The Maple Leafs fired interim head coach Peter Horachek Sunday, and although big-name coaches – such as Boston’s Claude Julien, Detroit’s Mike Babcock and San Jose’s Todd McLellan – could be available to replace him this summer, Toronto’s next coach must be focused more on developing talent than on winning right away.
With interim coach Peter Horachek included in team president Brendan Shanahan’s housecleaning Sunday, the Maple Leafs are going to have their fourth bench boss in three years by the time the 2015-16 season begins. And although it’s tempting for Leafs fans to speculate on and salivate over some of the names expected to be available, Toronto’s next hire doesn’t have to have a familiarity factor with fans in order for it to be right. The next head coach of the Leafs just has to have the right on-ice philosophy – one based on teaching and patience – to put the franchise back on track.
It will be tempting for Shanahan and whomever he hires as GM (if he doesn’t take that role himself) to be dazzled by the slew of accomplished coaches who’ll apply for the position, but the problem with those types of coaches can be they’re far more interested in winning now than they are in developing the young talent Toronto will placing its organizational bets on in the years to come.
That’s not to say coaches can’t adapt their style and focus – certainly, Ken Hitchcock is not the same coach in St. Louis today he was in Dallas or Philadelphia – but it’s only natural for some of them to stick with the approach that brought them success at the NHL level, and more often than not, that leads to pushing players and sticking with veterans at the expense of a youth movement.
And that’s the last thing Toronto needs. That win-now mentality is what the previous Leafs management regimes have been about at their core, and it got them nowhere slow. And that’s something to bear in mind if Shanahan & Co. go off the board entirely and, for example, seek permission from the Red Wings to hire their American League affiliate’s head coach, Jeff Blashill. Leaf fans may be obsessing about current Wings coach Mike Babcock joining the Blue & White, but presuming he stays in Detroit, a coach like Blashill wouldn’t be a sorry consolation prize in the least.
When you look at some of the current group of young Red Wings who are helping that team remain competitive – Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist, for instance – you’re looking at assets Blashill groomed. That metric, and not wins and losses, should be all that matters for the Leafs for the next two or three years. At least.
There’s no doubt it’s comforting to hear a name you’ve heard before when a team you like makes a trade or hires a high-profile management member. But in this case, knowing how fleeting of a shelf life all coaches have – Barry Trotz in Nashville and Lindy Ruff in Buffalo were the exceptions to the rule – do any Leaf fans clamoring for someone as experienced and well-known as Todd McLellan (if San Jose fires him), Claude Julien (if the Bruins fire him) or former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma believe Horachek’s replacement will still be here in four or five years? Best-case scenario, sure, but the Leafs can’t pin their game plan on a formerly successful NHL coach replicating that success with a considerably less-talented roster. The emphasis has to be on hiring someone who has a very recent track record of taking diamonds in the rough and removing the rough. If that person’s name doesn’t ring a bell with the average hockey fan in Toronto, who cares? They’ll be compelled to learn all about him in a hurry if he helps build for the Leafs what they’ve lacked for decades: a talented, committed young core that can be augmented with veterans of impact when the time is right.
The same goes for Toronto’s coach: There’s no requirement for a high-profile coach like a Hitchcock (if the Blues sink in the playoffs and they fire him) or Dave Tippett (if the Coyotes don’t win the Connor McDavid sweepstakes and he chooses to move on) to be given the job. If someone such as Blashill or former Leafs defenseman Luke Richardson (now coaching Ottawa’s AHL affiliate in Binghamton) can come in and develop Leafs prospects over the next four or five years, that’s exactly how their coaching shelf life ought to be spent. If a teaching coach is successful and his impact on the dressing room begins to fade at that point, it might make sense to hire a big name Stanley Cup-winner to act as a rocket-booster and push the team to win right away.
But the Leafs don’t need that type of presence next season, or the season after that. Shanahan’s firing spree Sunday was a big step in establishing the proper priorities for the organization – and those priorities need to extend behind the bench.
Patience, teaching and the proper process are the surest ways to transform the previously-unknown into champions.