The Arizona Coyotes continue to clean house.
First, it was goaltender Mike Smith who was shipped out, sent to the Calgary Flames ahead of this week’s expansion draft. Following that, the Coyotes parted ways with Shane Doan, who had spent his entire 21-season career with the organization and is the franchise’s all-time leader in nearly every conceivable statistical category. And with Smith and Doan out, Arizona has parted ways with yet another long-tenured member of the club, coach Dave Tippett, who has run the Coyotes’ bench for the past eight seasons.
In an official release, Arizona stated that the two sides have “mutually agreed to part ways,” though it was reported by Arizona Sports’ Craig Morgan that there was tension between Coyotes owner Andrew Barroway and Tippett. Morgan added that Tippett, who had four years remaining on his contract as the bench boss, was bought out by the Coyotes, and that Tippett and the Coyotes are going their separate ways at this point in the off-season — the announcement came down the evening before the draft — is shocking.
Tippett’s longevity with the franchise has put him atop the team’s record book. No coach in the combined history of the Coyotes or original Winnipeg Jets has coached more games (622), won more games (282) or racked up more post-season wins (12). Tippett also holds the fourth-best points percentage of any coach in franchise history and the best post-season winning percentage of any bench boss the organization has ever had.
It is worth noting, however, that he didn’t have a shining record in Arizona in recent years. The Coyotes have missed the post-season in each of the past five seasons under Tippett and Arizona has posted an ugly 89-131-26 record across the past three campaigns. No team has won fewer games or accumulated fewer points over that span.
So, with Doan, Smith and Tippett gone, it’s clear the Coyotes are about to undergo a changing of the guard. But who will lead Arizona into action next season? Here are five potential coaching candidates:
Current: Associate coach, Arizona Coyotes
Tippett may be out of the job but his staff remained intact, and that could mean a promotion for one of the assistants. Most likely to take over is Playfair, who has experience at the NHL and AHL level and has spent the past six seasons as an associate coach with the Coyotes. If that were to become a reality, Playfair would get his second stint behind an NHL bench, with this opportunity coming a decade after he last had the top coaching job for a big league club.
During the 2006-07 season, Playfair took over as the Calgary Flames’ coach after three seasons as an assistant. Though he had a mere one-season stint as coach, he didn’t fare poorly. The Flames posted a 43-29-10 record, earned a post-season berth and pushed the eventual Western Conference finalist Detroit Red Wings to six games in the first round.
In addition to his NHL experience, Playfair has five seasons as an AHL coach under his belt, including a Calder Cup victory in 2000-01 as the bench boss for the Saint John Flames. His most recent head coaching gig came before he landed with the Coyotes, when he spent two seasons with the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat, posting a 77-61-22 record in 160 games.
Current: Coach, Tucson Roadrunners (AHL)
Lamb entered the Coyotes organization in 2016-17 as coach of the AHL affiliate Roadrunners, coming into the gig after seven seasons as the coach of the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos. Lamb’s success in Swift Current was limited — he missed the post-season three times and exited in the first round the other four campaigns — but the Coyotes saw him as a fit for work with the minor league club. That he has plenty of experience working with young players could help him be a candidate in Arizona, too.
Taking over for Tippett would be a big leap in Lamb’s coaching career, to be sure, but it’s not as if he’s without any NHL experience. Beyond playing more than 400 games in the NHL, Lamb spent the early part of his coaching career as an assistant in the big league. In 2001-02, Lamb was part of Craig MacTavish’s Edmonton Oilers coaching staff, and he proceeded to spend the next six seasons working with Tippett as a member of the Dallas Stars.
Lamb’s success was limited this past season in Tucson, and the Roadrunners finished their inaugural season sixth in the Pacific Division and 20 points outside of a playoff berth.
Current: Coach, San Diego Gulls (AHL)
There was a time when Eakins was the hottest coaching prospect yet to get a crack at the NHL. He was having significant success with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, leading the Maple Leafs’ affiliate to the Calder Cup final and to consistent playoff success, and that’s when the Edmonton Oilers came calling. Eakins’ time in Edmonton was short-lived, however, and he wound up becoming a casualty of and contributor to the Oilers’ dreadful playoff drought. The first season as Oilers coach, Eakins went 29-44-9 as Edmonton finished the 2013-14 campaign in 28th. The next season, Eakins got only 31 games behind the bench. He was shown the door after posting a 7-19-5 record to start 2014-15.
But Eakins was back behind an AHL bench in 2015-16 with the AHL’s San Diego Gulls, and he’s been rather successful over the past two campaigns. In his first season with the Anaheim Ducks’ affiliate, Eakins led San Diego to the second round of the post-season after posting a 39-23-6 regular season record. This past season, Eakins and Co. upped the ante, managing a 43-20-5 mark but again exiting the playoffs in Round Two.
Eakins has experience as a coach and a willingness to get back behind an NHL bench. His work with young squads is proven, and he could be the right coach at the right time for the Coyotes.
Current: Coach, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL)
Coincidentally, it was Nelson who took over for Eakins after the Oilers made their change behind the bench, and he could be direct competition for the Coyotes gig if Arizona is interested in dipping into the AHL to nab their next bench boss. Nelson might have the edge over Eakins, however, given his success in recent years.
Since landing with the AHL’s Griffins following the promotion of Jeff Blashill to the Red Wings’ top job, Nelson has guided Grand Rapids to a 91-53-8 record across 152 games. The 2015-16 season was Nelson’s first behind the Griffins’ bench and ended with a second-round playoff exit, but Grand Rapids went all the way this past campaign, dominating the post-season en route to their second Calder Cup victory in five seasons. Nelson’s success at the AHL level goes beyond the Calder Cup win. Twice he led the Oklahoma City Barons to the conference final in the AHL and he’s never missed the post-season in the minor league.
As for Nelson’s brief stint in the NHL, his 17-22-7 record isn’t exactly glowing, but an extra two years experience in the AHL might mean it’s time for Nelson to make the jump. And if he’s tabbed as the next Coyotes coach, it would mark the second-straight season the coach of the Calder Cup champion heads into an NHL gig, as Lake Erie Monsters coach Jared Bednar made the leap to the Colorado Avalanche ahead of 2016-17.
As far as experience goes, the Coyotes aren’t going to find many coaches who are available and have more games behind a big league bench than Hartley. The former Colorado Avalanche, Atlanta Thrashers and Calgary Flames coach has 944 games behind an NHL bench to his name and a 463-361-61-59 record. That’s not to mention he’s one of the few coaches available that also has a Stanley Cup on his resume. He won the sport’s top prize as coach of the star-studded Avalanche back in 2000-01.
Hartley’s most recent stint behind the bench came with the Flames, where he pieced together a 134-135-25 record and earned a surprising post-season berth in 2014-15. Hartley’s performance behind the Flames’ bench that season — which led to a 20-point increase from the year prior — earned him the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. However, the following campaign, Calgary came crashing back to earth, finishing below .500 and outside the post-season for the third time in four seasons, leaving Hartley out of a job.
This past season, Hartley took the job as a consultant with the World Junior Championship club and coach of the men’s national team. At the World Championship, Latvia surprised by finishing fifth in Group A, one point outside the playoff round.
Hartley has been mentioned as a potential candidate for several jobs since his firing from Calgary, and if he wanted to make a step back into the NHL, he may be able to do so with the Coyotes.
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