New York Rangers’ Head Coaching Search: Nine Potential Options
With Alain Vigneault gone after five seasons, the search begins for the next head coach of the New York Rangers. Unlike last time around, when Vigneault was hired, the Rangers will be searching for someone who will have to help build something from the ground up. There are a number of different ways they can go about filling the vacancy, but what’s clear is that they need someone who commands respect in the locker room, communicates well with young players, and advocates for a modern style of hockey. Here are just a handful of potential candidates for the job.
Current/Former NHL Head Coaches
As of now, Peters is still the Head Coach of the Carolina Hurricanes. However, the organization has new ownership who is looking to make radical changes, and their next general manager might want to hire his own coaching staff. Peters could very well be on the open market in the coming days. On the surface, Peters might seem like a terrible option. He’s gone four seasons in Carolina without so much as one playoff appearance. However, one needs to dig deeper here.
Over the last four seasons, Carolina rank fifth in the NHL in score-adjusted Corsi (shot attempts percentage at 5v5) and 10th in score-adjusted expected goals percentage. Per Clear Sight Analytics, the Hurricanes generated significantly more high- and mid-percentage scoring chances than they gave up. Per Corey Sznajder, the Hurricanes have ranked among the best teams in the NHL in zone exit and zone entry percentages over the last two seasons. Breaking out and gaining the offensive zone have both been problematic areas for the Rangers the last few years.
So Carolina has consistently dictated play against their opponents, but have been ruined by shooting percentage (2nd-worst in the NHL since 14-15) and save percentage (worst in the NHL since 14-15). Essentially, Carolina has excelled in the areas that are under Peters’ control, and have failed in ones that are largely beyond his control. Carolina’s structure has been strong under Peters. With better shooting talent and a decent starting goaltender, the Hurricanes would have been a consistent playoff team.
Player development has also been pretty impressive under Peters. He helped develop Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce, and Jaccob Slaving into arguably the most impressive group of young defensemen in the NHL.
Eakins’ short NHL stint with the Oilers from 2013 through 2014 was a disaster, with the team winning just 36 of 113 games. However, the team was just as much of a mess well before his arrival and has continued to struggle after his departure. It’s difficult to attribute the team’s failure to him in particular.
Especially considering the success he has had elsewhere. He made a name for himself in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies, as the team was arguably the league’s best in 12-13 and 13-14. A few players now integral to the Maple Leafs also developed under him. He has coached the Anaheim Ducks’ AHL affiliate, the San Diego Gulls, the past three seasons. They too have been among the best AHL teams during his tenure.
Eakins was one of the earliest adaptors of what would be considered modern analytical data. He was personally responsible for the Oilers’ hiring of Tyler Dellow, and under Eakins the Oilers dramatically improved their underlying metrics. In interviews and press conferences he comes off as well spoken, and displays an understanding of process versus results. His communication abilities could make him a good match for a team with young players who need to know not only what is expected of them, but also the why’s and how’s.
Eakins is a smart tactician who is also very hands-on with his players. He has a lot of experience - and success - with handling young players. He’s also a natural leader. Former NHLer Sean Pronger was his teammate with the Manitoba Moose in 2003-2004, and in his book raved about Eakins’ understanding of hockey and leadership qualities.
One has to wonder how much Eakins was a victim, rather than a cause, of the Oilers’ ineptitude. Often in life, failure is a necessary prerequisite to success. Eakins surely has learned from what mistakes he did make in his first NHL job, and would likely be better prepared the second time around.
Nelson was Eakins’ midseason replacement in Edmonton during the 2014-2015 season, and like Eakins had little luck in getting the team to win hockey games. The 48-year-old was also an assistant coach for the Atlanta Thrashers for two seasons. Like with Eakins, his NHL resume doesn’t serve as a proper analysis of his actual coaching ability.
Outside of the NHL, Nelson has succeeded practically everywhere he has coached. He won back-to-back championships with the Muskegon Fury of the now defunct UHL (similar level as ECHL). Coaching AHL affiliates of both the Oilers and Red Wings for parts of six seasons, he has a career record of 252-128-45, and his teams have been a contender every AHL season. Last year, he led the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit’s AHL affiliate) to an AHL championship. This season, they are 40-25-8.
Craig Custance of The Athletic spoke at length with Nelson last summer, and it’s a great read that gives insight into Nelson as a coach and person. He likes to set up in the offensive and neutral zones with a 2-1-2 setup and preaches an aggressive style that pressures the opposition, takes away space, and forces turnovers. He uses five forwards on the power play. In a league that is risk-adverse, Nelson wants an opportunity to create a team culture that doesn’t punish trying new things and making creative plays. Last summer, he was a finalist for the head coaching job in Arizona, though it ultimately went to Rick Tocchet. It’s almost surely not a matter of if Nelson gets a head coaching job in the NHL, but instead a question of when and with whom. He checks a lot of boxes for the Rangers. For him, the Rangers would also provide a good opportunity to be creative and slowly build the team and culture he wants without the pressure of needing immediate results on the ice. Could be a good match for both team and coach.
New Kids on the Block
Muse was an assistant coach at Yale for five seasons, including in 2013 when they won the National D1 Championship. He then moved on to coach the Chicago Steel of the USHL; a team that had missed the playoffs the previous eight seasons. In just two seasons, he completely changed the team’s philosophies and culture and made them USHL champions. After doing so, he was hired to be an assistant in Nashville. Clearly, they were a great team before his arrival, but he certainly has not hurt their fortunes, either. He’s run the 6th-ranked PK in the NHL, and they’ve been one of the best offensive teams in the NHL as well.
Through personal circumstances, I got a small glimpse into how Muse runs his teams. He’s certainly open to modern data, as well as giving an honest look at data that challenges his preconceptions.
