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Search for Stability

Seven head coaches look to lead their new teams towards stability, success and more

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ /

Coaching changes are an indicator of a sports franchise's life cycle. Most teams put a high priority on stability, hoping to pick a new coach who will not only win but develop young players, motivate veterans, upgrade team chemistry, align with the overall organizational mission and appreciate the data analytics rushing into the sport like Edmonton's Connor McDavid. There's more, but you get the idea.

Other teams make a change targeted to convert a good team into a great team (stick tap to bestselling business author Jim Collins, author of "Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don't"). St. Louis Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong pulled off the latter when he replaced Mike Yeo with associate coach Craig Berube last November in-season. It took about five weeks until early January, but Berube led the Blues to their first-ever Stanley Cup.

Seven NHL teams changed coaches since the final puck drop last June, no doubt seeking a leader who will be a face of the franchise for seasons to come. While some are rebuilding, others are looking to go from good to great. Six coaches transitioned to a new team with previous experience as an NHL head coach. Only one is brand-new to the top job behind an NHL bench. 

So far, so good. Through the first seven days of games, new coaches have won 13 of 20 games. Here's a look at the new coaches' first week on the job:


Dallas Eakins, Anaheim Ducks

Eakins and his Ducks are off to a 3-0 starts, impressive considering most preseason projections deemed Anaheim as outside-looking-in at playoffs time. While the early record might say more about John Gibson's Vezina Trophy potential as top 2019-20 NHL goalie, three wins looks pretty good even if the offense (8 goals) is still finding its way. 

Eakins was a heralded American Hockey League coach with the famed Toronto Marlies franchise, persuading the Edmonton Oilers to tap him for the head coaching job in 2013. Let's just say he admits to learning a lot during a story season-and-a-half with the Oilers. Eakins realized his hyper-aggressive style wasn't a great fit with organization. He moved on to four stellar years with the AHL San Diego Gulls, the Ducks' top affiliates. Eakins should be able to fire up the Anaheim young forwards, who played for him in San Diego. 


Ralph Krueger, Buffalo Sabres

Krueger is one of four new coaches with ties to Alberta. His only previous NHL head coaching stop was Edmonton, where he notched a 19-22-7 record during the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season. He was replaced by Eakins. 

But it says here Krueger is a smart pick for the Sabres. His team has earned seven possible points in the standings during its first four games. Sabres players are exuding positive vibes about him to media members, right from the first day of training camp. Plus, 22-year-old center and captain Jack Eichel is all-in, showing his belief with two goals and two assists Wednesday night in a 5-4 win over visiting Montreal. 

Krueger has an impressive resume in international hockey play, including a silver medal with Team Europe during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey (NHL Seattle assistant GM Ricky Olczyk filled the AGM role for that Euro team). Speaking of Europe, Krueger served five years as chairman of the Southampton FC in soccer's English Premier League. He no doubt knows how coaches aligning with organizational mission can breed success on the ice. 


Todd McLellan, Los Angeles Kings 

More Edmonton talk: McClellan, long-time coach of the San Jose Sharks, moved from the Bay Area to Canada for the 2015-2016 season, which coincided with star center Connor McDavid's rookie season. In 2017, the McC and McD fueled the Oilers into the second round of the playoffs. The wheels of stability started to wane in 2018-19 with a postseason miss, then fell off with a slow start last fall. McLellan was fired after 20 games. 

Now back but farther south in the Golden State, McLellan faces a locker room of all-star, two-time Cup champion players such as defenseman Drew Doughty (who scored the overtime winner in the team's first win) and goalie Jonathan Quick mixed with promising young players. He has been vocal about the veterans adjusting along with the younger players to "improve in every facet of the game." 

At 51, McLellan has moved from the back-then promising young coach to a current something-to-prove stance. The team is 1-2 after its first three gamesLos Angeles, down-trending due to salary cap challenges (surplus of big contracts for players with sliding production), looks to stabilize this season even if there is not postseason spot, then leverage a top-5 prospects development system in 2020-21 and beyond. 


