The pros and cons of hiring an interim head coach in the NHL

Edmonton went bold with Ken Hitchcock, while St. Louis and Los Angeles kept the interim tag on their new guys after firing the incumbent. There's logic to both routes, but a big difference in the short-term impact.
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In the high-stakes game of NHL coaching, you can be bold with a mid-season firing or you can be conservative. The Edmonton Oilers went bold, hiring Ken Hitchcock after firing Todd McLellan and giving Hitchcock the mandate to whip the team into shape immediately. The St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings, on the other hand, have gone the interim coach route with Craig Berube and Willie Desjardins, respectively.

With the interim tag, the Blues and Kings are playing things more conservatively in the long-run, but it’s also practically a white flag for the 2018-19 campaign: the players on those teams know these coaches probably won’t be in charge next year, so why get used to this particular style and structure when it’s only going to change in the summer?

Small sample size, but St. Louis has been even worse under Berube than the team was with Yeo, going 1-3 in the past four games. The Kings have gone 5-7 under Desjardins, which is a bit better than the team was faring under John Stevens - but there has already been controversy when prized free agent Ilya Kovalchuk was demoted to the fourth line. Now, you can say that ‘Kovy’ needs to tough it out, but look at the big picture: the Russian left winger is signed for another two years after this one on a significant contract, while Desjardins will likely be gone as soon as Game No. 82 concludes this season.

That’s the downside of going with an interim coach; you’ve pretty much written off your season and we haven’t even hit December yet (if the interim is a young guy, different story: maybe you want to see if he can handle the gig. Neither Berube or Desjardins qualify).

The upshot, of course, is you get a chance to assess the market and wait until other coaches have been fired. We all know Joel Quenneville is the big name on the block and based on his bona fides, ‘Q’ isn’t going to rush into anything. He can just sift through all the requests and make his decision in the summer.

Los Angeles also has an interesting situation, in that the Kings brought assistant coach Marco Sturm in at the same time as Desjardins. Sturm, who made his name as coach of the silver-medal winning German Olympic team, is of course a former Kings player himself and in the closely-knit hockey fraternity, that’s helping his cause. If Sturm impresses for the rest of this campaign, that could make him a stronger candidate for the permanent Los Angeles job.

Either way, the Kings have bought themselves time. There is no shortage of other top-end candidates out there, many of them first-timers.

Pascal Vincent, for example, is coming off coach of the year honors in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose and has past NHL experience on the bench as an assistant with Winnipeg. Mike Vellucci has a long and varied resume as a coach and executive and he is also coaching in the AHL right now with the Carolina-affiliated Charlotte Checkers.

Another name I’ve always touted is Rikard Gronborg, who has been running Sweden’s national teams, but also has North American experience as both a player (with NCAA St. Cloud State) and coach (St. Cloud and WHL Spokane as an assistant). Gronborg has gotten a look from NHL teams recently, but it feels like time that a European-born coach gets another crack at an NHL bench. The fact Chicago tabbed young Jeremy Colliton to replace Quenneville actually works a bit in Gronborg’s favor, as Colliton’s first coaching gig was with Mora in Sweden’s second-tier Allsvenskan.

There’s also the chance St. Louis and/or Los Angeles go back to the NHL coaching recycling bin with a veteran bench boss. But at the least, they’ve bought themselves time by installing caretakers. A precarious 2018-19 campaign is the trade-off.

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