Recent rookie (or close to) head coaches through the NHL

Nothing is official – far from it, in fact – but from the way things are going, it sounds like the next coach of the Calgary Flames might just be somebody with a bit less experience. Not a retread; a rookie.

While we don’t really know at this point in time just who is being considered – other than a bunch of people who really love pointing out that Randy Carlyle is being interviewed – it’s certainly an angle worth looking at. 

After all, Brad Treliving is one of the younger GMs in the NHL, and the Flames are a rebuilding, youthful team: why not go with a younger coach to match?

Ottawa, Minnesota, and a bit of Tampa Bay

The most recent coaching hires have been Guy Boucher (44) by the Ottawa Senators, and Bruce Boudreau (61) by the Minnesota Wild. Both have been head coaches at the NHL level before, though while Boudreau is an old hat at it, Boucher’s first go-around only lasted just under three seasons. 

Boucher was 39 years old when he first became an NHL head coach. He headed the Drummondville Voltigeurs to a QMJHL championship and completed one season as an AHL bench boss before making the jump. Initially, he appeared golden – he coached the Lightning to a 103 point season and to within one goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Final – but Tampa tumbled down the standings his subsequent two seasons, and he was replaced by Jon Cooper (48).

Cooper was 45 years old when he got his first NHL head coaching job. This followed three mostly complete seasons of head coaching at the AHL level; before that, he was coaching in the USHL. Under him, the Lightning seem to be faring well, handily making the playoffs in all three of his seasons and poised to finish no earlier than at least the third round in his most recent two years.

But I digress.

Pittsburgh and Columbus

First things first: Let’s not even pretend these two rosters are on remotely the same level. The Penguins are a much superior team compared to Columbus; that much is obvious.

The Jackets started their season with Todd Richards (49), and they went 0-7 with him. Columbus fired him, hired John Tortorella (57), and had a 34-33-8 record under him. That’s… improvement? Though the bar wasn’t set particularly high. Columbus wanted a new head coach, Tortorella was an experienced free agent only a season removed, so they went and got him.

Contrast this with Pittsburgh’s approach. Mike Johnston (59) had eight years of assistant coaching in the NHL under his belt before he became the bench boss of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. With a powerhouse junior team (that probably, in part, came about due to improper benefits and recruitment methods), Johnston failed to win the Ed Chynoweth Cup, though he did lose in the WHL Playoff Finals three times.

(The one year Portland did win? When Johnston was suspended due to said improprieties. The interim head coach who took over? Travis Green, coincidentally enough; he has since been the Utica Comets’ head coach in the AHL the three seasons since, and could be a candidate for an NHL coaching job now.)

Johnston’s Penguins barely made the playoffs in 2014-15 and were bounced out of the first round. They started the 2015-16 season with a 15-10-3 record. Underperforming, the Penguins decided to can him and bring up their AHL head coach, Mike Sullivan (48). Sullivan had been a head coach in the NHL 10 years prior; afterwards, he spent six seasons as an assistant head coach in the NHL (all under Tortorella) before going back to head coaching in the AHL – a plan that was interrupted just over two months into the season when he was back as an NHL head coach. Since his hiring, the Penguins look pretty good to win the entire thing, so.

Detroit, New Jersey, San Jose, and Philadelphia

Here, we turn to last off-season’s hires. I’m excluding Buffalo and Toronto from this group because, well, nobody in their right minds could have really expected them to be good; they’re in much longer-term situations than these four teams.

The Red Wings lost Mike Babcock, so they replaced him with their AHL head coach of the previous three seasons: Jeff Blashill (42). Prior to coaching the Grand Rapids Griffins, he was a Red Wings assistant coach; before that, he was an NCAA and USHL head coach. In his first season as an NHL head coach he did, at least, keep the Wings’ playoff streak alive; however, he wasn’t really an improvement over previous years.

The Devils, meanwhile, decided to hire the Penguins’ AHL head coach. John Hynes (41) had been the head coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for five seasons. His teams always had a winning record, and finished in either the second or third round of the playoffs each season. The Devils failed to make the playoffs in his first season, but at least finished with six more points than they had the year prior.

