Sometimes, there is a domino effect when NHL coaches get hired and fired and last year, there was no better illustration of this than when Peter Laviolette, the ex-Philadelphia Flyers' coach, landed in Nashville to replace Barry Trotz, the ex-Predators' coach, who landed in Washington to replace Adam Oates as the Capitals' coach.
Laviolette, Trotz and Dan Bylsma – the only experienced coach who didn't land a seat in that off-season game of coaching musical chairs – were options for the half dozen teams searching for new coaching blood. Occasionally, you'll hear people use the term "recycle" to explain this phenomenon; the term doesn't do it justice.
Laviolette won a Stanley Cup in 2006 with Carolina and got the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers to the final; while Trotz was the one-and-only coach in Nashville for the first 15 years of the franchise's history. Both are excellent at what they do; career coaches who, in Laviolette's case, often have an immediate positive impact on a team that needs to hear a new voice.
But what scrambled last year's off-season coaching searches was the decision by the San Jose Sharks and the Toronto Maple Leafs not to make changes, after all signs pointed to that happening.
San Jose was the key in all of this. The Sharks lost brutally in the first round last spring; after winning the first three against the Los Angeles Kings, they lost the next four – becoming only the fourth team in NHL history to blow that kind of lead.
Everyone in the organization came under scrutiny – from coach Todd McLellan to the team's leadership core of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle. The Sharks promised a major shake-up and it sure looked for a time as if they would follow through on that.
The possibility that McLellan would become available stalled coaching searches elsewhere. Though not widely known around the league, McLellan had the third-best winning percentage in NHL history by the end of last season. Only Scotty Bowman and Tom Johnston were better.
Eventually, in the sober light of day, the Sharks decided to do far less than anticipated. They kept their coach; they kept their core; they made a cosmetic changing by stripping the captain's C from Joe Thornton and then naming him an assistant. Mostly though they decided to play out the 2014-15 season to see where they were at organizationally.
Long before the Mike Babcock-to-Toronto rumours started to circulate McLellan would have been a logical fit with the Leafs. He too has a shared Detroit history with Brendan Shanahan and is highly respected around the league for his coaching and his communication skills.
The fact that McLellan's status didn't change had a ripple effect around the league – Randy Carlyle (who probably would have been the leading candidate in the Florida Panthers' coaching search) stayed on too; and the Panthers expanded their search to land Gerard Gallant, who's done a nice job for them thus far.
So now that Carlyle is out; and Peter Horachek in on an interim basis, the speculation about next year can begin.
One thought: The Leafs are still definitely in the playoff hunt; so while surely the outline of a long-range plan is in place, they still need to see a number of dominoes fall between now and the next off-season to see what happens next. How did they finish? Did they make the playoffs? Were they any signs of progress? Is a change coming at the GM's level, if there wasn't? Are any core players on the move?
Beyond their internal decision-making, there will also be external forces at play which the Leafs can't control.
Babcock may elect to stay in Detroit, because of his loyalty to owner Mike Illitch and general manager Ken Holland; and because the Red Wings are never afraid to pay top dollar, be it for player or managerial talent. McLellan's Sharks could make the playoffs and go on a long run, in which case a contract extension, not a pink slip, would be in his future.
If one or both come available, then they would rocket to the top of the Shanahan's list of candidates for next summer. The more interesting question then might be what happens if both end up seeking new opportunities. Demand for their services would be high all around the league, but if the Leafs had a real choice between Babcock and McLellan, you wonder, who would be tops on the list? The answer might surprise you.