The pieces are starting to come together in Las Vegas.
In mid-July, the NHL’s newest franchise named George McPhee as the team’s first GM, and Kelly McCrimmon — the longtime owner, GM and coach of the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings will be joining McPhee in Las Vegas as the team’s assistant GM. And with McCrimmon in place, it’s expected that the ball will start rolling on the next hires for the expansion franchise.
McPhee has said his main goal is to have in place a scouting staff, both amateur and professional, in time for the coming season’s tournaments. The hope is that giving the team a strong scouting staff will allow Las Vegas to put together strong expansion and entry drafts and see the franchise hit the ground running come the 2016-17 season. But eventually McPhee, McCrimmon and company will need to find a bench boss to run the on-ice product.
When the time comes to name a coach, though, who are the frontrunners? Here are five coaches who could be top candidates for the Las Vegas coaching gig next season.
5. Claude Julien
Current: Coach, Boston Bruins (2008-09 — Present)
Former: Coach, New Jersey Devils; Montreal Canadiens; Hamilton Bulldogs; Hull Olympiques
Trophy Case: Olympic Gold (2014), Stanley Cup (2010-11), Jack Adams Award (2008-09), AHL Coach of the Year (2002-03), Memorial Cup (1996-97)
Under any other circumstances, Julien tops this list, but the question is whether or not the Bruins bench boss is available come season’s end. If the Bruins bounce back after a second straight season outside the post-season, then Julien is almost assured a job come the 2017-18 season. However, should Boston stumble out of the gate, Julien could find himself looking for work come next season. That may be the perfect scenario for Las Vegas.
McPhee told ESPN’s Tal Pinchevsky that Las Vegas would likely wait until 2017 to name a coach because there “are lots of coaching changes in a season.” Take that to mean what you will, but it sure sounds like some of McPhee’s top options have commitments for the coming campaign. McPhee’s likely one of the few who know whether or not those top options include Julien, but few coaches would be able to command the instant respect that Julien would. That’s important for Las Vegas, too, and McPhee said he wants a coach that is “a lot of things: smart, approachable, unflappable, confident, hard-working, organized, all of those things. Good with the community, good with the media.”
Julien has the resume and he’s done good work wherever he’s been in the past. If Julien is available — and that’s no small “if,” considering the vote of confidence Julien received this off-season from Bruins GM Don Sweeney — he likely leaps to the top of this list. For the time being, though, he’s No. 5.
4. Bob Hartley
Former: Coach, Calgary Flames; ZSC Lions; Atlanta Thrashers; Colorado Avalanche; Hershey Bears; Cornwall Aces; Laval Titan
Trophy Case: Stanley Cup (2000-01), Jack Adams Award (2014-15), NLA Championship (2011-12), Calder Cup (1996-97)
Hartley’s the only candidate on this list who would be ready to jump into the gig mid-season, but that also means he’s the only one currently without a job preventing him from joining the club. Let go by the Calgary Flames this off-season, Hartley is only two seasons removed from winning the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year, but the disastrous season the Flames had in 2015-16 saw him get the heave in Calgary.
Like Julien, Hartley brings a wealth of NHL experience as well as a strong resume that includes a Stanley Cup with a stacked Colorado Avalanche club. He also boasts experience with a fledgling team, too. Hartley joined the Atlanta Thrashers in their fourth season in existence and he understands coaching a team in a non-traditional market. There are off-ice responsibilities that will factor into any coaching hire, and that’s going to be an asset for Hartley if he’s considered for the job.
However, the on-ice portion of Hartley’s coaching style may be cause for Las Vegas to pass on him. While pure advanced statistics likely won’t dictate who gets the job as the expansion team’s bench boss, the fact of the matter is the Flames had the fourth-worst shot attempts for percentage in the entire NHL over the past four seasons. Calgary’s 46.5 percent shot attempts for percentage was better than only the Toronto Maple Leafs, Colorado Avalanche and Buffalo Sabres.
