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The Hunt for Hartford’s Next Head Coach

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Davidson and the Rangers front office have an important decision to make

2017 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In a recent interview with Larry Brooks of the New York Post, New York Rangers President John Davidson discussed his plan to fix the Hartford Wolf Pack. From his comments, it’s clear that Davidson considers finding the right fit for Hartford’s next head coach to be a top priority. Per Brooks’ piece. JD, Jeff Gorton, and Wolf Pack general manager Chris Drury have already begun the search.

An overhaul in Hartford has been long overdue. The Wolf Pack have been to the playoffs just once in the last seven years, which is why it’s encouraging to hear Davidson’s plans to put “more of everything” into the team. (Joe and I discussed at length on Ep. 144 of the Flagship)

For Davidson, it all comes down to development.

Before his return to New York, he helped turn around both the St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets. In both cases, Davidson didn’t have the bottomless wallet he now has in New York. Particularly in Columbus, he displayed his ability to think outside the box with his hires. That creativity and attention to detail undoubtedly played a role in the Cleveland Monsters’ Calder Cup victory in 2016. It stands to reason that the strength of the Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate helped bolster the team’s success over the last two seasons.

In the salary cap era, it’s essential to have a reliable system in place to develop players. One could argue that the most crucial aspect of that system is the frequently overlooked AHL affiliate.

Avoiding the Same Mistakes

Shortly before Davidson entered the fold, the Rangers made a step in the right direction by dismissing Wolf Pack coach Keith McCambridge.

During McCambridge’s year behind the bench, the Wolf Pack went 29-36-11 and finished last in the AHL’s Atlantic Division. Early this season, it became clear that McCambridge was not turning things around. To be fair, he didn’t have a lot to work with, but the returns we did see were discouraging.

Before becoming Hartford’s head coach, McCambridge spent one season as an assistant coach under his predecessor Ken Gernander. Gernander held that position for ten years after a two-year stint as an assistant. He also struggled to create a winning culture.

The Rangers’ decision to promote from within after dismissing Gernander is, of course, something we see a lot of in professional sports. Gernander got into coaching after spending 14 seasons in the minors; 11 of with while on the Binghamton Rangers/Hartford Wolf Pack.

He was the team captain for seven of those seasons, which definitely played a role in him ending up behind the bench. A similar story recently played out in Florida with the Panthers as former captain and locker room favorite Derek MacKenzie recently joined Joel Quenneville’s coaching staff.

However, promoting from within does come with the risk of not only drawing from a finite pool of talent, but also seeing a lot of the same philosophies.

Where AHL Coaches Come From

Some research into the trends of AHL coaching hires reveals that the most common roads to becoming a head coach include time spent behind the bench as an assistant in the AHL or NHL. Excluding McCambridge, 18 of the AHL’s head coaches last year took that path.

Coaching turnover in the AHL gives the widespread yearly turnover in rosters a run for its money. For many, the AHL is a springboard or a proving ground to a chance at an NHL head coaching gig. Consider how much the Toronto Maple Leafs covet Sheldon Keefe for what he’s been able to do with the Toronto Marlies and you will start to get an idea of why the names and faces behind the bench change as much as they do.

There were 13 first-year head coaches in the AHL last year. Nine of them came from AHL or NHL coaching staffs; Drew Banister (San Antonio) and Jay Varady (Tucson) were OHL head coaches; Joel Bouchard (Laval) was the head coach and GM of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada; and Mark Dennehy (Binghamton) was the head coach of the University of Merrimack.

So, in general terms, teams tend to look at AHL and NHL assistants and major junior head coaches when they’re hunting for an AHL head coach. But that isn’t the only place the Rangers should be looking.

Potential Candidates

The best thing that Davidson, Gorton, and Drury can do is interview a large and diverse group of candidates. There’s no downside to hearing an abundance of ideas and philosophies about the best way to turn the situation in Hartford around.

Former Ranger Martin St. Louis is definitely a name to consider. St. Louis, who makes his home in Connecticut, was a late addition to the Blue Jackets’ coaching staff last season. St. Louis was John Tortorella’s special teams consultant — which is to say that he helped out on the power play.

It’s easy to connect the dots between St. Louis and the Rangers. We can even connect the dots between Davidson and St. Louis, since he joined as a consultant under JD’s tenure. However, the 43-year-old has a dearth of coaching experience. St. Louis is currently the head coach of his son’s Bantam team in Connecticut. Asking him be Hartford’s top coach is a big jump, especially for a guy who wants to spend time with his young family.

Naturally, there are other Rangers alumni who could be a part of the conversation. Two names that come to mind are Brian Leetch and Brad Richards — both are currently Hockey Operations Advisers with the team.

Before being the general manager of Team USA at this year’s World Championship, Drury was an assistant GM for Team USA at the 2017 Worlds. Rand Pecknold was an assistant coach for that squad. Pecknold is a widely respected collegiate coach, but it might take a crowbar to pry him away from his current gig. He’s been behind the bench at Quinnipiac University since 1994.

Another collegiate coach that might be hard to pry away from his school is Greg Carvel. Carvel won the 2019 Spencer Penrose Award, which is given to men’s college hockey’s top coach — Pecknold won it in 2016. He’s been the head coach at UMass Amherst for four years and has experience as an assistant coach at the NHL level with the Ducks and Senators.

New York Islanders v Ottawa Senators Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

Another coach with ties to Drury and Team USA is Seth Appert. Appert is the current head coach of the USNTDP. He’s also been a head coach at the collegiate level with RPI and for Team USA’s U18 and U17 squads. Obviously, Appert is no stranger to player development and working with an ever-changing group. For that reason alone, he seems like a good fit on paper.

Kris Knoblauch recently became a free agent as a result of the Flyers’ coaching changeover. There’s some scuttlebutt that he’s a candidate for an NHL head coaching gig, but right now the Ducks are the only team without a coach for next season and he’s not the only name that’s out there. He might be open to the idea of working in Hartford, but it would probably only be a pit stop.

Syracuse Crunch assistant coach Ken Klee is another coach to consider. Before his two seasons behind the bench with Syracuse and his NHL playing career, he won gold as the head coach of the United States women’s national team at the 2015 and 2016 World Championships. Borrowing ideas from the Tampa Bay Lightning’s AHL affiliate should hold plenty of appeal to Davidson and the Rangers.

Shannon Miller, who briefly coached the CWHL’s Calgary Inferno last season, could also offer a different and valuable perspective to the organization. In her 16 years as the head coach of the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s women’s team Miller developed one of the most diverse and respected programs in college hockey. Only recently have women been getting jobs in hockey operations with NHL teams. With that being said, Miller’s resume is damn impressive and deserves attention.

An “old school” name who might get an interview is current Rochester Americans assistant coach Gord Dineen. Dineen’s brother, Jerry, has been the Rangers’ video coach since 2003. However, the fact that he was fired from the Marlies’ staff mid-season in 2017 could be a stain on his resume. At surface level, Dineen feels like it would “more of the same” for the Wolf Pack, which is something that Davidson and company should avoid at all costs.

There’s also something to be said about one of the Rangers current assistant coaches taking up the mantle in Hartford. Either David Oliver and Greg Brown could offer a more direct translation of David Quinn’s systems and style to Hartford. In all likelihood, they’ll stay on Quinn’s staff in New York, but it’s still worth considering.