately not.  Plus, there were other key differences, such as Lemaire understanding how to match up against an opponent and making tactical adjustments during the game far better than MacLean ever could.

To make it even tougher, there's not a whole lot of rumors out there given the organization we're dealing with. The Devils keep as much of their process to themselves, for better or worse, and so any coaching discussion is going to be speculation.  Let's give it a go after the jump anyway.

First, let's review what's actually out there. Back in mid-June, as the Winnipeg Neo-Jets were about to decide their head coach for next season, Rich Chere wrote this article on the coaching search.  It serves as a good summary of the coaches currently available for the Devils.  Chere postulates Craig Ramsay, who coached Atlanta last season, as a candidate should he not be selected for the Jets job.  Here's who else Chere mentioned as available at the time of his writing.

Ken Hitchcock and Marc Crawford, two marquee names, remain available, but the Devils have not pursued either at this point, even though Lamoriello said today he has been concentrating on the coaching search along with the upcoming entry draft.

...

Among those candidates for vacant coaching positions are the league are Canadiens assistant coach Kirk Muller, former Oilers coach Craig MacTavish, ex-Panthers coach Peter DeBoer and Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins.

As we know now, Ramsay wasn't picked for the Winnipeg job.  You can also scratch Kirk Muller off the list since Bob MacKenzie tweeted today that he'll be announced as the head coach of Nashville's AHL team in Milwaukee.  For what it's worth, Tom Gulitti tweeted during draft weekend that Muller wasn't much of a candidate anyway.   With the exception of Dallas Eakins, every one of these other possible candidates have been a head coach in the NHL before.  

Among them, I really hope Ken Hitchcock isn't seriously considered. While he's got a Stanley Cup ring with the 1999 Dallas Stars, his coaching career has apparently diminished since the lockout.  He got fired from Columbus during the 2009-10 season and wasn't hired by anyone last season. Surely if he still had "it," someone would have wanted him last season?  He's got the reputation of being a defensive-minded head coach, which didn't work so well in his last job in Columbus.  He's also a disciplinarian of sorts, but while he's got that going for himself; everything else about his past situation makes me want to stay away.

I'm not sure what to think about Marc Crawford as a candidate. While he's got plenty of head coaching experience, the fact that he hasn't taken a team to the playoffs since the lockout began is a little troubling.  That may be more of a result of the players he had; the head coach doesn't sign, trade, release, and promote/demote players, after all.  He could be getting a more powerful team than he has had, and perhaps that's all I need.  Is it worth the risk?  I'm not sure, but I can't quite place my finger on it.

With all due respect to Dallas Eakins, I really don't want the Devils to give another NHL assistant-turned AHL head coach his first NHL head coaching job.  Unless Eakins has demonstrated something great with the Marlies, I don't want to risk a repeat of the John MacLean era - even if Eakins has one more season of being a head coach in the AHL than MacLean does.

I don't think Peter DeBoer really got a fair shake in Florida, and he underwent three different GMs and owners in his time as head coach of the Panthers. While they didn't go anywhere, they weren't doormats when they easily could have been.  I feel that he was essentially fired for not being Dale Tallon's guy (the current GM) and not being able to make chicken salad our of chicken fecal matter.  Not many coaches can keep teams in playoff contention when their some of their best players are traded away season after season and the GM didn't provide decent depth.  I'd rather take the risk with DeBoer over Crawford, but maybe that's just me.

I also wouldn't mind taking that risk with Craig MacTavish.  Similar to DeBoer, I feel he was a victim to a degree of upper management not giving him enough quality to make the team successful night in and night out.  (I'm not alone in this, Derek Zona mentioned this when it happened to Tom Renney this season - and will mention it to anyone who will listen as to let people know how dumb Steve Tambellini really is.) Unlike all of these other candidates, MacT has taken a team to the playoffs after the lockout - and to Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Finals at that.  However, does he even want to be a head coach again?  As Derek Zona speculates in this post at the Copper & Blue, MacTavish may be more interested - and qualified for - in a position in higher management. 

Basically, there are no easy candidates to point to and say, "This should definitely be the guy."  Especially when you consider the reality that coaches may change what they do given the team they're coaching.  It may even change within the same team but over different seasons. Jacques Lemaire mixed up his lineup constantly in 2009-10, even tweaking lines during games for good or for bad.  In 2010-11, Lemaire kept his lineup mostly intact with few in-game changes unless absolutely necessary.

