NHL Coaching Vacancies: Oilers, Flames, Canadiens, Capitals Have Key Decisions Ahead

PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 27: Calgary Flames head coach Brent Sutter argues a call against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center on November 27 2010 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Four teams have big decisions ahead this NHL offseason as they try to determine who will be their next head coach.

With the volatility involved as an NHL head coach, it's very surprising to think that there are only four of 30 teams in the NHL currently seeking a new head coach.

Since there are only 30 jobs like this on Earth, it would seem these teams -- almost all Canadian, one of them rather bad for a number of years, another falling off the map this season, the third a franchise that should have a much better on-ice product than it has, and one coming off a nice playoff run -- would have the pick of the litter.

But what should each team be seeking in its next head coach?


The Oilers will pick first in the NHL Draft for a third straight season next month. That alone should tell you that there are problems that go beyond the head coach. Despite that, Tom Renney was asked to pack up his office, and general manager Steve Tambellini will be charged with the most important move of his career in the front office.

The decision to fire Renney puts a lot of pressure on Tambellini, who isn't exactly the most popular guy in Edmonton, perhaps deservedly so.

No, he didn't inherit a full cupboard in terms of talent. But Tambellini has had plenty of time to bring the organization along, and it has the look of a franchise spinning its wheels at this point.

Former Calgary coach Brent Sutter has been linked to the job, and while it would be the third different head coaching job for Sutter in six years, it's unfair to call him a retread. He left the New Jersey Devils because he wanted to take the Flames job, which is much closer to his family in Alberta. Yes, he failed in Calgary, but as we'll discuss in a bit, it's not like the Flames built quality NHL depth around Jarome Iginla, and the franchise has struggled to find a quality backup goaltender who can help them better manage Miikka Kiprusoff's minutes.

Tambellini will field another younger team in 2012-13, and he needs a coach with a track record of working well with young players. Unless he works miracles, Tambellini will not have a team blessed with a strong defensive corps. That will be a problem for the new coach, finding guys who can eat minutes behind mid-season acquisition Nick Schultz and the offensively-gifted Ryan Whitney.


Sutter was let go by the Flames, but the lack of quality depth and the disappointing play of big-money 2009 signee Jay Bouwmeester isn't necessarily his fault, either.

(I thought Bouwmeester was better in his own end last season, but he's an offensive guy. In his last three years with the Panthers, Bouwmeester averaged 14 goals and 40 points per season. In three years as a Flame, he has totaled 12 goals and 82 points. Someone has to find a way to either turn him into a multi-zone stalwart like Shea Weber, or get him back into his offensive form of old.)

General manager Jay Feaster spent to the cap this season, but couldn't get the desired results. He made a late move for Michael Cammalleri, and the one-time Flame and former Canadien did score more goals (11) in 28 games for Calgary than he did in 38 games (nine) for Montreal. Feaster has $46.5 million committed to 15 players next season, so it's unlikely that a big signing is on the way, unless a trade is made to clear room.

Rumors (or is it rumours?) have been out there that Abbotsford (AHL) head coach Troy Ward is a top candidate for the Flames vacancy. He's facing competition from many, including former Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish.

(Wouldn't it be something if the Flames hired MacTavish and the Oilers took Sutter?)

Feaster needs to find someone who can get more out of the expensive talent on hand. The Flames were solid on the penalty kill, but porous five-on-five, something the next bench boss will have to find a way to fix. Developing more consistent puck possession will help that. Talents like Iginla, Cammalleri, and Bouwmeester are useless to a team if they're chasing the puck all the time.


The Canadiens went from a Game 7 loss to the eventual champion in last year's first round to the worst record in the Eastern Conference. The coach -- Jacques Martin -- was fired midseason and replaced by assistant Randy Cunneyworth. The general manager -- Pierre Gauthier -- was jettisoned and replaced by Chicago executive Marc Bergevin.

The new GM has announced that Cunneyworth will not be the head coach next season, so before he makes a crucial top-five draft pick for his new team, he has to pick a new leader.

There is some talent on hand, with guys like Tomas Plekanec, Max Pacioretty, Erik Cole, Brian Gionta, and PK Subban on board, among others.

A likely buyout of Scott Gomez' contract will free up cap space, and while Bergevin isn't one player away from a contender, he also must understand that the fanbase in Montreal is not likely to tolerate a long rebuilding effort.

As far as a coaching hire, Bergevin would be smart to target candidates who can speak French, given the flap over Cunneyworth's in-season promotion last season. It would also be a good spot for a coach rooted in discipline and hard work. Unless Bergevin decides to rebuild, it's not going to be that young a team.


This is the one situation where the team looking for a new coach made the playoffs, and the coach left on his own terms. Dale Hunter decided to head back to Ontario, leaving the Capitals wondering if they can find a coach capable of duplicating what Hunter did with a team that looked for a while to be on its way to the draft lottery.

GM George McPhee is taking his time on this one, which doesn't necessarily indicate much of anything. There are a number of good potential candidates, both internal and external.

McPhee does have to make an important decision. Hunter brought a defense-first mentality and changed the way this team played. He was able to make star players like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom buy into playing fewer minutes with increased effectiveness, and role players like Jason Chimera and Joel Ward ended up playing crucial roles in the team's playoff success.

Does McPhee want to bring in a head coach who can continue what Hunter started? Frankly, it's hard to imagine the Capitals experiencing the kind of success over 82 games that they did in 14 playing this way. It's easier to get players to buy in to this philosophy when they are playing for their seasons. Will big-time star players accept fewer minutes in November?

The alternative is to bring in a more offensive-minded coach who -- preferably -- has a winning pedigree. That would keep Washington from having ego issues in the room, but will it help win in April and May? That's harder to determine, and perhaps is why McPhee will take his time on this move.

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