With this NHL off-season having the weakest class of unrestricted free agents in recent memory, the biggest names that change teams more than likely are going to be behind the bench. Some of the potential coaching free agents will depend on the regular-season and playoff games to come this spring and summer, but there’s no doubt new salary benchmarks will be set for a profession that hasn’t been flush with money (at least, as compared to NHL coaches’ counterparts in other sports). Here are the top five potential free agent coaches in the 2015 off-season:
5. Dan Bylsma. The former Penguins coach and Stanley Cup-winner has been waiting quietly on the sidelines for the opportune moment to restart his NHL coaching career, and although he has another year remaining on his contract with Pittsburgh, few think he’ll stay there for much longer. He’s not an authoritarian figure in the dressing room and showed during his time with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin he understands how to handle the league’s top young talent. Bylsma’s pedigree and young age – he’s still only 44 years old – will have him on the list of interviewees for a number of job openings.
4. Dave Tippett. The veteran Coyotes coach is under contract for the next three seasons, but the franchise is at the beginning of a massive rebuild and Tippett may find it unpalatable to stick around through the lean years ahead. Now, if Arizona wins the lottery and selects junior phenom Connor McDavid, that rebuild will be accelerated and Tippett may be more easily persuaded to stay in Arizona. But if he does choose to move on, his reputation of making the most with whatever he’s given (this awful season aside) are going to endear the 53-year-old to more than one potential employer. If the Blues suffer another early exit and part ways with Ken Hitchcock – another bench boss who would be highly valued – an experienced hand such as Tippett makes a lot of sense.
3. Todd McLellan. The Sharks are not going to make the playoffs for the first time in ten years, and it’s the expectation of many that one of the people to leave the organization will be McLellan, who has been San Jose’s bench boss for seven seasons. If and when he does hit the open market, McLellan will be heavily courted by teams including Toronto – particularly if they’re spurned in their chase of the man listed at No. 1 on this list – and the 47-year-old may wind up having his pick of a couple positions. The structural issues that have hurt the Sharks this season aren’t McLellan’s fault and with a new group of players, he could very easily be back in the post-season mix next spring.
2. Claude Julien. It seems unfathomable to believe team ownership and management will hand walking papers to Julien just one season after he led Boston to the President’s Trophy as the league’s best team, but if the Bruins fail to make the playoffs, rumors persist they could part ways with the 54-year-old and make him one of the hottest job-seekers of the summer. One of the game’s best tacticians and a man who demands and receives respect from his players, Julien was out of work for less than three months after being fired by New Jersey in April of 2007 and the sense this time is he’d be snapped up just as quickly, if not sooner.
1. Mike Babcock. Babcock is the gold standard for NHL coaches, is having another stellar year, and will be by far the most pursued coaching free agent – that is, if he decides to walk away from the Red Wings. And there’s no guarantee that will happen, especially considering the fact Detroit ownership is famous for taking care of employees and fostering a family-style environment. But Babcock has an opportunity to set a new salary bar for the entire coaching fraternity with his next contract, and every coach eventually seeks other challenges. He would certainly have that (to say nothing of a blank check) with the Maple Leafs and a number of other teams. The 51-year-old’s career preferences will go a long ways toward deciding the fate of some of the others on this list, and the slew of franchises he rejects. It’s all up to him.