So Ted Nolan is now coaching in Latvia, Craig MacTavish in suburban Chicago, Cory Clouston in Brandon, MB and Andy Murray in the college ranks. All the while, Marc Crawford, Ken Hitchcock and Mike Keenan are sitting at home.
There certainly has been a shift in the coaching world. Former NHL coaches do not have the value they once had. It wasn’t that long ago that both Hitchcock and Murray didn’t even last a year out of the game before getting new positions in Columbus and St. Louis, respectively. Coaches with NHL experience had a tremendous advantage over those in the “A” or junior hockey.
So, what changed? Why has NHL experience almost become a liability for the men behind the bench?
Quite frankly, it appears that — like players who skate every night — the coach position is getting younger. As one NHL coach told me, “The league is getting younger and the perception of being able to work with young players is a plus.”
That certainly appears to be the trend. And in turn, it also appears that young general managers are more likely to hire coaches they can relate better to. A GM in his 40s is not likely to hire a coach 10 or 15 years his senior.
One GM told me, “It’s a generational thing. A young manager could actually be intimidated by an experienced coach. They probably feel it’s in their own best interest to hire a younger man, who can work and grow on the job together.”
I surmised to a few people that money was a big factor. With the increasing costs of operating a franchise on one side and the growing salaries of players on the other, the payouts given to coaches and their staffs have become a controllable issue. Experienced coaches will draw salaries north of $1 million per season (with multiple guaranteed years on the contract).
Coaches coming out of junior hockey and the American Hockey League will demand little more than half that figure, with savings of up to $2 million over the life of a three-year deal. To me, it seems simple: coaches, with shelf lives of two to three years, are becoming part of the soft side of the business, so why invest great gobs of money on the position?
One executive actually thought I was onto something, until he added one key fact. Coaching has become another area that can differentiate between the “have” teams and the “have not” teams. He told me big revenue teams can give elite coaches fat contracts for long terms. And then they can even afford to terminate them at any time. In fact, he went on to explain that there are only a handful of elite coaches in the entire league. The talent that these coaches have can probably help a team to 10 or 12 more points.
The manager then went on to explain the difference between the next 20 coaches in the league in minimal. He said, “It really is a crapshoot beyond the elite coaches. So it doesn’t make sense to spend too much money on the position.” And the money saved on those coaches can have a better use in acquiring players, if your team is below the cap.
Probably not as much as those quality coaches who are out of work and don’t understand why they are on the outside looking in. And that’s why some are taking jobs at lower levels. One veteran coach said, “Coaches really want to help build a team. Not being able to build a team leaves coaches with a terrible feeling. We want to be able to mold young players, no matter what level. Not being a part of a team is not a good feeling.”
Another coach, who has been able to re-invent himself in the NHL concurs. “There is a certain purity to coaching outside the NHL if development is a strong thrust. You can also re-acquaint yourself with confidence, technical growth and coaching style that the NHL can prohibit. Coaches grow and develop too, and these guys have shown integrity in showing that, and I give the fraternity credit because we simply want to coach, first and foremost.”
Which leads us to another conclusion: The AHL has become THE coaching factory. With the four hirings this summer, 23 of 30 NHL coaches have been behind AHL benches at one point. And many teams are putting a great deal of emphasis on teaching for their AHL franchises. In turn, the expectations of their AHL coaches have become much higher. The value of these coaches is reflected in the salaries for the position. No longer is the development coach on the bottom rung of coaches’ salaries. In fact, this might be the one league where the coaches might make more than most players.
So, do you see the trend and its reasons? Give younger men, who have developed their coaching skill outside the NHL, a chance to coach big-league teams before you give the veteran NHL coaches a second or third chance. If it doesn’t work, a team hasn’t invested as much time or money as they would have with the vet. And if it does work, then there is extra money to spend in the short-term on other areas of their franchise (or just pure savings).
For every Byslma and Boucher that succeed, there is a Clouston, Stevens and Anderson that don’t. This summer, it’s Gulutzan (Stars), Dineen (Panthers), Yeo (Wild) and Noel (Jets) who have been thrust onto the carousel.
But don’t worry, in a couple of years that will change again. As one executive reminded me, “Three re-cycled guys had pretty good years last year … Lemaire, Julien and Vigneault. One missed the playoffs and the other two would have lost their jobs if they lost the first round. Coaching is tough.”
Indeed it is tough. Coaching has become that gap between the rock and a hard place.
And it is also a place where the salary cap system does, in fact, reflect just which teams have the most money. And while most veteran coaches yearn to be back in the show, it seems for the time that a new style coach — younger and less expensive — will get their chance to show their wares behind NHL benches.