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Young coaches a growing trend

by Larry Wigge
One week after leading the Detroit Red Wings to the Stanley Cup, coach Mike Babcock signed a three-year, $4.5 million contract. The same day, they saw Todd McLellan, one of Babcock's assistants, say yes to the head coaching job of the San Jose Sharks.

Coincidence? I think not.

After working the last three seasons as an assistant in Detroit, McLellan obviously learned from one of the best in the game working under Babcock. He's strong and fair, like Babcock, and he can be like Babcock when he has to demand discipline. Most of all, McLellan is part of the blueprint for today's NHL coach. He can teach, motivate and get through to a group of players that is getting younger and younger.

"He's really worked at his craft," said Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson, who scoured the NHL, minors and juniors looking for a three-pronged character guy to replace Ron Wilson behind the San Jose bench. "You say people like to take shortcuts … but his history, we went way back to his Swift Current (Western Hockey League) days.

"I know the work that he did and the people that he worked with shared what he did. In the first conversation I had with him, I knew he was the right guy. He just won a Stanley Cup and the next morning I'm getting a call and he's ready to hop on a plane, wanting to interview with us."

Hands-on, character-demanding coaches? That sounds just like the quartet of Babcock, Randy Carlyle, Bryan Murray and Michel Therrien -- the four coaches who took their teams to the Cup final in the last two years.

The template for coaching no longer starts by hiring a former NHL player or coach or NHL assistant. With the average age of NHL rosters getting younger, the prerequisites for running a team now starts with a patient approach to teaching and motivating those youngsters before you start with dispensing the discipline and professionalism it takes to win at this level.

Brent Sutter may have started that last summer when he was named New Jersey's coach after a successful coaching stint in junior hockey at Red Deer of the WHL.

I wouldn't call the Sutter hiring as a trend, but what minor league coach Bruce Boudreau did after taking over in Washington for Glen Hanlon certainly is something to take note of, namely winning the Jack Adams Trophy as NHL Coach of the Year.

Coaching kids in the Capitals' farm system to coaching kids in the NHL -- what a novel approach, eh?

This offseason, we started with eight coaching vacancies -- Atlanta, Colorado, Florida, Los Angeles, Ottawa, San Jose, Tampa Bay and Toronto. And I wouldn't presume to consider that every team would go with what I think will be the flow of the future.

Toronto, in a win-now situation, went with Ron Wilson, someone with NHL head-coaching experience and a skin thick enough to handle the tough Toronto media. And the Avalanche promoted Tony Granato to replace Joel Quenneville ... who had replaced Granato a couple of years ago.

But the new trend can be seen in new hires in Ottawa and Florida, where coaches were plucked out of the Canadian junior ranks.

Craig Hartsburg will get another chance at coaching in the NHL, after a successful coaching stint in the OHL.
In Ottawa, GM Bryan Murray hired Craig Hartsburg, who had average results in NHL stints with Chicago and Anaheim from 1995-2001, but had great success at Sault Ste. Marie in the Ontario Hockey League and won the last two World Junior Championship gold medals with the Canadian National Team.

And Peter DeBoer, who was a finalist for the Ottawa job, gained the head coaching duties in Florida. DeBoer had a combined record of 539-248-60-31 with the Detroit/Plymouth Whalers and Kitchener Rangers in the OHL since 1995-96. He coached and managed the Rangers for the last seven seasons, guiding them to two OHL championships, a Memorial Cup championship and a runner-up finish in junior hockey's championship this year. He was twice named the OHL's coach of the year.

If you listen to other strong rumors, John Anderson, who took the Chicago Wolves to the AHL championship this season, could be rewarded with a promotion from Atlanta's farm team to the head coaching job of the Thrashers.

That leaves Tampa Bay and Los Angeles.

Everyone seemingly has handed the head coaching job of the Lightning to Barry Melrose, who would come out of the ESPN studios to coach in the NHL for the first time since his three-year stint in Los Angeles from 1992-93 through the 1994-95 season -- going from the Stanley Cup Final in 1993 to out of the playoffs the next year and out of a job the year after that. Like I said, a different approach to hiring a coach.

But then there's the Kings, who can choose from veterans like Joel Quenneville, John Paddock, John Tortorella, Paul Maurice and Bob Hartley, or take a chance with a minor-league coach like Kevin Dineen or New York Rangers assistant Perry Pearn.

Sharks GM Doug Wilson was eloquent in speaking to me earlier in the playoffs about how the game never has been better with the likes of young stars like Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and so many others.

And now it looks like the same never-better approach may be in the hands of some bright new coaches, as well. Let's hope these hard-working people make the same kind of breakthrough behind the benches in the NHL.

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