The Science of Selecting an NHL Coach, or the Lack Thereof

Like most people in Sens Nation who have either played and/or coached some level of hockey for over 35 years, I like to think I have knowledgeable opinion on the game.


But I have always believed the people in NHL positions of power and influence know more about what it takes to select “The Guy” or “Guys” than I do. I may have had my opinions about their choices, but it made sense to me that people who had advanced to the level of NHL General Manager or Vice President of Hockey Operations had extra levels of acumen that I simply didn’t.


Recently, I have begun to question whether this presumed wisdom was justified.


New Montreal Head Coach Martin St. Louis and GM Kent Hughes

The most recent story that caused a buzz was Martin St Louis being brought in as interim head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, despite never having played for them or coached in the league in any meaningful capacity. It was hard not to notice that Habs' GM Kent Hughes and Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations Jeff Gorton both have history with St. Louis. Hughes was his agent for a long time and Gorton was his former GM.


There was some buzz around the Ottawa area that local product and former Sens player and assistant coach, Luke Richardson, deserved to be the interim coach given his experience and track record developing players at the AHL and NHL levels.


I am not saying Richardson should or shouldn’t have been given the nod. However, not selecting him and bringing in a former star player who has won a Stanley Cup as a player and is a bilingual francophone, does seem to call into question what the priorities are when choosing a coach in Montreal.


Somewhere along the line after the great run of William “Scotty” Bowman from 1971 to 1979, this organization became nearly obsessed with finding a coach whose first language was French. Since that time, the only non-French coaches have been Bob Berry (81-84) and Randy Cunneyworth (11-12). That's 2 out of 21 coaching changes that have resulted in someone whose mother tongue wasn’t French being behind the bench. In fairness, Bob Gainey did two stints after having fired coaches when he was GM, but he was never meant to be “The Guy”.


Of course, the logic behind this is that an important part of the coach’s daily routine is to speak to the media about the day to day of the team. Now I can’t speak to Richardson’s ability to speak French. However, I would be shocked if every member of the Montreal press core didn’t speak English at least at a functional level. This would make them more than capable of translating anything that was being said to their viewers and readers.


That’s an awful lot of effort to accommodate the media, wouldn’t you say? If that is guiding their decision making as far as choosing their coach, doesn’t that seriously handicap the GM? It’s worth noting that since Irving Grundman left as GM in in 1983, Bob Gainey was the only anglophone GM to occupy the position before Kent Hughes was recently appointed by newly hired Executive VP of Hockey Operations, Jeff Gorton. That’s five out of seven men with their hands on the rudder of the organization that seemed to fit a certain “profile”.


I more than understand the need for fans to bond with their team in a province where hockey has been referred to as “a religion”. However, are fans going to somehow question their allegiance to one of the most storied franchises in the NHL because of a lack of “content”? Is that what prompted Marc Bergevin to trade for Jonathan Drouin, a malcontent in Tampa Bay who had underperformed, in exchange for a first-round top pair defensive prospect in Mikhail Sergachev? Did Habs fans feel a lack of connection to their team? Did sponsors threaten to pull their support without an injection of homegrown talent? I give the Habs fans and their business partners a lot more credit than that.


On the flip side, regardless of his linguistic skills, you’ll have to forgive the newly hired Gorton and Hughes for not handing the keys to the kingdom over to an assistant coach of the worst team in the league who was not their hire to begin with. Richardson may ultimately thank his lucky stars he didn’t make his debut as an NHL Head Coach with the current Habs roster. He may also not have been the answer to their prayers either. Like it or not, when you are an assistant coach on a really bad team, some of that responsibility falls on your shoulders as well.


I often read the words “deserve” or “has earned his shot” on Twitter from those who know Richardson personally. I have not heard those words from Richardson mind you. However, is that really the case? Has he “earned” it? If he had not played a combined 1486 NHL regular season and playoff games, but rather had finished his playing career in the OHL with the Peterborough Petes, it’s quite likely he would have had to take a much longer road to getting to the NHL as a coach. His status as a former player allowed him to skip the line without having to hone his skills at the lower levels of hockey.


I don’t point this out to diminish his candidacy. I mention it to lead to my next question about what guides coaching selections.


How important is hockey playing pedigree to getting “in” with the crowd?


Are coaching positions within organizations being handed out by these presumed to be wiser men because of nepotism? It is worth nothing that only six of 32 current NHL coaches had no professional playing careers. It is even more noteworthy that two of them, Jon Cooper and Barry Trotz, have a combined three Stanley Cup championships to their credit. Cooper coached 13 years of minor pro hockey and won an AHL championship before ascending to the NHL where he is now coaching his 10th season with the Lightning. Trotz coached eight seasons of minor pro hockey before becoming the first coach in Nashville Predators history. He also won an AHL championship along the way and he coached the first 15 seasons of the Nashville franchise.


Coincidence that two of the best coaches in the league never played in the league or any other pro league? Perhaps. Scotty Bowman never played in the league either. It certainly does seem to dispel any myth that being a great player can somehow be translated to being a great coach. In fact, it almost seems that the better the player, the harder the transition. Wayne Gretzky coached the Phoenix Coyotes for four seasons when he was a part owner of the club. He had a pedestrian .435 winning percentage.


