Will Ken Hitchcock return behind an NHL bench?

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The Hockey News

The Hockey News

With the game of musical chairs when it comes to NHL coaches approaching its conclusion, there’s an excellent chance that at least two of Ken Hitchcock, Craig MacTavish and Craig Ramsay will be left standing when the music stops. In fact, all three might be without a seating assignment by the time all the jobs are filled.

You can chalk that up to the NHL’s penchant for being a copycat league. Teams looking for help behind the bench, particularly those who don’t have a lot of money, see the success of guys such as Dan Bylsma and Guy Boucher and come to the conclusion that NHL head coaching experience is overrated.

Fair enough, but it’s interesting how people seem to see what they want to see. For every Bylsma and Boucher there’s a head coaching scrapyard full of guys such as Bruce Cassidy, John MacLean, Brad Shaw and John Stevens.

Of the six head coaching jobs up for grabs after the season ended, four have been filled and they’re all occupied by guys who have zero head coaching experience at the NHL level – Kevin Dineen in Florida, Glen Gulutzan in Dallas, Paul MacLean in Ottawa and Mike Yeo in Minnesota. It’s expected the Winnipeg franchise will continue the trend - though to a somewhat lesser extent - by promoting Claude Noel from the Manitoba Moose. Noel at least has some head coaching experience at this level as he replaced Hitchcock in Columbus for the final 24 games of 2010.

Which leaves the New Jersey Devils, who seem intent on taking their sweet time to hire a head coach for next season.

If someone had told you that after this season 20 percent of the league would be looking for a head coach and Hitchcock wouldn’t get any of the jobs, would you have believed them? Well, that’s precisely what might happen here. Hitchcock talked to Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk about the Dallas job and was told the team was going with youth and ‘Hitch’ reportedly was offered an assistant coaching job under Mike Babcock in Detroit and turned it down.

For all his warts, he can be a terrific coach in the right situation. If he doesn’t get the Devils job, there will likely be a few established coaches in the NHL who will be looking over their shoulders once the season starts. As successful as Bruce Boudreau has been in Washington during the regular season, you have to think he’ll be on a pretty short leash next season. After years of having a player-friendly coach in Washington, the Capitals would likely be inclined to go with a hard-ass such as Hitchcock if Boudreau falters.

As far as Ramsay is concerned, he has not had a lot of success as a head coach in the NHL, but has been universally regarded as one of the brightest minds in the game and an outstanding assistant. After all, when you can transform Johnny Boychuk from a fringe minor-leaguer into a $1.9 million defenseman on a Stanley Cup-winning team, you’re clearly doing something right.

But the Winnipeg franchise seems intent on starting with (a) a completely clean slate; and (b) a front office staff very heavy on the people who ran Winnipeg’s incredibly successful American League franchise, which would have me freshening up the old resume if I were a scout these days for the former Atlanta Thrashers.

So despite at least as many failures as successes when it comes to turning to fresh faces, NHL teams seem intent on giving guys unproven at the NHL level a chance. Perhaps it has something to do with economics in the case of places such as Florida and Dallas, or perhaps they think it’s better to have someone who will grow with the franchise. But in the same way some teams saw last year’s Stanley Cup final - which featured the worst goaltending matchup in the history of the championship series - and figured the best route to go in goal would be the cheap one, perhaps this trend will change.

One thing is for sure, with people such as Hitchcock, MacTavish and Ramsay waiting in the wings, a number of coaches will be feeling the heat. It’s not as though the three can’t afford to be picky either - both Hitchcock and Ramsay have time remaining on their contracts and MacTavish has a TV gig with TSN. But they’ll be waiting.

“In the summer, all those (young) guys look really good,” said one veteran NHL coach. “Those other guys are more suited to be mid-season replacements.”

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. 

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