Craig MacTavish’s surefire route back to the NHL

Puck Daddy

In 2004-05, after a stint as an assistant coach with the Washington Capitals, Randy Carlyle was brought in to coach the Vancouver Canucks' AHL affiliate Manitoba Moose. He did the job for one season, leading the Moose to the second round of the playoffs.

The following year, Carlyle was hired to be the head coach of the Anaheim Ducks, a position he still holds. Alain Vigneault was brought in to replace him at the helm of the Moose.

Vigneault, too, led the Canucks' affiliate to the second round of the playoffs and, at the end of the season, he was promoted to replace Marc Crawford as the coach of the Canucks proper -- a position that he too still holds.

Vigneault was replaced in Manitoba by Scott Arniel, who coached the Moose for four years, even leading them to a Calder Cup Final. Last summer, he was hired to coach the Columbus Blue Jackets. His sophomore season behind an NHL bench is about to get underway.

His AHL replacement was Claude Noel, who, after one season in Winnipeg coaching of the Moose, was hired on as the first coach of the city's returning Jets earlier this summer.

In short, if you want a job as an NHL head coach, coach the Canucks' minor league affiliate. After two years without a job, Craig MacTavish has wisely taken this can't-miss route.

MacTavish is the counterpoint to the complaint that NHL coaches get fired too often or too soon. He coached the Edmonton Oilers for eight years, two years too long.

Over the first four years, MacTavish led the Oilers to two playoff berths, both times meeting and being defeated by a superior Dallas Stars team. With little expected of the Oilers at the time, MacTavish was praised just for guiding the team into playoff contention.

However, after an improbable Stanley Cup run in 2005-06, MacTavish found himself the coach of a Stanley Cup finalist, and when the Oilers missed the playoffs with 71 points the following season, he took the blame.

But he wasn't fired.

Instead, he remained on as the coach of the Oilers for two more fruitless years. During that time, all of his flaws were exposed, his relationship many of Edmonton's star players soured, and he went from being viewed as a promising coach to a poor one.

For two years, no one would hire him. But, after being passed over for jobs with the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets this offseason, MacTavish was called unexpectedly by Canucks' GM Mike Gillis.

"Can't say I've got fond memories of the Canucks," MacTavish laughed yesterday during prospect testing at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

While they were most recently Northwest Division rivals, MacTavish and Gillis go way back. Both were members of the 1978 NHL draft, where Gillis was taken 5th overall by the Colorado Rockies, and MacTavish was selected 153rd overall by the Boston Bruins. In 1980, Boston acquired Gillis via trade, and the two men played the next four years together in the Bruins organization.

MacTavish and Gillis, with the 1981 Boston Bruins.

After Gillis left hockey to become a player agent, the two remained in touch. Gillis even represented MacTavish as a player a few times in the nineties.

Pairing the history with the fact that three of Vancouver's last four AHL coaches were hired to NHL teams after just one year, and all four all currently holding down NHL jobs, MacTavish happily accepted the offer to coach the Canucks' new minor league affiliate Chicago Wolves.

But there was another reason, too: he definitely wasn't cut out for television. When asked if there was a moment during his stint as a TSN panelist that he realized he had to get back into coaching, MacTavish half-joked, "There were lots of those moments."

"It was a bit challenging. [...] it's kind of a completely awkward thing that they do where you look into a camera with nobody there and start yelling. Pierre McGuire's good at it."

While MacTavish didn't quite have a feel for the job, he definitely had the wit for it. When asked if he was worried about Chicago Blackhawks' fans coming to the arena to jeer the Canucks' farm team, he deadpanned, "It's the American Hockey League, we welcome all fans."

MacTavish is happy to be back in his preferred field. "It was fun [at TSN] but I'm an insider by trade and I prefer to work from the inside," he said. "I'm really envisioning this year as a real fun year."

MacTavish is also envisioning this year as a one-off. Ideally, he takes the same path as Vigneault, Carlyle, and Noel, and finds himself back behind an NHL bench by next season.


Harrison Mooney is also the co-editor of the Canucks' blog Pass it to Bulis. Follow him on Twitter @HarrisonMooney.

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