Over the draft weekend, there has been some kind of update. That's why Chere has this more recent post with two names at the top of the supposed list: Ramsay and Mike Eaves, the head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers.   It's titled "Devils close to naming a new head coach," driven by a short quote from Lou. Chere's got more experience of reading in between Lou's lines than I do, so I can see how he got to his headline from what he said.  Anyway, here's the relevant bit:

Lamoriello suggested a new coach could be announced sooner rather than later.

"Nothing yet," the GM said. "Until we get one, we're not close. But it won't be long."

Former Atlanta Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay and University of Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves remain among the top candidates.

Let's talk about Ramsay first.  Craig Ramsay is as old as Hitchcock and with far less head coaching experience in the NHL.  Ramsay has spent much of his coaching career as an associate or an assistant, with only two full seasons as a head coach (2000-01 with Philadelphia, 2010-11 with Atlanta) and one as an interim head coach (1986-87 with Buffalo).  While he's certainly been around the block, I have to ask: If he was so good, how come he went a decade between head coaching opportunities?  While you can argue he tried the best he could with a weak roster like DeBoer, it's not a vote of confidence that Winnipeg basically dumped him after the move.  Moreover, per this Tom Gulitti tweet, he was inquiring recently with Detroit for any assistant head coaching openings.  This raises a more important question: Why should the Devils be interested in Ramsay as a head coach if he's looking for assistant coaching position with other teams?  Maybe the Devils already let him know it won't be him? I don't know.

The new name here is Mike Eaves.  His name has come up since Gulitti mentioned the following near the end of this post at Fire & Ice.  While he has been an AHL head coach and an assistant at the NHL level, he's been the head coach at the University of Wisconsin since 2002-03.  Lou has gone "off the board" before, as he plucked Brent Sutter from his junior team a few years ago. All that means is that I wouldn't rule it out, though I question doing so just after a NHL head coach neophyte crashed and burned in New Jersey last season.   This post by Chuck Schwartz at Bucky's 5th Quarter does a great job in summarizing who Eaves is and why he's receiving interest. His style at Wisconsin and track record in developing players certainly is desirable.  However, I wouldn't get too excited just yet.  He's denied any interest from the NHL earlier this month, and this Sunday article from Andy Baggot at Madison Sports quotes the deputy athletic director of Wisconsin as not having any dialogue with Eaves related to the NHL.  Either this interest is very recent, or this isn't much of anything.

So those are the known names, and none of them are really anyone that jumps out at me for the reasons above. Feel free to discuss others like Mike Haviland (a top assistant with Chicago for three seasons), Guy Carbonneau (two and two-third seasons coaching Montreal, not hired as a coach anywhere else since 2008-09) and Michel Theirren (plenty of head coaching experience, dumped from Pittsburgh en route to a Stanley Cup with their replacement, no coaching job last season) if you so choose.  I will quote what Gulitti wrote about what the Devils see as the "ideal coaching candidate:"

The description of the ideal coach the Devils are looking for I was told is someone who can be with the team for a long time and grow with what will be a young team in the near future (with veterans such as Martin Brodeur, Colin White and Brian Rolston moving on in the next couple of years.)

This description falls in line with someone like Eaves, and perhaps guys like MacTavish, Therrien, and DeBoer as well.  They're not pushing 60 and they have experience with younger rosters and/or developing players for better or worse.  At the same time, this description doesn't fit for Hitchcock or Ramsay. I'm a little disappointed the description didn't include some kind of requirement of being a disciplinarian of sorts, since I feel the Devils as they are respond better to that kind of coach than a "player friendly" boss like MacLean or Larry Robinson.  Then again, perhaps that's not a public requirement for this position.

All the same, despite sharing my feeling on these former and current coaches as Devils candidates, I don't feel really comfortable with any of them. That's namely because all we have to go is their past, which is obfuscated by the teams they had, the situations they were in, and the knowledge that coaches can and will change their tactics based on what they have to do deal with.  I think that all contributes to the general risk that comes naturally with hiring a head coach.  After all, hiring John MacLean made sense at the time last June, and most of the readers here liked the hire then.  Who knew that would turn out as badly as it did.  All I know is that the Devils can't afford a repeat of that error. Unlikely as it may be, it's not impossible and it will be brought up should the 2011-12 season start poorly with any of these potential coaches or someone completely different.

So that's where I stand: in confusion and looking to you, the reader, for your opinion.  Do any of these names jump out at you? Who do you think the Devils should hire as head coach?  More importantly, why do you want a particular coach hired for the Devils?  Do you agree with what they are looking for, or do you think they look at a different kind of head coach?  Do you think the Devils should get a disciplinarian like I currently do?  Please leave your answers and other relevant thoughts about available coaches for the Devils in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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