WINNIPEG — Around this time last year, Andrew Brunette was going about his business, trying to decompress after a whirlwind season.
He took over the Florida Panthers seven games into the season, won the Presidents’ Trophy as interim coach but ultimately felt the disappointment of being swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Talk about sorting through a multitude of experiences in a short amount of time.
One day you’re preparing for what you expect to be your first full season as a head coach who has his interim label removed and the next, you’re being asked to clean out your office by the general manager.
There was certainly some interesting synergy this week as Brunette was unveiled as the fourth head coach in Nashville Predators history, days before those pesky Panthers were about to open the Stanley Cup final against the Vegas Golden Knights.
While you can be sure there is still some scar tissue left behind for Brunette after Panthers GM Bill Zito made the decision to move on from him and bring in Paul Maurice last summer, it’s going to go down as another twist in the remarkable journey that brought him to this place.
Brunette, who turns 50 in August, took some time to collect his thoughts after his unexpected dismissal. Once he processed what had transpired, he accepted an invitation to join Lindy Ruff’s staff as an associate coach with the New Jersey Devils.
The Devils enjoyed an outstanding season, one that included a seven-game series victory over the New York Rangers but ended with a five-game loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
When the Devils extended Ruff’s contract, Brunette drew interest from multiple NHL clubs before landing with the Predators.
“You learn a lot. There’s a lot of self reflection, but there’s also a lot of pride,” Brunette, the runner-up to Darryl Sutter for the Jack Adams Trophy in 2022, told reporters when asked about his Panthers’ experience. “Going in with that Florida group when it was just growing, it was the type of team that had some promise, but we weren’t there yet. To be part of that group and watch it grow, watch the winning and the enjoyment level of that group, how infectious it was and how contagious it was. To see them grow and enjoy the game and enjoy winning, which they never had a lot of, that for me, was the reward.
“You leave it as a little bit of unfinished business. Obviously, as good of a year it was in Florida, we lost in the second round and you take that to heart. You learn and grow and unfortunately, I didn’t have an opportunity to see it through. But I’m proud of what they’re doing right now. That group is a special group. Again, as a coach, the reward is to watch them grow. Am I jealous? Yeah, I love that team. But this is a once in a lifetime chance for me.”
Good on Brunette for being willing to publicly share his emotions on the matter, while not getting overwhelmed by them.
Of course it can’t be easy for Brunette to watch the Panthers win three rounds and be four wins away from the first Stanley Cup in franchise history and not wonder what it might be like had he been given the opportunity there.
That’s human nature.
But instead of lamenting a lost opportunity, Brunette poured his energy into his job with the Devils and turned his disappointment into the shot he’s been waiting for.
It’s an easy thing to say when you’re not in that situation yourself, but often a lot more difficult to do when placed in those challenging circumstances.
The parallels with his playing career are impossible to ignore.
Let’s just say that Brunette took a circuitous route to get to the NHL as a player. A Washington Captials’ seventh round draft pick in 1993, he spent 27 games (including a brief playoff run) with the Hampton Roads Admirals of the ECHL in 1993-94, following a prolific junior hockey career with the Owen Sound Platers of the Ontario Hockey League (where he scored 62 goals and racked up 162 points in his third and final campaign).
He logged plenty of miles on the buses in the American Hockey League, playing a variety of roles to earn promotions and ultimately a full-time job at the highest level, one that eventually saw him suit up in 1,100 NHL games with seven different teams.
One of those teams was the Predators and Brunette was responsible for scoring the first goal in franchise history.
You can be sure his ties to outgoing GM David Poile, who drafted Brunette with the Capitals, and incoming GM Barry Trotz over the course of more than three decades was an obvious bonus. But this isn’t just a sentimental selection to appease the masses.
“It’s kind of full circle for me in a lot of different ways and the relationships in the game we are able to build are what makes this game so special,” Brunette told reporters during his introductory remarks.
Brunette knows how the Predators do business and he’s highly familiar with the market, as an original member of that first expansion team in Music City.
