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Handicapping the NHL's summer coach search: who's hot, who's not

Steve Yzerman hasn't been in charge of the Tampa Bay Lightning long enough for his new business cards to be printed, but the floundering club's latest savior/general manager doesn't have time to worry about the small stuff. He needs to plan for the upcoming draft, where the Bolts hold the sixth overall choice.

Yzerman will be looking for an experienced assistant to help guide the front office (don't be surprised if Jay Feaster, the GM-of-record when Tampa won 2004 Stanley Cup, accepts the subordinate role). He might even start to shop veteran winger Martin St. Louis, who's still stinging from Yzerman's Olympic snub and doesn't really fit in as part of the team core moving forward.

But before he even thinks about all that, Yzerman's first priority is to hook a new coach.

A tough call under the best of circumstances, his decision will be complicated by the fact that he's not the only one with a line in the water.

Three other clubs -- Columbus, New Jersey and Atlanta -- are scouring the hockey talent pool for their next bench boss and at least one, the Blue Jackets, could make their choice within the week. That puts the pressure on the rest to make up their minds or risk settling for their second, or third, choice.

Yzerman has plenty of intriguing choices, but who are the contenders and pretenders?

* Gerard Gallant: Yzerman's linemate during Detroit's Dead Things era was damaged goods after a brief stint in Columbus, but resuscitated his image with a sensational job behind the bench for the QMJHL's Saint John Sea Dogs that earned him a nod as the CHL's top coach. His work with those juniors allayed concerns that he couldn't be trusted with a youth movement like the one he failed to steer in Columbus. More than one NHL source suggests Yzerman will lean on a familiar quantity he can trust, and Gallant fits that requirement to a T. Consider him the front-runner.

* Kevin Dineen: The name linked to every vacant job last summer wasn't quite as hot this season, at least until the last week or so. Since then, Dineen rumors have flown in both Tampa and Columbus. Yzerman is thought to have the former Hartford Whalers star ranked among his favorites, thanks to his track record and the fiery personality needed to demand nightly accountability from the underachieving Bolts. Still, Dineen is carrying some baggage from some off-ice issues. He's probably earned the benefit of the doubt at this point, but it may not be enough to move him past other candidates, especially incumbent interim coach Claude Noel in Columbus. He could land in Tampa, but it wouldn't be a surprise if he was relegated to also-ran status for a second year.

* Scott Arniel: The Thrashers already have interviewed the 2009 AHL Coach of the Year -- no surprise considering that Atlanta's new GM, Rick Dudley, previously coached Arniel when he was a player with the Buffalo Sabres and San Diego Gulls. Arniel is recognized for his experience, his smarts and an even-keel approach that has made him popular with his players. He's also spoken with the Jackets and could sit down with the Bolts, but the betting here is that Dudley will be the first to make Arniel a serious offer.

* Guy Boucher: The AHL's Coach of the Year became the hot name after a record-setting season with the Hamilton Bulldogs and clearly is one of the top coaching prospects in the game. But is he ready for the leap after just one year as the head man in the minors? Even with an extensive track record in the QMJHL and with Hockey Canada, there's a sense that even Boucher isn't certain. The Jackets secured permission to talk to him, which has some people assuming he's their top choice. That may be, but it may also just be due diligence on the part of GM Scott Howson (himself the former GM of the Bulldogs). Boucher's 1-3-1 system is intriguing, but without the talent to adequately execute it, this may not be the ideal situation. It says here he'll wait out another year or two in the AHL with the hope he's considered for the job he really wants: The Canadiens.

* Ken Hitchock: After a third consecutive first-round playoff exit, the Devils feel like a team that needs more than a new coach. They need a new direction. But as long as Lou Lamoriello is calling the shots, they're more likely to change their colors to red, white and blue than alter their moral compass. There was an initial thought that Lamoriello might offer the job to former assistant/current Lowell coach John MacLean, but the fact that he hasn't to date suggests Johnny Mac is, at best, Johnny Fallback.

Instead, the Devils are thought to be honing in on a trio of candidates: Montreal assistant Kirk Muller, ex-Penguins and Canadiens boss Michel Therrien, and former Jackets, Flyers and Stars coach Hitchcock. A lousy fit with a young team in Columbus, Hitchcock seems like an ideal match for the Devils. And while his hiring would all but certainly scare away UFA winger Ilya Kovalchuk, Hitch has at least one supporter in the room.

"He is one of the smartest hockey guys around," captain Jamie Langenbrunner told The Newark Star-Ledger. "He's a demanding coach, but I enjoyed playing for him. He gave you a chance to win. He pushed you. He definitely helped me a lot."

Hitchcock makes the most sense here, but Lamoriello loves former Canadiens. Don't rule out Therrien.

* Mike Haviland: This year's version of Todd Richards and Todd McLellan is the man thought to be holding up the process for at least two teams. Haviland, an assistant coach in Chicago for the past two seasons, can't speak to another club until after the Cup final has concluded. Once that happens, it's expected that he'll be approached by Columbus and possibly Tampa. He's not a front-runner, but people want to see if he can impress during the interview process. The buzz suggests he might.

* Paul MacLean. It might make sense that Yzerman, looking for that familiar quantity, would consider the long-time Detroit assistant, but it's thought that he doesn't want to be seen as raiding his former team. That's too bad, because he's running out of chances. He's regarded as a capable coach but, as one NHL executive told me, "He's part of the furniture now. Maybe he's missed his opportunity. It would be tough to sell him to a fan base looking for a reason to get fired up."

* Bob Boughner: A pair of coach of the year awards in the CHL and consecutive Memorial Cup wins have the Windsor Spitfires boss on the radar...but don't look for him to earn serious consideration this time around. He has an ideal situation in Windsor where he shares in the ownership with GM Warren Rychel and it's hard to imagine him leaving that now. Still, success like that is hard to match. Keep his name in mind next summer.

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