It’s the timing of it all that was especially weird, because while most believed that Guy Boucher was a sitting duck with the Ottawa Senators, most imagined that the decision to officially relieve him of his duties wouldn’t come until the end of the season. Instead, with roughly five weeks left in the campaign, the Senators have swiftly sacked Boucher, replaced him with Marc Crawford and made clear that the search for a new coach is on the horizon.
What makes the Senators’ coaching search interesting, though, is that it doesn’t exactly fall into the same category as others that will begin in the not-too-distant future. That’s to say that while teams such as the Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers might choose to pursue the big names on the coaching market — Joel Quenneville and Alain Vigneault are two veteran bench bosses who immediately come to mind — Ottawa is all but certain to go with new blood. And there’s a reason for that.
In recent years, the salaries for top bench bosses, particularly those who’ve established themselves in the NHL and have become proven commodities, have skyrocketed. For that the league’s owners can thank Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who moved the goalposts for coaches when he signed an eight-year contract worth north of $6 million per season. What followed was raises all around, and according to CapFriendly, there are presently four coaches earning $2 million or more this season.
What does that have to do with the Senators and why does it make nabbing a top, established coach unlikely? Well, it had been reported that Boucher’s contract, when compared to the rest of the league, was relatively low. And with Ottawa seemingly not intent on spending big bucks to fill the position, chances are they’ve got next to no hope of landing a Quenneville or Vigneault, particularly when the former was earning $6 million annually on his deal with the Chicago Blackhawks before he was axed and the latter had received a raise on his $2-million salary not long before he was shown the door by the New York Rangers.
So, if not one of the free agent coaches that carries significant name value, who’s next to patrol the bench for the Senators? Given the press release that announced not only Boucher’s firing but the Senators’ impending coaching search kind of reads like a help wanted ad, it gives an idea as to what Ottawa is looking to find. The bullet-point breakdown reads that the Senators want a teacher, a listener, a communicator and a tactician. And that makes it sound as though what Ottawa is after is some new blood.
But who fits the bill? Here are five potential hires to become the Senators next coach:
Current: Interim coach, Ottawa Senators
NHL Experience: Coach, Dallas Stars; Coach, Los Angeles Kings; Coach, Vancouver Canucks; Coach, Colorado Avalanche
There’s nothing that says the Senators can’t go ahead and remove Crawford’s interim tag and end the search right then and there. The veteran bench boss brings with him instant familiarity with the team and the players inside the dressing room are already going to know what to expect. That has its own benefits, as does the fact that Crawford, 58, is an established coach, though one whose last turn running an NHL bench before his newfound interim role was back in 2010-11 with the Dallas Stars. He’s almost a decade removed from his last head coaching position in the big league.
However, while Crawford might fit the bill in a few ways, it’s unlikely he’s in Ottawa for the long haul. More likely is that the Senators decided not to shake up their minor league system by performing a clean sweep behind the bench and simply left Crawford in place for the time being with only the remainder of this season left on his contract. So, sure, he’s a candidate, though likely one who should be touching up his resume as the axe hangs perilously over his head.
Current: Coach, Belleville Senators
NHL Experience: N/A
One has to figure that Mann is eventually going to get a shot an NHL gig, even if it’s just as an assistant. The 49-year-old is a former professional center who bounced around the minor leagues, and he’s found success as a coach. He swiftly climbed the ECHL ranks before landing with the AHL’s Hershey Bears as an assistant in 2009-10, winning a Calder Cup with the organization that same season. After a brief departure from the Bears to return to the ECHL ranks, Mann has since risen to AHL coach, first with Hershey, who he guided to the Calder Cup final in 2015-16, and now patrols the B-Sens bench.
Mann would seem to fit the bill in a few ways. His experience and success with young, developing players is a quality the “Rebuilding Ottawa Senators” will be after, and his familiarity with those within the system could give him a leg up. The added bonus? A first-time NHL coach making the leap up from the AHL won’t be in line for a major salary. If Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill is used as a comparable, an NHL deal for Mann might fall into the $800,000-range.
Current: Coach, Toronto Marlies
NHL Experience: N/A
At some point, there’s going to be a team that pulls the trigger on Keefe and lures the Marlies coach out of the Maple Leafs organization. The 38-year-old has been a constant in these NHL-coach-in-waiting discussions for some time now, and chances are that if Keefe wants to find himself running an NHL bench at any point in the near future, he’s going to have to do so by leaving Toronto given Babcock is blocking the way to the bigs right now.
Are the Senators an ideal fit for Keefe? That’s the question both he and the Senators organization will have to ask. But while the franchise itself may be somewhat shambolic, it’s undeniable that Ottawa’s prospect pool is bountiful. Given the work Keefe has done with the young guns in Toronto, he could be the ideal fit to work with the likes of Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton, Logan Brown and recent acquisition Erik Brannstrom. The Senators would love to have a coach who could guide these players in their development, and Keefe certainly has a track record of success with youth.
Current: Coach, University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs
NHL Experience: N/A
The NCAA-to-NHL pipeline has only grown in recent years. Since Dave Hakstol opened the flood gates, others such as Rangers coach David Quinn and Stars coach Jim Montgomery have followed. And with that, it would appear it’s only a matter of time before Sandelin, 54, is pried out of the college ranks.
Sandelin’s work with the program at UMD can’t and shouldn’t be overlooked. Now in his 19th season as coach, when Sandelin arrived, the Bulldogs were in the midst of an eight-year playoff drought and after getting the school back to the NCAA tournament in 2004, he has propelled the program to two national championships and three Frozen Four appearances in the past eight seasons.
During his time at Minnesota-Duluth, Sandelin has had a hand in the development of NHLers such as Justin Faulk, Neal Pionk, J.T. Brown and Alex Iafallo. Sandelin has also been behind the bench with Team USA at three World Junior Championships. He’s ready for the next step.
Current: Coach, Providence College
NHL Experience: N/A
Leaman falls into the same category as Sandelin, and the Providence coach seems destined to follow in the footsteps of Hakstol, Quinn and Montgomery. After beginning his coaching career as a volunteer at Maine and then moving onto an assistant position at Harvard, the 46-year-old has split his time in the top job between his current post and Union College, where he coached for nine seasons. Success at Union and forays onto the international stage with the U18 and U20 American teams helped put Leaman on the map, but he’s risen onto the NHL coaching radar because of his accomplishments in Providence.
Since joining the program in 2012-13, Leaman has turned the Friars into perennial contenders. Providence has made the NCAA tournament in each of the past five seasons, earning a berth into the Frozen Four during the 2014-15 campaign, where they captured the first national championship in team history.
Like Sandelin, Leaman has had success developing NHL caliber talent. Graduates from Leaman’s teams during his time at Providence include Mark Jankowski, Brandon Tanev and Tim Schaller, while his Union group included Shayne Gostisbehere, Daniel Carr and Keith Kinkaid.