He’s 35 years old and doesn’t exactly have a lengthy resume either in professional hockey or as a head coach at any level. I would bet that Muse eventually coaches in the NHL, but maybe he’s too green right now. On the other hand, that did not stop a Stanley Cup favorite from trusting him in a major role.
Knoblauch has a similar trajectory as Muse. Just 39 years old now, he earned a job on the Flyers’ bench after success at lower levels. Knoblauch won a WHL championship with the Kootenay Ice in his first season as head coach in 2011. Two years later, he moved to the Erie Otters of the OHL and ran a highly successful team. At first, it was easy to attribute success to a loaded roster that included, among many others, Connor McDavid. However, he raised some eyebrows when the team continued crush the competition with a roster that was still very good, but had lost a few key players.
With Erie, he did a lot to improve the team’s transitions and zone entries. He prefers an east-west style as opposed to dumping pucks deep and forechecking.
Now he is coaching the offense in Philadelphia, and has had plenty of success. Yes, there is a lot of incredible talent on that team, but it’s probably not a total coincidence that so many players, including Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Sean Couturier, had the best seasons of their careers.
At 39, he is young. However, he has plenty of experience coaching at the junior level. Philadelphia could also prevent him from speaking with other teams. If allowed, though, he could be an interesting, modern voice to bring in the Rangers’ locker room.
Pecknold has been the head coach at Quinnipiac as far back as the mid-90s, when they were classified as a Division II school. Slowly but surely, he has built Quinnipiac into a true hockey college. They topped their conference three times between 2013 and 2016 and appeared in the NCAA Tournament all four years, making the Frozen Four twice.
Pecknold is a very smart coach tactically, and I’ve seen good examples of him using data to influence the ways in which he coaches players to make decisions on the ice.
Not that succeeding and coaching well at Minnesota or Boston College is easy, but there’s a lot to be said for what Pecknold has done at Quinnipiac. He has to work much harder to recruit the players he wants, and even then rarely lands elite talent. Pound-for-pound, Packnold may be the best coach in the NCAA in terms of getting the most out of the players he has to work with.
Keefe first caught my eye when he was a head coach for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the OHL. After watching just a few games, it was easy to see how well coached and structured the team was. Unlike in the NHL, where structure is everything, OHL teams can often get by on individual talent taking over games. However, with the Greyhounds, they had five-man units that worked in sync. Furthermore, Keefe was an extremely progressive head coach.
I was told a story recently where Keefe had to spend time in training camp with new players and force them to unlearn cliche concepts of getting pucks deep and making safe plays. Keefe wants a team that values possession of the puck. His teams execute breakouts so well, and do not punt the puck when under pressure in the neutral zone.
Now, Keefe is the head coach on the Toronto Marlies, who are the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate. He has built a juggernaut that has gone 147-63-15 over three seasons. Yes, that’s largely because of the talent and investment the Maple Leafs have given the team. Still, Keefe has put it all together and successfully developed plenty of players that are either on Toronto’s roster now or soon will be. It speaks a lot to his ability that he’s the person Toronto hand-picked to coach a team they’ve prioritized.
Keefe may be the ideal option for the Rangers in that he’s a fresh, forward-thinking coach but who has also paid his dues and moved up the ladder of minor league hockey. He’s a big believer in analytics, but more importantly knows how to understand data and then use it to coach his players on the ice. Though Toronto won’t want to lose him, they may not have a choice. Mike Babcock is going nowhere, and at some point Keefe will want a chance in the NHL.
Wild Card Options
I know nightmares from the Bryan Trottier era are flooding in right now, but hear me out.
The biggest issue for the Rangers the last few seasons has been on the defensive side. Different players have come and gone, but the structure has consistently been a disaster. Great players don’t necessarily translate into great coaches, but in Stevens’ case, he has proven himself. He coached the defensive side for the Devils for a few seasons before doing the same for the Minnesota Wild for a season. Yes, having Devan Dubnyk and Ryan Suter helps, but the Wild were arguably the best defensive team in the NHL during the 2016-2017 season. They had the lowest expected goals against at 5v5 in the entire league, and the eighth-ranked penalty kill.
Stevens left the team on his own accord after the season because of he wanted to be with his family, who live in New Jersey/New York. He now works as an analyst for NHL Network, whose offices are in North Jersey.
The Rangers, obviously, play in New York City. The Rangers could offer him the opportunity to coach in the NHL again without having to relocate away from his family. Would he want to coach again at all, let alone do so for his former rival? Who knows. He’s an intriguing, outside-the-box option, though.
The origin story is not really clear, but at some point the Rangers built up a relationship with Czech coach Filip Pesan and invited him to work at the Rangers’ 2017 summer prospect camp. Pesan has been the head coach for Liberec in the Czech Extraliga since 2014-2015, and led them to a championship in 2017. He has also coached the Czech Republic at the international level, including at the 2018 World Junior Championships, where the Czechs surprised everyone by eliminating Finland and finished the tournament in fourth place. During the tournament, the Czechs had great structure and played a fun, creative style.
The concern with Pesan is evident. He has zero experience coaching in North America. Spacing on the ice is different on NHL rinks versus European ones, so concepts that have worked for him in the past might not necessarily translate on a smaller ice surface. However, it goes both ways. It’s also possible that a European head coach who comes from a completely different school of thought could bring new ideas to the table.
Let’s be clear that this is just a small list of potential options. Jeff Gorton would have to speak to them or anyone else on a much deeper level to find out what their philosophies are and whether it’s a fit for the Rangers going forward. These would all be intriguing options, but there are also plenty of other candidates out there who could do the job successfully as well.