The Sharks, meanwhile, picked up Peter DeBoer (47), who had spent the past four seasons as the Devils’ head coach, and before that, three seasons as the Panthers’ head coach. He was 40 years old when he made his NHL coaching debut, coming off of 13 straight years as a head coach in the OHL. San Jose has made it further into the playoffs than Todd McLellan was able to get them in recent seasons.

Philadelphia went a different route: they hired Dave Hakstol (47) who had only ever coached at the college level. He spent 11 years as the University of North Dakota’s head coach before getting hired by the Flyers. The Flyers experienced dramatic improvement under him, going from a top seven pick to making the playoffs, even if they got bounced out of the first round.

Different coaches for different situations

Of the nine head coaching replacements discussed here, only three – Boudreau, Tortorella, and DeBoer – are really NHL veterans. Two (Boucher, Sullivan) have had limited NHL head coaching experience, while the remaining four (Cooper, Blashill, Hynes, and Hakstol) were flat out rookies.

Boudreau is an elite class of head coach, so it’s hardly surprising he got picked up. The Sharks are in win now mode, so picking up an experienced NHL head coach made sense for them. As for Tortorella and the Blue Jackets, I’m not entirely sure what longterm future they may have together – they did improve as the season went on, but their overall team makeup does remain questionable.

The verdict on Boucher in Ottawa is still to be determined, but from the Penguins’ success since he was hired, it seems pretty clear Sullivan was one of the final pieces that team needed to really click. He also serves as a reminder to not discount those in assistant coaching positions.

As for the rookies? Cooper has clearly worked out in Tampa Bay, getting his roster to succeed no matter what injuries or other drama might befall his team, while Hakstol provided a giant leap and, at least this early, can be considered a success. Blashill and Hynes are the youngest of the bunch, but seem to be worth sticking with, at least at this point in time.

So what direction do the Flames, a rebuilding team, go with? The path Columbus is taking likely isn’t the answer; then again, Columbus did fire their coach at the start of the season, which is a fate Bob Hartley could have met had Treliving decided to give him another couple of games – and potentially, a fate that could have resulted in the Flames having fewer options to choose between.

Some gambles like Cooper and Hakstol appear to have worked out, while someone like Johnston didn’t. Still – teams as of late seem to be trending towards trying out new guys, and in most cases, nobody is really doing any worse.

With a retread, you likely know what you’re getting. With a rookie, you might find another Johnston, or another Sullivan. But when Tampa and Pittsburgh bombed out on coaches, their next hires were successes: so maybe it’s worth it to at least experiment with unproven guys, after all.

  • maimster

    In your last paragraph you compare Sullivan and Johnston, calling them both rookies. I really think the Sullivan class of coach – someone with some NHL experience, even a few years ago, and who’s been working good jobs ever since – shouldn’t be compared with rookies. I’m not sure I’m a fan of Boucher, but he or others like Kevin Dineen are a very good option in lieu of rookies.

    Although a true rookie like Travis Green has promise.

    • Ari Yanover

      Ah sorry, I didn’t mean to outright call Sullivan a rookie, but I totally get how I flubbed the wording there.

      I actually really like the Sullivan approach, too – and I agree, Dineen is a perfect candidate in that sense, as are Payne and Stevens.

  • KACaribou

    Regardless of who Tree hires, they will both be under the microscope.

    And, having observed the a$$-covering ways GMs operate, there is one thing for certain: FLAMES WILL PAY WHATEVER IS NECESSARY, OR DO WHATEVER IS NECESSARY, TO HAVE AN UNBELIEVABLE GOALIE before the start of 2016/17.

    Tree left Coach Bob out to hang last year with the goalie situation, then complained that the team got off to a terrible start and that that was on the coach and part of the reason he was canned.

    Now it’s on him.

    Therefore, if the new coach is on him too, he will have to have a tremendous goalie to make sure the new coach too doesn’t get off to a terrible start. Considering the Flames will be paying two coaches next season.

