As the interim coach of the Blues in the wake of Mike Yeo’s firing, it would stand to reason that Craig Berube has the inside track on becoming the next full-time bench boss in St. Louis. He has the requisite experience, he’s spent the past season-plus as an associate with the Blues and GM Doug Armstrong acknowledged that the perfect scenario would see Berube stick around.
“You’d love to have a situation where enough is enough for our core group and they take charge of this team, Craig is at the helm of that and we have great success and move forward together,” Armstrong told reporters at Tuesday’s press conference.
The reality of the situation, though, is that tomorrow isn’t really promised to Berube. While he’s been installed behind the bench by the Blues brass right now, Berube will be in a constant state of evaluation, and even if he does manage to turn things around and spark a spiralling St. Louis outfit to success or guide them back into a post-season position — a legitimate possibility given there’s still plenty of runway remaining in the season — there’s no guarantee he’ll be patrolling the bench on the final night of the Blues’ season. In fact, Armstrong said the interim tag is “based on a decision made last night,” and that while Berube is going to be given every opportunity and the full support of management, it doesn’t mean the St. Louis front office considers this a matter stricken from the to-do list.
“We’re going to start the process of putting a list together of head coaches,” Armstrong said. “There’s going to be experienced head coaches on that list, there’s going to be European head coaches on that list, there’s going to be college head coaches, major junior coaches — we’re not going to minimize or limit the scope that we’re going to look at, but it’s not something that’s going to be done over the next day or two. This is a process that we’re going to look hard and be thorough on.”
And while that may very well mean that Berube is on borrowed time in his interim position, it doesn’t indicate any imminent hire. Armstrong told reporters that while there was indeed a possibility that a hire could be made before season’s end, he wasn’t quite sure naming a third bench boss before season’s end was probable. As the Blues begin what will likely be an exhaustive search for their next coach, though, who could make the short list and step into the role as the next full-time coach? Berube is certainly one candidate, but here are several others to watch:
“There’s experienced coaches — not just probably the one that you’re referring to — that have had a lot of success that we’re going to put on our to-do list, and go through the proper channels to make contact.”
That was Armstrong, speaking about free agent coaches and mentioning-without-mentioning Quenneville. Later, Armstrong said he wouldn’t be commenting on specific coaches when asked specifically about Quenneville. It goes without saying that Quenneville, at least from the outside looking in, isn’t seen simply as a candidate, but the presumed frontrunner for the job.
There are, however, necessary notes to be made when it comes to Quenneville’s potential return to St. Louis, where he began his coaching career with the Blues during the 1996-97 season. As he’s still under contract with the Blackhawks, and is through the 2019-20 season, Chicago would have to give St. Louis permission to speak with Quenneville. Additionally, Quenneville would have to be paid as one of the top coaches in the league, so the Blues would likely have to pony up serious dollars to bring ‘Coach Q’ back into the fold. Then there’s a matter of wanting to be on a competitive team, but, with the roster that’s available in St. Louis, that really doesn’t seem like much of a concern. The Blues most certainly have the talent for to compete for the Stanley Cup in the very near future.
There’s little doubt St. Louis is going to, at the very least, kick the tires on Quenneville and seek permission to speak with him about the vacant position. If you’re the Blackhawks, though, do you want your three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach heading up the bench of your greatest rival? Seems hard to fathom Chicago would be all that enthused about the idea of giving St. Louis permission to speak with, let alone hire, Quenneville.
Let’s key in on something Armstrong said Tuesday, which is that he’s going to take a look at European head coaches. We’ve already seen that happen this season in Los Angeles, where the Kings brought now-former German national team coach Marco Sturm in as an assistant, and some are of the belief that he could be a frontrunner for the coaching gig come next season given Willie Desjardins, like Berube, still has the interim tag attached to his job as coach in Los Angeles.
Gronborg has long been considered one of the best coaches in the world, and his work with the Swedish national team has put him in the spotlight. His name cropped up last summer prior to the New York Rangers filling their coaching vacancy, and it would be no surprise to see it come up again this time around. He has some familiarity with the North American game, too. He played at St. Cloud State University in the late-1980s and early-1990s, later coming on as an assistant with the program in 1994-95. He then spent the next seven seasons plying his trade around the United States, including a spell as an assistant with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs in 2004-05.
There are other European candidates, to be sure, but Gronborg will likely top the list.