He’s watched the city and the market grow into an excellent sports town, one that’s passionate about hockey.
He’s also familiar with the Central Division, both from his time as a player with the Predators, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks and later as an assistant coach, scout and executive with the Wild.
The difficult choice made by Trotz to replace John Hynes was about giving the job to a deserving candidate who is ready for this latest chapter in what has already been a rich and fulfilling hockey life.
“He knows the game. He’s got the cache, he’s done it. He’s played at every level,” Trotz told reporters at the introductory presser. “He didn’t do it the easy way. He wasn’t a first-round pick. If you get to know Andrew, he’s very easy to talk to. He’s a hockey junkie. He’s made it, he’s done it, he’s lived it, he coaches it and he teaches it.”
Brunette is known as a bright offensive mind, but he also values and recognizes the importance of structure.
The Predators aren’t suddenly going to morph into a run-and-gun team.
“I wouldn’t say an offensive coach. I think my philosophy of how I see the game is I kind of want to dominate the puck,” said Brunette, who had 268 goals and 733 points in those 1,100 NHL games with another 49 playoff games on his resume. “I want to have it as much as I can have it and I don’t want to chase it around too much. When you have it, keep it. When you don’t have it, I get it back as soon as possible. I don’t want to defend. I want to check and I want the puck back.”
He’s been on the power play with Hall of Famers like Joe Sakic. He’s also been on the periphery of an NHL roster — which can make him relatable to young prospects, journeymen, star players and everyone in between.
Those qualities are always important, especially when the organization is about to go through a retool after being a clear seller at the NHL trade deadline last March, but still managed to battle for the final wild card berth in the Western Conference until the latter stages of the regular season.
The Predators want to inject some youth and become a more offensive team, while continuing to be a group that works extremely hard — a quality that goes back to Trotz’s time as the first and longest tenured head coach of this franchise.
“If we have to take a step backwards and be a little bit patient, we’re going to do that, because our goal is to do something bigger,” said Trotz. “I need a great leader and I know Andrew is going to fit that bill.”
STARS LOOK TO FUTURE
Being the final team eliminated before the Stanley Cup final is both a feather in the cap and one of the toughest spots to be for an organization, having accumulated 10 playoff wins but six short of the ultimate goal.
There is no bronze medal for this feat, though it shouldn’t be dismissed as insignificant either.
When you end up being the third last team standing in a field of 32, you’ve done a lot of things well over the course of the season.
Peter DeBoer did an excellent job in his first season behind the Stars bench, leading them to the Western Conference final.
“We were one of the last three standing. There’s a lot to be proud of. We didn’t get accomplished what we wanted to get accomplished at the end of the day, but there was a lot of pride in our group’s ability to come to the rink every game all season and compete,” DeBoer told reporters after exit meetings were held. “There were a lot of good things to build on. That’s the important part, when you don’t win, have you established building blocks that you can build on next year? I think we did that.”
This wasn’t a magic carpet ride that came out of nowhere either.
The Stars were one of the best teams in the Central Division throughout the regular season, then dispatched the Minnesota Wild and Seattle Kraken before being eliminated by an incredibly deep Golden Knights team that is three wins away from capturing the Stanley Cup.
“It didn’t just catch fire during the playoffs, it felt like that all year,” said DeBoer. “I felt like we were a legitimate contender all year. It’s a good feeling to have.”
The core pieces are in place for GM Jim Nill, but there are a number of decisions on the horizon.
The Stars have done an excellent job of keeping the contending window open, while integrating younger pieces and having many of them put their own stamp on the hockey club.
As Nill pointed out during his 32 Thoughts podcast interview with Jeff Marek, the 2017 NHL Draft had a lot to do with that.
While there is always work to be done to try and improve, the foundational pillars are in place.
The Stars have an all-world goalie in Jake Oettinger, though they need to reduce his workload slightly next season after he appeared in 91 games and made 90 starts.