3. Kevin Dineen
Current: Assistant coach, Chicago Blackhawks
Former: Coach, Team Canada; Florida Panthers; Portland Pirates; Asst. GM, Columbus Blue Jackets
Trophy Case: Olympic Gold (2014), AHL Coach of the Year (2005-06)
Following Hartley’s firing in Calgary, Dineen was mentioned as a potential replacement. However, he didn’t land the job — it went instead to now-former Vancouver Canucks assistant Glen Gulutzan — and Dineen is set to return to the Blackhawks this coming campaign as an assistant coach. But given the recent success of the Blackhawks and the organization’s recent history of both coaching and managerial candidates, it seems only a matter of time before Dineen is heading elsewhere.
Dineen’s role in Chicago has been largely a focus on the offensive side of the puck, and that he’s coaching an up-tempo Blackhawks team under coach Joel Quenneville should give Dineen some insight into how to replicate that style of game. McPhee has acknowledged he wants Las Vegas to play a speed game, and he said he was a fan of the style of play the Pittsburgh Penguins used in winning the 2015-16 Stanley Cup. That was a speed game with good counter-attack ability, and that’s something Dineen sees a lot of in Chicago.
It’s not as if Dineen is a rookie to the coaching ranks, either. While his stint with the Panthers wasn’t incredibly successful, he got his feet wet in Florida and he can use that experience in Las Vegas. And when it comes to instantly commanding respect, it’s hard to argue with the results Dineen got when coaching the Canadian women’s team at the 2014 Olympics. Hired in December 2013, Dineen and Team Canada won gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in February 2014.
2. Sheldon Keefe
Current: Coach, Toronto Marlies
Former: Coach, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Trophy Case: CHL Coach of the Year (2014-15), OHL Coach of the Year (2014-15)
Keefe’s coaching career doesn’t span the years of a Julien or Hartley, but he’s considered one of the most promising fresh faces on the coaching scene. Scooped up by the Toronto Marlies ahead of the 2015-16 season from the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Keefe helped turned the Marlies and their young roster into one of the most lethal offensive teams in the entire AHL.
In his first season behind the Marlies bench, Toronto finished with a league-best 114 points — a 25-point increase from the year prior — but that’s not even the most impressive thing about his first season coaching in the AHL. From 2014-15 to 2015-16, the Marlies saw an 87-goal increase in goals for. And while normally that may be evidence of a team playing a run-and-gun style that allows for holes defensively, that wasn’t the case for Keefe’s club, who actually allowed 12 goals fewer in 2015-16 than they had the year prior.
Keefe may be comfortable with his spot in Toronto for the time being, but he’s going to get serious consideration for openings around the NHL after his rookie season behind an AHL bench. With Mike Babcock on a long-term, big-money deal with the Maple Leafs, the top job is going to be hard to get in Toronto. Going elsewhere might be his best bet.
1. Travis Green
Current: Coach, Utica Comets
Former: Coach, GM, Portland Winterhawks
Trophy Case: N/A
Green and Keefe are similar in that both have had relatively short tenures as coaches at a professional level, but the difference is Green has already been a top candidate for coaching vacancies that have come up in the NHL. Just about every time there’s an opening for a coach, Green’s name is mentioned, and after coming oh-so-close to being named coach of the Anaheim Ducks, it feels as though it’s only a matter of time before Green is taking an NHL job.
Green’s track record with the Comets, the Canucks’ AHL affiliate, is what makes him such an intriguing candidate. Though Utica missed the post-season in his first year with the club, they proceeded to fight their way to the Calder Cup final in his second season behind the bench and Green led a Comets team that was beaten down by injury to the playoffs this past campaign.
Having nearly 1,000 games of NHL experience should help Green command respect in the dressing room, and his time in the WHL gives him a connection to McCrimmon. There’s also the matter of Green’s contract being up as season’s end, which means Las Vegas wouldn’t need permission to attempt to bring Green aboard.
The opportunity in Las Vegas will be one that could allow for a rookie coach to join an expansion franchise, and McPhee could be looking for his Barry Trotz, who was a relative unknown before being brought on as the Nashville Predators’ first coach. Trotz remained with the team for 15 years. Green could potentially be that guy, and he’s almost certain to be among the coaches who’re looked at when McPhee goes hunting for his bench boss.
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