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Claude Julien firing gives Vegas GM another option

George McPhee remains patient as former Boston coach joins list of available big-name candidates

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @Cotsonika / Columnist

George McPhee's phone lights up each time an NHL coach gets fired.

As general manager of the Vegas Golden Knights, the expansion team that begins play next season, he's searching for a coach, and everyone knows it. People always wonder whether the latest to hit the market will be his man.

First it was Gerard Gallant. Then it was Jack Capuano. Last week it was Ken Hitchcock, and Tuesday it was Claude Julien.

The question is if McPhee will decide his man is available and pursue him before someone else does.

"We did indicate we might go all the way into the spring before we exhausted the process," McPhee said Tuesday. "Needless to say, it's been an evolving process, and things can change quickly."

Wisely, McPhee has been quiet and patient. He declined to detail his process or the qualities he wants in a coach on Tuesday, out of respect for the coaches available and to avoid tipping off the competition. The longer he's waited to hire a coach, the longer and better his list of options has become.

McPhee might not have the luxury of waiting much longer, though, if he wants one of the coaches available.

Video: NHL Now: George McPhee joins the show

When the Blues replaced Hitchcock with Mike Yeo, it was for the foreseeable future; Yeo was scheduled to take over for Hitchcock next season. But when the Florida Panthers replaced Gallant with Tom Rowe, they said they would reevaluate after the season. When the New York Islanders replaced Capuano with Doug Weight and the Boston Bruins replaced Julien with Bruce Cassidy, each did it on an interim basis. All three teams could make changes again.

The dominoes, especially Hitchcock and Julien, could lead to others falling too.

"There's a whole bunch of GMs right now looking at their program saying, 'Holy mackerel. It's a target-rich environment out there for coaches right now, and there's two [more] on the market. Do I want them?' " Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "They're both great coaches. Someone's going to get a heck of a hire on either guy."

Two things to remember: One, if more dominoes fall, that means other candidates will become available. Two, this is a two-way street. A general manager might want to hire a coach, but that coach has to want to join the team.

"A guy like Julien is going to get to pick where he wants to go," Babcock said.

McPhee cannot offer immediate Stanley Cup contention. He cannot even say who his players will be yet. He can't start making personnel moves until around the NHL Trade Deadline on March 1, when owner Bill Foley is scheduled to make his final payment to the League. The expansion draft isn't until June.

You have to wonder if an expansion team would be the preferred destination for coaches who could land a job with a contender, especially Hitchcock, 65, who has contemplated retirement.

Video: E.J. Hradek talks Bruins firing coach Claude Julien

But McPhee has a lot to offer. He has a committed owner in Foley who wants to contend for the Cup sooner rather than later. He is an experienced GM with an experienced staff. The Golden Knights have a new arena on the Strip, a new practice facility under construction not far away, a blank slate and better expansion draft rules than teams have had in the past.

The first coach of the Golden Knights will have less pressure and more opportunity than usual, at least initially. He won't be expected to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs right away. He will have a chance not only to build a team on the ice, but to build a brand in the city and to grow the sport.

McPhee made five coaching changes as the general manager of the Washington Capitals from 1997-2014. He said this is probably the hardest it's ever been to be a coach in the NHL, considering the parity of the League under the salary cap and the constant drumbeat for change in the media and on social media.

"So it's just about the most important decision a manager can make," McPhee said. "If you have time, you use that time to try to make the right decision, but it isn't very often that you have the time to do that. It's like everything else in the business. It gets more competitive and more difficult and more complicated with each year. The coach can be a real difference-maker if you get the right one."

McPhee's challenge is to get it right the first time.

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