By Stu Hackel
This might be the week that the New Jersey Devils hire a new head coach. Then again, maybe not. As with most things surrounding the Devils, little is clear and little is known. They are starting their development camp today (which was not even mentioned this morning the team’s website, but is now) and that may inhibit GM Lou Lamoriello from selecting someone to head up the coaching staff this week. Or not.
Some big names are running the Devs’ prospects through their drills. Larry Robinson is conducting the workouts with Scott Stevens and Adam Oates among those assisting. None of them are expected to become the team’s next head coach. But at one time or another almost everyone else you can imagine has been rumored to get the NHL’s last remaining vacancy — Mike Keenan, Ken Hitchcock, Guy Carbonneau, Michel Therrien, Craig MacTavish, Craig Ramsay, Mike Haviland, Kirk Muller, Mark Crawford, Bob Hartley, Mike Eaves. But most of them have denied that they’re in the running or they discouraged speculation in some way, leaving the impression that none will be Lou’s guy.
Lamoriello is sometimes formulaic with his coaching choices (NHL-experienced, defense-oriented, frequently with a Montreal connection) and sometimes not (John MacLean, for example, but that had its own sad inevitability about it). His choices almost always surprise — so, is a fourth term for Jacques Lemaire, who professed he was too old at 65 to continue after last season, really out of the question? I am, however, going to discount the dream I had on Saturday night that Lou was considering former Montreal Expos and San Francisco Giants manager Felipe Alou. That would be a bit too surprising, if only because Felipe is even older than Lemaire.
For years, Lamoriello was praised as perhaps the NHL’s best GM as he put a competitive, championship-caliber team together through cunning moves while keeping his player expenditures relatively low, an impressive achievement in the pre-cap era. But he has had a hard time adjusting to the hard cap. Post-lockout, Lamoriello appears uncertain how to manage the Devils, as the Ilya Kovalchuk deal showed and continues to show. And after the departures and retirements of so many of his best players from the Stanley Cup era, Lou hasn’t done well assembling a team that can succeed under the “new rules.”
Lamoriello also faces a difficult negotiation with Zach Parise, a player New Jersey really has to hold on to if it hopes to become a playoff contender again. Over the weekend, Parise told Rich Chere of The Newark Star-Ledger that he’d accept a one year deal with the Devils to avoid arbitration, but the Devs really have to get him on a long-term contract or they’re likely to lose him as a UFA next summer, so that idea is not going to work for them. The Kovalchuk contract, an ongoing nightmare for the Devils, makes finding cap space and money for Parise problematic. And, as Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record suggested over the weekend, the lack of stability behind the bench could make Parise balk at committing to the team.
The Devs didn’t really want to be in this predicament. When Lamoriello hired Brent Sutter in 2007, he probably hoped to have a good long run with the dour Albertan behind the bench. But two years later, Sutter begged out, claiming homesickness and family separation, and took the Flames job a couple of weeks later from his brother Darryl, then Calgary’s GM. Since then, Lamoriello has patched things with two terms of Lemaire sandwiched around MacLean’s tenure, which was aborted after only 33 games and running afoul of Kovalchuk.
One supposes that Lou is taking his time to get this one right. If he’s going to follow the trend of recent NHL head coaching hires, he won’t be picking a recycled NHL bench boss. During the last few years, clubs have largely sought new faces and new choices.
The latest hires are all from that cut: In May, the Panthers picked Kevin Dineen, coach of the Sabres’ farm team in Portland, Maine. In June, the Stars hired their AHL coach, Glen Gulutzan; the Wild picked Mike Yeo, a former Penguins assistant who turned around Minnesota’s Houston AHL team last season; the Senators brought in Paul MacLean, most recently a Red Wings assistant, but he’s been coaching almost everywhere since he retired as a player 20 years ago; and the Jets tapped Claude Noel, a minor league coach since 1990, who had a three-year NHL coaching stint under Hitchcock in Columbus and replaced him as head coach for 24 games in 2010.
A few of the names mentioned in connection with the Devils fit that profile. Eaves has been a very successful head coach at the University of Wisconsin plus an NHL assistant and head coach of the US National Team at the World Junior Championships. Many observers have also speculated that Muller, a former Devs captain, was in line for the job (although his close relationship with ex- teammate MacLean made him loathe to accept the gig if Lamoriello ever offered it). Muller had a highly praised run as a Canadiens assistant coach before the Predators hired him last month as head coach for their AHL Milwaukee team.
But at the moment, whoever is on Lamoriello’s radar is under everyone else’s.