D.J. Smith, Ottawa Senators

Here's the newbie on our list. Smith, 42, played 45 NHL games with Toronto and Colorado, plus a whole lot more in hockey's version of minor leagues. That type of experience is sometimes the best education for a head coach: the player looking for every edge to stay on the ice, discovering what works and what does not. 

Smith retired as a player in 2005 and started his coaching career as an assistant the Ontario Hockey League's Windsor Spitfires. Six seasons later, he took the head coaching job with the OHL's Oshawa Generals, winning the esteemed juniors Memorial Cup in 2015. That got Mike Babcock's attention in Toronto, where he served as an assistant focused on the defense.

While Ottawa is a rebuild, the defensemen group includes rising star Thomas Chabot plus former Leafs Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev. Brady Tkachuk headlines a group of promising young forwards, but this team is long-term project with former stalwarts Erik Karlsson (San Jose) and Mark Stone (Vegas) traded midseason last year. Smith fits the bill as younger coach who can grow with the team. The stability element is up to Ottawa's ownership and front office. 



Dave Tippett, Edmonton Oilers

Can we root for former NHL Seattle senior hockey operations adviser Tippett between now and puck drop in 2021? You bet your Bauers (inside hockey alliteration) we can.

Our final of four coaches with Oilers ties, "Tip" is 3-0 in the team's first trio of games, including Tuesday's 5-2 road hammering of the New York Islanders, with James Neal's four goals (including a natural hat trick of three goals uninterrupted by any other scores). Neal was disappointing to the Oil faithful last year in his season with the squad. Early returns of the coaching change has everyone excited.

Better yet, Tippett is a polished NHL head coach (six years with Dallas, eight more with Arizona) who historically makes his team's better in the first season. He won the Jack Adams best coach trophy in 2010. He joins long-time successful Detroit GM Ken Holland to build stability and, dare we say-yes, greatness in Edmonton. As a generational special talent, Connor McDavid deserves nothing less. Tippett will bolster a defense that was bottom 20 percent last season in allowing goals. He will play the hot hand in goal and has installed a system for better puck possession. 


Joel Quenneville, Florida Panthers

Quenneville played with Seattle GM Ron Francis on the Hartford Whalers. But we are burying the lead: "Q" was a stable and winning force in Chicago, winning Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015. He parted ways with the Blackhawks after a slow start last fall (more salary cap-induced challenges). Along with recently gone Cubs manager Joe Maddon, Quenneville will be the toast of Chicago for many seasons to come. The ovation he gets when the Panthers visit United Center will a moment to see and hear. 

So far, the Panthers split a home-and-home with state rival Tampa Bay (a positive for informed fans who know TBL is a top team), then took it on chin at Carolina. 

Quenneville returns his first Hawks boss, Florida GM Dale Tallon, who signed goalie Sergei Bobrovsky away from Columbus. "The Bob" struggled in his most recent start, surrendering four first-period goals to the hot-hot Carolina Hurricanes, but he will prove to be a reason why this team will stay in the playoffs hunt. Quenneville will be in Florida as long as he wants or Tallon or both. Q is second all-time in both games coached (1,636) and career wins (890). 


Alain Vigneault, Philadelphia Flyers 

Vigneault is the third "new" coach with a Jack Adams top coach award in his trophy case. He is an underrated coach who has enjoyed success in Vancouver (one Game 7 short of a Cup win in 2011) and New York (piloting the Rangers to a Cup Final in 2014). Last May, he led Team Canada to a surprise silver medal at the World Championships (a tournament that defies Olympic expectations because lots of top Canadians are still playing the Stanley Cup Playoffs). 

As a leader who get results from the first season-similar to Tippett-Vigneault is happy to see veteran Claude Giroux and in-his-prime scorer Sean Couturier on his forwards lineup. The new Philly coach looks to the former Everett Silvertips goalie Carson Hart, 21, as a mainstay (with reliable veteran Brian Elliott pushing for playing time). 

Hart's progression will be important this season, which started with a 4-3 against Chicago in Prauge. After a few days to level the jet lag, Hart recorded his first NHL shutout Wednesday night in 4-0 over New Jersey to lead his team to a 2-win start against zero losses. Philly is a tough market for coaches, but Vigneault's stops in the hockey hot-boxes of Vancouver and New York will serve him and the Flyers well.

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