That ‘Help Wanted’ signs will soon be going up behind some NHL benches is not a new trend. Coaches enter their racket with the knowledge that blame will find its way to their feet when things go wrong, often because they’ve already been axed at the NHL level once or twice before.
But if this season is any indication, expect a distinct green tinge to this summer’s slew of job applicants.
The NHL’s history of re-treading bench bosses is well established. Maybe coaches were hired to be fired, but the fact they’d ever been hired at all by an NHL team seemed to give them a huge advantage over those who had not when attempting to rebound from axe wounds.
On Tuesday, THN staffer John Grigg laid out his candidates for coach of the year. Among them was San Jose’s Todd McLellan, one of four men who started the season as a first-time NHL head coach.
McLellan will ultimately be judged on whether he can get San Jose over the playoff hump, but his decision to activate the Sharks defense – aided tremendously by the acquisitions of Dan Boyle and Rob Blake – has transformed the approach of a team that consistently came up short.
The other three rookie bench bosses found entry into the world’s best league much rougher, but weren’t exactly working with the same resources.
It took half a season, but John Anderson has got the Atlanta Thrashers playing some pretty respectable hockey. Peter DeBoer was able to keep the Florida Panthers in the playoff picture longer than they have been in recent seasons with a heavier emphasis on forechecking and Scott Gordon did as much as anyone could with the New York Islanders – except Ted Nolan.
That digression aside, further proof first-timers can make a big impression on a team’s fortunes can be seen in Pittsburgh, Ottawa and Tampa Bay.
Ask Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, as the Associated Press did, and he’ll tell you bringing in Dan Bylsma to replace Michel Therrien in February saved the Penguins’ season.
Ottawa opted to replace Craig Hartsburg with Cory Clouston in the same month Pittsburgh canned Therrien and, a short time later, Clouston has been given a two-year contract extension based on the progress witnessed in Ottawa. Clouston’s success is rooted in the fact he revoked all free passes for sub-par play, making players aware of actions he didn’t support.
One of the quieter success stories comes from Tampa, where Rick Tocchet replaced Barry Melrose early in the season when Bolts management decided it wanted a mulligan on hiring Melrose to begin with.
Had Tocchet been a high-caliber defenseman with two twin brothers, he may have been able to salvage Tampa’s season. As it is, the organization should be grateful enough for his work in helping Steven Stamkos evolve from a jittery rookie to a player primed for sophomore success.
Just like some of the coaches out there making the most of their initial shot in the show.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.