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Devilish Dilema: Who Will Be New Jerseys Next Head Coach?

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Posted 24 May 2011 - 07:00 AM

Posted ImageDevils Coaching Carousel

It’s the summer of 2011 and for the New Jersey Devils the objective is the same, find another coach. It’s easy to speculate about what type of coach would work best with the Devils and their eclectic mix of grizzled vets and youthful skaters. Unless you have actually been behind those closed doors at the Prudential Center you really have no clue what this team needs mentally. But, we do have the ability to draw our own conclusions based on what the stat sheets tell us and what we witnessed during the nightmarish first-half  of 2010-11 as compared to astonishing second-half turn around.

The candidates that have been linked to the vacancy in New Jersey all have impressive resumes and each one has their own unique qualities that could help the team get back to the top of the NHL’s pinnacle.

A name that keeps coming up and is considered the proverbial front-runner is Ken Hitchcock. The respected bench boss led Team Canada to the quarterfinals at the 2011 IIHF world championships. Hitchcock also coached the Dallas Stars to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals including winning it all in 1998-99. He is of the same mold as many of GM Lou Lamoriello’s previous coaches. Hitchcocks’ coaching philosophy is on par with that of former-coach Jacques Lemaire and considered a good fit with Lamoriello. The challenge for any coach coming in will be the further development to Ilya Kovalchuk. Lemaire made so much progress with the Russian sniper that it would be counterproductive to bring in an entirely new philosophy. Hitchcocks’ philosophy is similar but the manner in which he gets his point across may be too harsh for an already fragile New Jersey Locker room. I still think the job is Hitchcock’s to lose.

Lamoriello is regarded as extremely loyal to former players. Sometimes too loyal as many of his free-agent retreads have turned out to be overpaid busts. Last season he brought in former Devils star John Maclean to lead the team and that went south faster than a flock of ducks escaping a Minnesota winter. That’s why the idea of former Devil captain Kirk Muller may be a bit premature to consider. Muller played for the Devils from 1984-85 until the 1990-91 season before departing to the Montreal Canadiens. Muller got his first head coaching job with the Queen’s University Golden Gaels in 2005-06. His 8-13-1-2 record in the Ontario University Athletics Conference was less than impressive but he was still named an assistant coach with Team Canada in 2005. He earned a gold medal for his role behind the bench there. In 2006, he was given another assistant spot at the Under-18 World Championships. After the tournament Muller went back to the NHL to become an assistant with the Canadiens. Muller is arguably the best available candidate looking for his first head job. However, having  played for the Devils with Maclean, he is close friends with fired coached and for that reason alone he may already be out of the running. But, Lamoriello is a business man and he may interview Muller based on his merit not his ties to New Jersey. Merely based on the situation with Maclean I would consider Muller a long shot at best.

If we listen to the face of the Devils franchise for almost two decades then Larry Robinson should be the Devils next coach, again. Martin Brodeur suggested the best person to replace a coach like Lemaire would be to replace him with somebody from within the organization. “Continuity with what we’ve done (under Lemaire) would be welcome,” Brodeur told the Star Ledger at the end of the season. Robinson coached the Devils to the Stanley Cup in 2000 and has been the go-to guy in a pinch for Lamoriello since then. He last coached the New Jersey in 2005-06 season but has remained an assistant with former coaches Brent Sutter, Maclean and Lemaire.  His .690 winning percentage in 173 (87-56-19-11) games speaks for itself. He would be a safest choice but it doesn’t seem like Lamoriello is heading in this direction. I would welcome Robinson for the sentimental value he brings but otherwise I think there are better candidates out there.

Others have suggested New Jersey might be an ideal situation for a coach like Scott Gordon. Although his record with the New York Islanders is pretty embarrassing, Gordon is still a solid coaching commodity. He is looked upon as an excellent developer of young talent. He could be a positive influence on New Jersey’s budding young stars like Mattias Tedenby and Jacob Josefson. His resume includes coaching the Providence Bruins of the AHL from 2002-08, increasing the teams win totals each year he was behind the bench. Gordon has also worked with Devils star Zach Parise as an assistant coach under Ron Wilson for the Silver Medal winning United States Team at the Vancouver Olympics and was named the U.S. head coach for the IIHF World Championships in 2010 and 2011. He preaches an aggressive and responsible fore-check which should garner him a look from Lamoriello.

