I’ve been around the National Hockey League since 1976 and one of the worst aspects of the game at this time of year is the death watch around coaches and managers.
You never like to see friends lose their jobs, yet it is a fact of life in this business. But what is misfortune for one person, is good fortune for another. Hence, rather than listing those who will be fired, let’s look at those who will be or hired, or rather, deserve some consideration:
Lindy Ruff — His 15-season run in Buffalo came to an end on Feb. 20 and he should be able to pick any vacant job he wants. His success was probably more appreciated in the cash poor days of the Tom Golisano Sabres, but make no mistake, he is a quality coach with a solid track record. His association with Hockey Canada at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics and this year’s World Championships don’t hurt his pedigree.
Mike Johnston — The coach of the WHL’s Portland Winter Hawks has served his time. I’m not talking about his suspension in junior hockey. I am talking about proving that he can run a bench as a head coach. His years of service as an assistant in Vancouver and Los Angeles give him NHL credibility, and now that he has a run a major junior team, he should be in line for an NHL head coaching job.
Dallas Eakins — Working in the centre of the hockey universe, Eakins has been given a taste of the pressure it takes to coach in the NHL. His AHL Toronto Marlies are now a perennial power house, and a quick look at the NHL Leafs you will see a few players (like Kadri, Gunnarson, Gardner, Reimer and Scrivens) that have seen time and learned how to play the game well under Eakins. Randy Carlyle’s arrival in Toronto has created the inevitable end result for Eakins, he will have to go somewhere else to coach in the NHL.
Willie Desjardins — At 55 years old, Desjardins doesn’t have the name or recognition factor of some of the others on this list, but he is on the verge of becoming an NHL coach somewhere. He has coached in the WHL, been an assistant for Dallas in the NHL for a couple of years, and is now the head coach of the Stars’ AHL affiliate. In fact, he beat out guys like Jon Cooper and Dallas Eakins as AHL coach of the year this season. His work with Stars’ prospects Matt Fraser, Reilly Smith, Alex Chiasson and Jamie Oleksiak, who have contributed in both the AHL and NHL are proof of Desjardins’ talent.
Tom Renney — The two-time head coach in Vancouver and Edmonton has found himself beside Mike Babcock in Detroit. More than anything, this season is a good refresher course for a coach that still has great ability. In fact, some view the return to an assistant’s job (particularly beside Babcock) as going back to school to get a masters degree. The Edmonton experience was not a fair evaluation of Tom’s talent as a coach, and he probably deserves a chance with a mature line-up and better goaltending.
Mike Eaves — For those of you who say that Eaves is a “lifer” at Wisconsin, let me remind you about his mentor Bob Johnson. After a long, successful career in Madison, Bob Johnson jumped to the NHL with the Calgary Flames, and then the Pittsburgh Penguins. Eaves has been prolific in recruiting and working with some great, young talent like Ryan McDonough, Justin Schultz and Jake Gardiner. If there is the desire, Eaves could be a great catch for any team. He is a strong communicator, and was a pretty good player before 18 concussions cut his playing career short. He has some of the “Badger’s” qualities of enthusiasm and positive thinking.
Brian Burke — Enough said. By now, the whole hockey world knows what Burke can do, and how he does it. He does have a place in this league, particularly in a market that needs someone to focus on as the team re-builds, or a market that needs strong promotional qualities.
Brendan Shanahan — I know, I know, he already has a big job. But I suspect Shanahan will be approached to run a hockey operations department at some point. The former star player is smooth and ambitious. He has created a very high profile, and has strong fan recognition. No one can argue about his hockey acumen and he will be given a chance to be a general manager, sooner than later.
Claude Loiselle — Almost the “anti-Shanahan.” Low key, lawyer-trained, Loiselle has been part of the league office, as well as two team front offices in Tampa and Toronto. Loiselle has apprenticed long enough now to be given his own team. He understands all aspects of what it takes to be a strong hockey executive, with the pedigree of being a former player. No one has worked harder at the craft than Loiselle, and now that the shadow of Brian Burke has left Toronto, people are now recognizing some of the other strong talent in the Maple Leaf front office.
Paul Fenton — Another low key former player, Fenton has learned at the foot of David Poile. He is credited with being part of the stability of the Predators’ front office and scouting system. The challenge of Nashville’s small market issues have given Fenton strong footing on how to build a contender methodically and efficiently. Poile’s influence cannot be understated when you consider others who have been in the Preds organization and gone on to GM jobs elsewhere (read: Ray Shero)
Rick Dudley — By reputation, Dudley’s resume as a player evaluated is pretty good. He is also know a one of the most nomadic people in the game. Buffalo, Ottawa, Toronto, Chicago, Tampa, Florida and Montreal have all benefited from his vision for talent. And his name appears on every list of potential managers, and rightly so. Dudley’s biggest challenge is that player evaluation is very different than administration, and one wonders if he has the moxie to excel at both.
Ron Hextall — The time has come for Hextall to get his own team. Working in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, Hextall has helped rebuild two organizations to playoff and championship contention. He brings the same passion to this part of game that he did a player. He has strong organizational skills, and gleaned some string lessons from people like Bobby Clarke, Paul Holmgren, and current boss Dean Lombardi.
Are there others? For sure. Will there be dark horse candidates that surprises? Definitely. But in the days, months and years to come, these 12 people will be in play for important and high-profile jobs.