They’ve got a stud defenceman in Miro Heiskanen who should continue to be in the Norris Trophy discussion for years to come. They’ve also got ample talent up front, from Jason Robertson coming off his first 100-point season to Roope Hintz putting together the best offensive season of his career after inking a long-term extension to Wyatt Johnston, who garnered Calder Trophy considerations and had two series clinching goals in these playoffs and veterans like Pavelski, Tyler Seguin and captain Jamie Benn.
Having a better handle on the personnel after coaching them for the past season should be a benefit as the Stars look to build on the momentum they created.
“I know the group now. Last summer, I didn’t know the group. There was a lot of teaching on the fly,” said DeBoer, who applauded Pavelski for helping the process along, given their time together with the San Jose Sharks. “We’re all more comfortable going into next season. Everyone knows what to expect. We don’t have to start at Ground Zero. Hopefully, we can get into some more things quicker than we did this year. Some more details that we didn’t get into because we were starting from scratch.
“I would expect we’ll have a hungry group. When you get this close and get a taste of it, you want to get back.”
The debate over whether or not a team’s window is closed or closing is often dependent on the lens you’re looking through. DeBoer wasn’t shy about weighing in on the concept and offering a thought on why he’s encouraged about what’s on the horizon for the Stars.
“A lot of times, the teams that win have that combination of the older, veteran guys that are getting to the back nine of their careers, so to speak, and an injection of youth underneath that’s really driving it and pushing it forward,” said DeBoer. “We’re very fortunate here that we have that and there’s a lot more coming, which is coming.”
As for the pipeline, there are several players like forward prospect and 2020 first-rounder Mavrik Bourque ready to move up from the AHL’s Texas Stars. Logan Stankoven, a 2021 second-round puck, just completed an excellent season with the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League that included taking part in the Memorial Cup.
There’s been plenty of discussion about how things unfolded with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Kyle Dubas, who became the president of hockey operations last week. Whether it’s the timing of the announcement to the chain of events that led to the decision, there’s been no shortage of words written and opinions offered. You won’t find this writer in the group of observers trying to hold Dubas to the fire for his proclamation that he would either be staying as Toronto Maple Leafs GM or taking some time to recalibrate. When Dubas was fired, his circumstances changed. Good on the Penguins for convincing him that this job was right for him and his family.
There will be plenty of time to dig into the free agent class once the Stanley Cup is lifted, but there’s one thing about what the loss of captain Gabriel Landeskog could mean for the Colorado Avalanche as it pertains to this offseason that I can’t help but wonder. For a team that’s going to be in the market for a second-line centre to play behind Nathan MacKinnon, a reunion between Ryan O’Reilly and the organization that drafted him in the second round (33rd overall) of the 2009 NHL Draft just makes sense. O’Reilly dealt with some injuries last season both with the St. Louis Blues and the Maple Leafs after the trade. But he’s still a productive, responsible player and his leadership ability and passion for the game fits right in with the group assembled by Joe Sakic and Chris MacFarland. He would be an excellent player for head coach Jared Bednar to lean on, provided the two sides can find common ground on dollars and term. There are probably other teams that will be able to offer a higher AAV or longer term, but when it comes to the chance to win a second Stanley Cup, the Avalanche figure to be in the midst of their window of contention and that would be appealing to O’Reilly.
As the Memorial Cup winds down on Sunday night in Kamloops, plenty of speculation will turn to the future of Quebec Remparts head coach and GM Patrick Roy, whose club is set to take on the Seattle Thunderbirds in the championship final. There have been plenty of whispers about Roy’s interest in returning to the NHL as a head coach. And while the latter days of his tenure with the Avalanche didn’t exactly end well, might the New York Rangers be ready to give the Hall of Fame netminder an opportunity to write a new chapter? Roy’s success at the junior level is undeniable and the connection to Rangers GM Chris Drury is obvious. Whether he emerges as the successor to Gerard Gallant remains to be seen, though there is something about the potential of Roy making his NHL return with an Original Six franchise like the Broadway Blueshirts that is intriguing.