Michel Therrien is currently a scout for the Minnesota Wild but is available should the Devils come a knocking. His resume includes stints with the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins. He is most recognized for leading the Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and losing to the Detroit Red Wings. He was also only four games shy of being the longest tenured coach in Penguins history behind the legendary Eddie Johnson. After an inconsistent start to the 2009 season he was fired and replaced by Dan Bylsma. Therrien was as strict as coach could be while in Montreal and Pittsburgh and his style may have worn thin on the players. Lamoriello is looking for a long term coach and If Therrien wants to coach the Devils he may have to convince Lamoriello that his style can can be effective for more than a season or two.

After Lemaire retired the first time many Devils fans gushed about New Jersey Native and current Chicago Blackhawks assistant, Mike Haviland. Haviland gained attention as a worthy nominee for a head coaching vacancy after Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2010. But instead of waiting to talk with Haviland, Lamoriello went to Maclean before ever interviewing the Blackhawks assistant. Haviland never missed the playoffs while a coach in the minors. His biography includes ECHL Championships in 2003 with the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies and in 2005 with the Trenton Titans (Now Trenton Devils). His career winning percentage is .600 or better in six of his seven seasons as a head coach. For his efforts Haviland won the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award in 2007 as the AHL’s best coach. Having already coached within the Devils organization and having the Stanley Cup experience under his belt will give him a leg up on other viable candidates. Plus, he appears ready for a full time NHL gig and working under Lamoriello might be the catalyst Haviland needs to propel him to coaching stardom.

Another possible option would be the recently fired Marc Crawford. Crawford was let go by the Dallas Stars after missing the playoffs this past season but that doesn’t diminish what has been a very successful coaching career. Crawford skyrocketed to coaching glory. In 1994-95, Crawford’s first full season as a head coach in the NHL he led the Quebec Nordiques to first place in the North East Division and became the youngest coach ever to win the Jack Adams award. He also owns a Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s top coach in 1993. In 1996 He led the newly relocated Colorado Avalache to a Stanley Cup Championship. But recently some of that luster has worn off, mostly because Crawford-led teams haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 2005-06. If Lamoriello is looking for just a “name” then Crawford is his man, otherwise his best option is to look elsewhere.

And last but certainly not least no coaching discussion is complete without mentioning a true legend in his own mind, Mike Keenan. Keenan is known for his fiery demeanor and straight to the point yet frustratingly unorthodox coaching style which earned him the nickname “Iron Mike.” Despite Keenan’s impressive coaching record, his coaching style quickly wears on players and entire organizations which has ultimately left his resume splattered with short coaching stints. His career includes a plethora of nasty terminations or resignations from both coaching and GM positions. In his first 10 years as an NHL head coach Keenan had been to the Stanley Cup Finals four times, finally hoisting the Silver Chalice with the 1993-94 New York Rangers. But, after leading the Rangers to their first Cup victory since 1940, Keenan stepped down just weeks after the victory because he couldn’t work with then GM Neil Smith blaming his departure on a violation in his current contract. From that point forward Keenan brought more problems then victories to the teams he coached. In fact, in seven of his eleven seasons behind the bench since winning the Cup Keenan has either missed the playoffs, been fired or resigned. There is absolutely no chance in Hades that Lamoriello would even consider for one nano-second Keenan in New Jersey. But, his .555 career winning percentage will continue to keep him in the discussion.

The month of May is drawing to a close and by virtue of winning the NHL Draft Lottery the Devils have the fourth overall pick so expect Lamoriello to get in gear and have the position filled before the June 24th draft in Minnesota. My best guess is that Ken Hitchcock will be back in the NHL next season as the coach of the New Jersey Devils.

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