    • The Fall

      Bob wanted Ramo back.

      Bob kept three goalies up for a month

      Bob didn’t recognize Hiller was done until way too late.

      Tree went out and got Bob a top 3 D-man.

      Tree went out and got Bob a top 6 possession forward.

    • supra steve

      So, is this, like, factual man, or are you breaking the rule that you have applied to the rest of us?

      Your own words….”Do any of us people here on FN know how bloody lucky we are having people here in “the know” with all Flames business. For instance if you bring up something like Tree being in Russia, they can come on here and ease your mind with factual information. Thank Gawd!” And the reason that you singled ME out for your little tirade… MY words “BT is primarily interested in filling the position with a young, up-and-comer…”, a thought that seems to be gaining some traction.

      Textbook hypocrite.

      • KACaribou

        Sarcasm fool. I can’t spend my time here explaining things to you. It would be a full time job.

        Glad you keep my quotes though. But at least I have heard of you. Stan?

      • Greatsave

        Fellas, the all-caps should have set off the troll-siren.

        Let’s just stop feeding the troll, ok?

        This is someone who professes to come here for varied views and opinions, then trashes anyone who doesn’t share her opinions, then plays the victim for not having her opinions validated, then trashes anyone who dares question whether she actually values varied views and opinions, while belittling others and acting like their views are beneath her.

        If she wants to throw that “I don’t read your comments but you sure as heck hang onto my every word” line around, I don’t know why we keep feeding her ego.

        Annnnnd… cue snarky comment from Rudolph. Watch me not engage.

  • I don’t think you can fully blame TRE either @KAC.
    Yes, he did mess up by not bringing in a goalie when it was so widely reported he was trying.
    The decision to roll with 3 goalies was a dumb move as well.

    That being ssaid, i do think TRE expected HIller/Ramo to produce at least at the smae level they did the year before, which neither did. They both put up league replacement level numbers last year this year… their numbers weren’t even fit for the ahl. It was that sad.

    So, I think some blame should be divided all around.

    This shouldn’t excuse Hartley though. Sometimes his decisions on which goalie to play each night was suspect in the same way his player useage has always been suspect for all 4 years.

  • everton fc

    I pushed here for Jon Cooper prior to our hiring of Hartley. Hynes, as well. We need to go down this route. My sense is these guys don’t care about the egos; they are able to coach hockey players, and get results. Cooper has done particularly well, in a somewhat volatile situation (Drouin, Stamkos…)

    • piscera.infada

      Mike Yeo will not coach the Flames. The Flames are doing their due diligence. Honestly, I’m glad the Flames aren’t rushing into a hiring. Hire the best person.

  • MontanaMan

    Couple of random thoughts: 1) Like the goaltending situation, go for the up and coming coach (Green) familiar with today’s style of play and athlete and not the has been veteran (Torts). The game and the athlete have changed – stay up with the times. 2) As noted above, the goaltending change must be one that has a future, not in the last two years of a career. Yes, Gilles has promise but he has a long way to go to being a starter in the NHL. I want a promising youngster looking for an opportunity. And I guess we see why the Flames were pursuing Murray so hard this year. Following the playoffs, he will be locked up by the Pens for a very long time. 3). Why isn’t Brodie playing for Canada in the World’s? This is the perfect opportunity for him to gain some experience and exposure on a world stage. Was he offered a position and declined? Let’s hope not.

  • freethe flames

    A guy who never seems to get mentioned when Head coaching jobs become available is Ted Nolan. It’s not that I’m endorsing him but when I hear Crawford has job and Carlyle I wonder what he did to get no love. I recall he had some pretty good years in Buffalo.

    • Baalzamon

      I recall he had some pretty good years in Buffalo.

      When would that have been exactly? Nolan coached them for two years after they fired Lindy Ruff (in other words, they had already been a basement dweller for a little while). Nolan’s first year as Buffalo’s coach Cody Hodgson was their leading scorer.

      There’s a sentence I never thought I’d type.