The NHL’s coaching carousel usually starts spinning at increased speeds once a campaign culminates, but it feels like it’s moving faster than ever over the past few weeks. In the days leading up to season’s end, it became clear that coaching changes were on the horizon in at least two locales — Florida and Dallas — with the latter wasting no time filling their vacancy.
In fact, the Stars let Lindy Ruff walk on April 9 following the final game of the season and, thus, the final game of the veteran coach’s contract. A scant four days later Dallas was already introducing Ken Hitchcock, who had been fired by the St. Louis Blues months earlier, as their newest coach. Hitchcock is a familiar face with the Stars organization, having previously won a Stanley Cup with the franchise back in 1999-00, coincidentally defeating Ruff’s Buffalo Sabres in the final.
Hitchcock wasn’t the only coach hired, though. In the week since the season has ended, the Vegas Golden Knights also found their first coach in Gerard Gallant, while the New York Islanders didn’t so much find a new coach as decide to stick with the one who helped them turn their season around. Doug Weight, who had been an assistant coach and GM with the organization, stepped behind the bench mid-season on an interim basis, but the interim tag was removed days after the final game.
But even with three vacancies filled, there are still three more teams searching for their next coach with potential for another position or two to open up as the off-season progresses. And in a league where coaches are often recycled, with one team’s cast-off becoming another’s new voice, there are a few veteran coaches with plenty of NHL experience who could find new homes next season:
Ruff’s four-year tenure in Dallas was about as up-and-down as any coach could have. When he joined the Stars, he turned a struggling franchise into a run-and-gun squad that was must-watch on most nights because you were sure to see a high-scoring game. The issue, however, was that the Stars’ style didn’t necessarily translate to victories. That the goaltending was shaky for Ruff’s entire tenure is no small part of that, of course. Over the course of his four seasons, Ruff continuously got below-average goaltending from the duo of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi, and it would be fair to say that, as much as anything, it was the lack of a solid starting netminder that sunk Ruff in Dallas.
There are a lot of teams that would do well to bring Ruff aboard. He’s coached nearly 1,500 games and has a stellar record behind the bench that includes an Eastern Conference championship and 10 post-season appearances. One team that might do especially well, though, would be the Los Angeles Kings.
The Kings have serious scoring issues. That much is clear. And while another coach may be able to unleash Drew Doughty or tap in to the more offensive facets of Anze Kopitar’s game, Ruff turned the Stars into a legitimate offensive juggernaut during time in Dallas. With a defense that includes Doughty, Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez, Ruff will already have a better core to work with on the back end, and Jonathan Quick may not be the superstar goalie he once was, but he’s more than capable of carrying the full-time load.
The man Weight replaced in New York was, at the time of his firing, the man behind the Islanders’ rise from basement dweller to playoff contender. The trouble was that after some tough off-season moves that saw many of Capuano’s scorers exiting town, he couldn’t find a way to get the team into a groove. The Islanders fell apart under Capuano and he exited town in about the worst way possible, watching New York sink to the bottom of the Eastern Conference before being shown the door.
That said, Capuano helped some young talent find their games with the Islanders. He was around to help John Tavares throughout almost his entire career and Capuano’s Islanders had back-to-back 45-win seasons. Though his tenure wasn’t perfect, he’ll always be remembered as the coach who helped New York break their two-decade post-season series losing streak. That counts for something.
Given the young talent Capuano managed in New York included Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Travis Hamonic and Nick Leddy. All succeeded with the Islanders and grew into better players with Capuano at the helm. With that in mind, it’d be interesting to see what he could do with the Florida Panthers young guns. One could argue the Panthers have more young talent overall than the Islanders had at any one time during Capuano’s seven seasons. If he’s able to get as much out of the Panthers’ youngsters as he did the Islanders’ youth, maybe we’re looking at a Florida team that’s right back in the mix next season.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Desjardins. It’s not that he was a bad coach in Vancouver, but the talent simply isn’t there for the Canucks to be a consistent contender. Rather, Vancouver had to try to win with the aging Daniel and Henrik Sedin leading the attack while some of their young players, including Bo Horvat and Troy Stecher, work towards being the next generation. Desjardins was fighting a losing battle, though, and one could surmise that there are about to be some lean years in Vancouver as the team attempts a speedy rebuild before the Sedins ride off into the sunset.
This isn’t to say Desjardins didn’t fight valiantly, though. After a downright awful start to the 2016-17 season, the Canucks actually managed to fight back into playoff contention for a brief moment before falling out once again. It wasn’t all that shocking to see him let go by Vancouver as the season ended. Desjardins had posted consecutive losing seasons and point totals that left much to be desired after he started his three-year tenure with a 101-point campaign.
Some considered Desjardins an option in Dallas, where he had previously been an assistant for the Stars before taking on the top job with their AHL affiliate, and a return to the Stars still can’t be ruled out. Obviously, with Hitchcock in place, Desjardins would have to come on as an assistant, but that would be a great opportunity to learn under one of the greatest coaches in league history.
It was time. Sutter had done a lot during his time in Los Angeles, and the organization will never forget his contributions, which include coaching the Kings to the first two Stanley Cups in franchise history. But after the Cup victory in 2014, everything seemed to fall apart for the Kings.
Many considered their playoff miss in 2014-15 to be a matter of bad luck. Los Angeles had played well but simply couldn’t score. What came the next year was another great season, but the Sutter’s group flopped in the playoffs, losing in five to the eventual Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks. And with a chance to rebound this year, the Kings again fell flat, this time worse than ever under Sutter. The offense was abysmal and the smothering defensive style simply didn’t work.
That said, just because it didn’t work for the Kings anymore doesn’t mean it can’t work elsewhere, but it might be a system that’s best suited for a team that doesn’t have the offense to make the high-flying game work. Take, say, the Canucks, give them Sutter’s system and maybe there doesn’t have to be any lean years at all. They won’t be exciting, sure, but a commitment to defensive hockey and the possession game could be one way to keep Vancouver in the hunt while attempting to build a winner before the Sedins say goodbye.
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