GMs bypass retreads

Ross McKeon

The New York Islanders’ decision to hire Scott Gordon as head coach is the latest example of how general managers have changed their thinking in terms of searching for a new bench boss.

No longer is it an automatic that a retread is going to surface in a new city. Just ask John Tortorella, Joel Quenneville, Bob Hartley, Marc Crawford or Paul Maurice.

There were nine coaching changes this offseason – nearly a third of the league will have new voices ndash; and we’re assuming the firings are complete. Of those recently let go, only Ron Wilson found immediate work. He goes from San Jose to Toronto, and it’s not surprising the Maple Leafs decided to go with experience over an untested track record. Toronto has to commit to defense before it even can think about moving up in the standings, and Wilson has proved his teams can defend.

Meanwhile, four teams hired men who have no previous head coaching experience – the Florida Panthers with Peter DeBoer, the Atlanta Thrashers with John Anderson, the San Jose Sharks with Todd McLellan and New York (can’t we just call them Long Island like it used to be?) with Gordon.


This thinking started a couple of years ago, but league GMs had to be convinced promotional hires such as Randy Carlyle with the Anaheim Ducks, Tom Renney with the New York Rangers, John Stevens with the Philadelphia Flyers and Bruce Boudreau of the Washington Capitals really could work.

It’s hard to argue with the results from that quartet. Carlyle won a Cup a year after guiding the Ducks to the West finals during his rookie campaign. Renney, Stevens and Boudreau put their teams back on track as the Rangers, Flyers and Capitals figure to challenge in the East assuming the Penguins don’t start a dynasty.

There are several reasons why the new blood is appealing to league GMs. To a man you heard Anderson, DeBoer, McLellan and Gordon say during introductory news conferences how long they waited and how much they coveted the opportunity to coach in the National Hockey League.

Coaching has turned into a real grind. It’s not easy being a player, but they put in their three or four hours on a daily basis – either practicing or playing a game – and then they’re free. Coaches work shifts from one venue to another – the office, to the ice and back to the office. It takes an incredible amount of energy, and having as much motivation as possible doesn’t hurt.

Hey, that’s not to say guys such as Tortorella, Quenneville, Hartley, Crawford and Maurice can’t keep up. The burnout factor is very real, whether or not these men would admit it. The passion runs deep, no question, but there comes a time when batteries need to be recharged.

Take Maurice for example. He was only 28 when the Hartford Whalers hired him as head coach in 1995. He already had coached 604 regular-season games and toiled another season in the minors before the Leafs put him behind the most scrutinized bench in the league. It was a long, long two years in Toronto leading up to his firing in the spring, but the Leafs’ fortune was more to blame on poor personnel decisions and underperformance by the players than anything Maurice was or wasn’t doing. That kind of disappointment, frustration, constant criticizing and second-guessing takes a toll.

The new-blood coaches have worked with only young players, and for teams like the Islanders, Panthers and Thrashers it’s all about the youth movement. Those teams need coaches who are patient, can teach and effectively can communicate with the younger player.

San Jose is younger than most realize, too, but the bigger lure for Doug Wilson to bring aboard McLellan is that the former assistant coach spent the last three years with Detroit, which boasts arguably the best hockey thinkers in its front office. That had to rub off on McLellan, along with the winning tradition of the Red Wings, something missing with the talented but underachieving Sharks.

The downside to this philosophy? There is a learning curve for the new-blood coach that the retreads don’t experience. DeBoer, Anderson and Gordon will have to fast-track their knowledge of opponents for line matchups, faceoff experts, tendencies, etc. McLellan should have a pretty good grasp of that already.

There’s new and different travel, more media responsibility for the new coaches, and it can be more taxing than it may appear. No more long bus rides, but now coaches can expect to spend more time answering questions and having commitments to radio and television.

General managers see the value in taking a chance on someone new, and it has come at the expense of men who figured there always was another job waiting for them. Then again, this is the NHL. It probably won’t take long before there are many more openings.