The business of hiring head coaches in the NHL is subject to fads, just like a lot of jobs in the sports and entertainment business.
Once, NHL general managers liked coaches from junior hockey and later they became enamoured with hiring the next bright young mind, usually a recently-retired player with little experience but a reputation as an innovative thinker. Now, it’s head coaches from the American Hockey League, some of whom are young but all of whom paid their dues in the minor leagues.
Of the six new head coaches in the NHL this season, five were head coaches in the AHL last season. If you include three coaches hired last season – Guy Boucher of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jack Capuano of the New York Islanders and Scott Arniel of the Columbus Blue Jackets – then eight of the most recent hirings came out of the AHL.
The only coach to buck that trend this season was Paul MacLean, who went from being a long-time assistant coach for the Detroit Red Wings to running the Ottawa Senators’ bench. Three years ago, when the infatuation with AHL coaches was just starting, another of Wings head coach Mike Babcock’s assistants, Todd McLellan, was hired as the head coach of the San Jose Sharks.
Babcock said MacLean will do well, like McLellan, because of a few truisms that defy trends. He has a lot of experience as an NHL player; he spent a long time in the minor leagues learning to be a head coach; he worked a long time with a winning program like the Red Wings.
One of the problems encountered in the NHL by junior coaches, for example, was skepticism from the players, who sneered at their lack of NHL experience.
“I talked to the [Canadian]world junior players this year and the first question they asked me was what’s the difference between coaching junior and coaching in the NHL,” Babcock said. “I said, ‘In coaching junior I can walk into the room and still scare the [crap]out of you.’
“Coaching in the NHL, you can’t so you’ve got to be a better communicator. You have to be able to talk to people and build relationships.”
Babcock said MacLean is a communicator and his players know he is a winner. And he already has a relationship with Senators GM Bryan Murray from their time working together with the Anaheim Ducks.
“Bryan Murray is a quality man but he needs his coach to talk to him, just like every GM,” Babcock said. “You have to have a relationship there, and Paul has that.”