Lou Lamoriello wasted little time shaking up the Islanders. Two weeks into his tenure as president of hockey operations, the longtime front-office executive removed now-former GM Garth Snow from his post and then took action behind the bench, canning coach Doug Weight.
When it comes to the GM role, Lamoriello has already filled that spot and he didn’t need to look any further than a mirror to do so. But now the Islanders GM, Lamoriello finds himself needing to fill arguably the most important non-roster spot in the organization at a time when a few of the top coaching candidates, including college coaches Jim Montgomery and David Quinn, have already been hired by other NHL organizations.
That’s not to say Lamoriello shouldn’t have relieved Weight of his duties as the Islanders’ coach, however. Sure, Weight had nearly helped the Islanders author an unthinkable run into the post-season to end the 2016-17 campaign, but after a steady start to the 2017-18 season, New York fell apart thanks to shoddy defensive play.
The Islanders’ defensive play was so poor, in fact, that despite ending the season with an attack as potent as the likes of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Winnipeg Jets and Pittsburgh Penguins, New York finished nearly 20 points out of a playoff spot due to the league’s worst goals-against-per-game rate. The Islanders allowed 3.57 goals per game, finished dead-last in the NHL with 35.6 shots against per game and had an abhorrent, league-worst penalty kill, which operated at 73.2 percent. Put another way, New York’s 2017-18 campaign now lays claim to the fourth-worst goals-against rate in the post-lockout era, the second-worst shots-against rate since the lost season and no team in the past 13 years has had a penalty kill as awful.
Suffice to say that whoever Lamoriello brings aboard in time for the 2018-19 campaign will be tasked, first and foremost, with bringing some defensive structure to a group that played the Washington Generals to the opponents’ Harlem Globetrotters far too often this season. In addition, though, Lamoriello may also want a coach who can help right the ship and push this team in the right direction in a hurry. After two consecutive post-season appearances, the Islanders have missed the playoffs for two years running. Returning to those winning ways is going to be the best way to entice future free agents, and getting a coach who has a clear plan in place might be on thing that helps keep captain and free agent-to-be John Tavares in town.
With that said, here are five candidates for the vacant Islanders coaching gig:
Past NHL Experience: Coach, New York Rangers, Vancouver Canucks, Montreal Canadiens
Let’s begin with a well-established coach and one who’s somewhat familiar with the environment in which he’d be coaching. Vigneault spent the past five seasons as the Rangers’ bench boss before being axed at the end of the 2017-18 season. While it’s unlikely that any coach, even one as experienced as Vigneault, is going to be able to get the Islanders where they want, it’s undeniable that Vigneault has a track record of success everywhere he’s been. He has two Stanley Cup final appearances, one with Vancouver and one with New York, in the past eight seasons, as well as six division titles and one heck of a record. Since his first coaching stint, a failed experiment in Montreal, Vigneault has coached 950 games with a 539-317-94 record. The only 1,000-game coaches with a better points percentage than Vigneault are Scotty Bowman, Mike Babcock, Joel Quenneville, Ken Hitchcock and Claude Julien.
Current: Associate coach, Washington Capitals
Past NHL Experience: Assistant coach, Pittsburgh Penguins
Over the past two seasons, Reirden’s name has popped up in discussions whenever a coaching vacancy has come about, but the Capitals, by way of blocking him from interviewing for any gigs, have made it awfully clear they see something valuable in their current associate coach. However, they may no longer be able to keep him tied down after this season, particularly if the run to the Stanley Cup — and a potential Stanley Cup victory — leads to current Capitals coach Barry Trotz sticking around. Reirden has had a hand in running the Washington defense under Trotz, and given the Islanders have some serious work to do defensively, he could be just what the doctor ordered. It should be noted, though, that there is an outside shot Reirden ends up coaching in Washington next season. Maybe Trotz, who is in the final season of his contract, decides to walk from the Capitals. That would open up the top job in Washington to a readymade candidate and keep Reirden away from the prying hands of other organizations.
Current: Coach, Toronto Marlies (AHL)
Past NHL Experience: n/a
No surprise to see Keefe’s name on this list, surely. The coach of the Maple Leafs’ farm club has the Marlies ahead in the Calder Cup final and he’s been an oft-mentioned contender for nearly every opening that has come about in the past couple seasons. A big reason for that is Keefe’s record, which has been excellent in Toronto. His “worst” season saw the Marlies post a 42-29-5 record in the AHL, and he has two seasons with fewer than 20 regulation losses. At some point, Keefe is going to have to find himself a position outside of Toronto given Mike Babcock’s hold on the top job with the Maple Leafs. And if ever there was a GM willing to give Keefe his first shot at the big league, it would make sense if it was Lamoriello. The two worked together, albeit maybe not shoulder to shoulder, in Toronto.
Current: Coach, Providence College (NCAA)
Past NHL Experience: n/a
Is it safe to call the NCAA a coaching pipeline to the NHL at this point? Dave Hakstol’s hiring by the Philadelphia Flyers opened the door ahead of the 2015-16 season, and it appears more teams are going to be willing to go the college route with two top NCAA bench bosses in Montgomery and Quinn filling vacancies ahead of the coming campaign. With that in mind, Leaman could be the next to move up. Formerly at Union, where he led a struggling program to a top team in their conference, Leaman coached the Friars to a national championship in 2014-15 and is considered among the top coaches in the college game. Over his time running a bench in the NCAA, Leaman holds a 268-200-61 record and he’s appeared in the NCAA tournament each of the past five seasons.
Past NHL Experience: Coach, Arizona Coyotes, Dallas Stars; assistant coach, Los Angeles Kings
Tippett can check a few boxes for the Islanders given he has a wealth of experience at the NHL level and could probably come into New York with a plan to clean up some of the defensive issues facing the team. He’s not too far removed from his last gig, either. Tippett ran the Coyotes bench during the 2016-17 campaign before being let go by the organization. The big question is whether Tippett would consider coming to New York given the level of control he had during his final days in Arizona. He might want some power over roster decisions as well as running the bench, and it’s hard to fathom Lamoriello would be willing to cede any of his power to his new coach. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but if Tippett comes aboard, it’s likely as coach and coach only.
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