Continuing to look at coaching hires beyond the usual suspects, there are some college bench bosses who seem ready to follow in the footsteps of recent NCAA-to-NHL coaches such as Dave Hakstol, Jim Montgomery and David Quinn. One of the prime candidates is Sandelin, once an associate coach at University of North Dakota who has since spent nearly two decades behind the bench at University of Minnesota-Duluth. Two times during that tenure, too, Sandelin has gotten a shot on the World Junior Championship stage with Team USA, and he has a third opportunity coming around this year, as he’ll against be an assistant with the national team.
Sandelin’s credentials, especially those added to his resume recently, should put him on the radar. Named the NCAA coach of the year in 2003-04, his fourth season with the Bulldogs, Sandelin won a national title with the team in 2010-11 and has guided the program to great heights in the past two seasons. In 2016-17, the Bulldogs won the NCHC, beating out a few powerhouse outfits including UND, Denver and St. Cloud State, and Sandelin followed that up by guiding his squad to a national championship win in 2017-18 after falling in the final the previous season.
Why is he next? Well, Montgomery won the national title and was bound for the Stars two seasons after winning his title. Quinn was a runner-up with Boston University and landed with the Rangers four seasons later. It would seem to be only a matter of time for Sandelin.
Following the same theory, Leaman has to be in contention to make the jump. An assistant at Harvard through the early-2000s, Leaman got his start coaching in the NCAA with Union College, where he took a struggling program and turned it into a contender in nearly a decade at the school. Then, Leaman was off to Providence, where he has since led the Friars to considerable success and has earned high praise for his coaching. To wit, he won the NCAA coach of the year award in 2010-11 and was named Hockey East’s top bench boss in 2015-16. He also helped guide Providence to its first national title, winning it all in 2014-15.
Like Sandelin, too, Leaman has experience on the international stage, though it has been some time before he last stepped behind the Team USA bench. After serving as an assistant at the 2005 U18 World Junior Championship, Leaman had a place as an assistant with the 2007 and 2009 U20 world juniors squads.
A name that constantly creeps up in coaching discussions. Keefe’s work with the Toronto Marlies has seen him rise to great acclaim and he will almost certainly be the next AHL bench boss to get a shot at the big league. In his first three full seasons with the Marlies, Keefe has taken Toronto to the third-round of the post-season, the second-round of the post-season and won the Calder Cup, in that order. Twice, the Marlies have had a points percentage above .725, too, which is nothing to shake a stick at. The Marlies have struggled this season, true, but they’ve also graduated a number of talents to the NHL.
Furthering that possibility that Keefe heads to a big-league post is that his contract is up in Toronto after this season. There’s very little upward mobility for Keefe in Toronto, what with Mike Babcock tied into a big-money deal, so his best bet might be to seek a position elsewhere.
Three consecutive seasons with Canada’s World Junior Championship squad led Ducharme to a spot on the Montreal Canadiens’ bench, but the assistant coach could be in line for a top job in the not-too-distant future. The Canadiens success through the early part of the season all but ensures that Claude Julien is going to have continued staying power as coach in Montreal, which means it might be time for Ducharme to seek a spot elsewhere if he wants to take the next step in his coaching career.
Ducharme has a remarkable resume, though, and one that merits an in-depth look from the Blues. Not only did he guide the Halifax Mooseheads to the Memorial Cup in 2013, he was named the coach of the year that season at both the QMJHL and CHL levels and has since added gold at the Hlinka tournament and the 2018 world juniors. He is an up-and-comer, and that could be exactly what the Blues need.
If it’s experience the Blues are after, and if Quenneville isn’t available but St. Louis wants a coach with some post-season success of his own, why not look at Vigneault? The 2006-07 Jack Adams Award winner has coached more than 1,200 games in the NHL and he’s had success with talented groups in the past. In 2010-11, he helped guide the powerhouse Vancouver Canucks to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, and it was just two seasons later, in his first campaign with the Rangers, that Vigneault helped New York win the Eastern Conference before falling short in the final. He ranks 12th all-time with a winning percentage of .588 among the 66 coaches with at least 500 games behind the bench.
A late addition to a list that is sure to include more than a few familiar faces. His firing in Edmonton means he’s open to land elsewhere if Edmonton gives him permission. And while you could say he failed to do anything with the Connor McDavid-led Oilers, he would have a much greater depth of talent and more solid top-to-bottom group in St. Louis. Among the aforementioned group of 500-game coaches, MacLellan has had more success than Vigneault, too, at .594 across 800-plus games. The only presently active coaches better than MacLellan in terms of winning percentage are Babcock, Ken Hitchcock and Bruce Boudreau. (Quenneville would be included, too, were he still holding the Blackhawks job.)