It seems nepotism often being afforded former players so they don’t have to develop their skills in the lower leagues. A noted exception would be current Carolina Hurricanes Head Coach, Rod Brind’Amour, who has a good thing going right now. In fairness, he did seven tours of duty as the 'Canes assistant coach and was captain when they won the Stanley Cup in 2005-06. In this case, Brind’Amour may not have had to ride the East Coast bus leagues or the CHL grind to get to where he needed to be. It would seem that the stars aligned to allow a perfect match between an aspiring coach and the organization that he played 10 seasons with.


Point being, player affiliations with their former teams that translate into meaningful success as coaches or GMs are rare and this is not a formula that should be mimicked. Case in point, Daryl Katz, owner of the Edmonton Oilers, has an estimated net worth of $4.5 billion USD and his Rexall Pharmacy chain is a huge part of that. I would assume it takes quite a bit of intelligence and business acumen to achieve that level of wealth and success.


However, his friendship with Kevin Lowe was never a secret. Lowe has run the gamut in the Oilers organization, having served one season as Assistant Coach, one season Head Coach, eight seasons as GM, seven seasons as President of Hockey Operations and now sits as Alternate Governor. His dismal track record, aside from the fluke run as an eight seed in 2006 to the Stanley Cup final, would have normally led to a dismissal long ago. Now it would seem Katz has finally found a position in the front office his friend can’t screw up.


Billionaires really make these kinds of decisions?


In a management course I took early on in my career, I recall being told that as you try to ascend in a company, once you reach a certain position, hire or groom your replacement as soon as possible. I never did that myself and NHL coaches don’t hire coaches to ultimately succeed them. However, it does seem that teams fill their ranks with player prospects but few of them seem to hire someone to coach in their lower levels with a view to perhaps promoting them one day. When a coach is fired, a replacement is seldom named without the interim tag unless the switch is made in the off season.


The question then begs: “Why is there no contingency plan within an organization for one of the most critical jobs?”


Every player in an organization is more than aware of who could ultimately take their job if they don’t perform. Not planning for the future is something that a successful leader would not do. We’ve all heard the saying: “Fail to plan and you plan to fail”.


I hate to say it, but the Sens Nation nemesis down the 401 appears to have gotten this one right. Recalling the chronology, Brendan Shanahan introduced the “Shanaplan” in 2014 after being brought in as President and Alternate Governor. His first move included hiring Lou Lamariello as GM who, in turn, hired Mike Babcock and gave him an unprecedented eight year contract as Head Coach. What Shanahan also did was hire Kyle Dubas as Assistant General Manager who, in turn, hired Sheldon Keefe to coach the Marlies. Now, Shanahan didn’t hire “his” replacement, but he immediately hired Lou Lamariello’s and Dubas immediately hired Babcock’s. While Babcock coached the first four years and change of his contract, Keefe was developing in the wings with the Marlies and won a league championship while he was at it.


Clearly, our dreaded foes have not come close to winning the Stanley Cup during this “Shanaplan”. They have, however, made the playoffs every year and won far more games than they have lost. I can’t help but feel like they are getting close to making a run at it.


But that example appears to be the exception.


In most other cases, I can’t help but feel the benefit of the doubt I have given people who have achieved the pinnacle of their professions as sports franchise leaders may have been misplaced.


How does this tie into our beloved Senators?


Well. Pierre McGuire was hired as Senior VP of Player Development recently and he was not hired by GM Pierre Dorion. Sounds like the old Dubas maneuver. Eugene Melnyk appears to have chosen Pierre Dorion’s successor, despite that three-year extension.


Dorion was hired by the late Bryan Murray and worked his way up through the organization as a scout, scouting director, assistant general manager and then finally GM after Murray stepped aside in 2016, a year before his passing. Perhaps Murray hired his successor inadvertently.


While Dorion father was a long time NHL executive, it doesn’t appear that Dorion came by his job by anything other than hard work. He never played pro hockey and it would appear he never played high enough to make it to hockeydb.com. This is somewhat refreshing regardless of what you think of the job he is doing.


His coaching hires to date are Guy Boucher and current coach DJ Smith. Obviously, neither was part of the organization prior to taking over. However, both had taken the long path of development in the CHL and had won championships at that level. Boucher was a recycled Head Coach who had coached previously in Tampa Bay before going over to Switzerland and earning his way back. Regardless, Ottawa is likely to be his last stop as an NHL coach. Smith is still developing as a head coach and the vote isn’t in yet.


On the surface, these hires seem to have some basis of merit and logic. I don’t know what the organization’s plans are for Troy Mann. However, if he isn’t projected as NHL Head Coach material, it might make sense to bring him to Ottawa as an assistant coach and steal a page from Kyle Dubas and plant an heir to the throne in Belleville. The organization is in less of a development phase now. The emphasis must be on winning and it would behoove Dorion to plan for life beyond DJ Smith. He only has so many head coaching hires in his shelf life before the other Pierre gets his chance.


For now, I will conclude that just because someone is smart enough (or know enough of the right people) to get to the top of the mountain, it doesn't mean they know how to staff the positions they need to have the organization be successful. Most of the people running sports organizations seem to know the game far better than the business of running a company. And a team, for lack of a better word, is a company and needs to be run like one. If they reached their status by way of sentiment, entitlement or because they were the only one that was available at the time that a vacancy needed to be filled, why would they fill positions any differently?


Now if you will excuse this “Thousandaire”, I am going to go back to watching Millionaires and Billionaires make me wonder what they know that I don’t.


By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey