NHL teams thinking outside the box to find coaches

Jim Nill could have picked anyone from an extensive list of experienced out-of-work NHL coaches to fill the Dallas Stars’ vacancy.

Darryl Sutter has won the Stanley Cup twice, Dan Bylsma once, Alain Vigneault has made the Final twice and Dave Tippett is widely considered one of the best in hockey. Any of them could’ve been a nice fit, but the Stars general manger wanted to be comprehensive in his search.

“The game is changing, life changes, and we wanted to make sure that we didn’t forget somebody,” Nill said. “Let’s not leave anything, any leaf unturned, every door open, let’s look at every candidate.”

Dallas decided last week on University of Denver coach Jim Montgomery to replace franchise legend Ken Hitchcock, who returned for one season almost two decades after leading the Stars to the Cup. Nill’s front office is far from the only one looking outside the box to college, junior and Europe for coaching candidates, a trend that could lead to far more teams going beyond retreads with the hope of finding the next great mind behind the bench.

“It’s more kind of an evolution of the game itself,” said Philadelphia coach Dave Hakstol, who was hired out of the University of North Dakota in the summer of 2015 and has gotten the Flyers to the playoffs twice in three seasons. “There are so many good people coaching at different levels. For a lot of years it seems that maybe the college-coaching level was maybe bypassed for some of the opportunities. But I think when you look at the quality of coaching in the college game today … there’s some real talented people.”

Before Hakstol and Montgomery, it had been since Herb Brooks in 1987 and Bob Johnson in 1982 that a coach went from the NCAA ranks directly to the NHL. Outside of now-San Jose’s Peter DeBoer and ex-Pittsburgh coach Mike Johnston, junior hockey hasn’t funneled many straight to the NHL, and there have only been two European-born head coaches: Ivan Hlinka and Alpo Suhonen in the early 2000s.

It’s far more common for teams to mine the American Hockey League and NHL staffs for head jobs, and that’s usually a necessary step. Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper came from the United States Hockey League but spent time in the AHL before the Lightning elevated him, and longtime Quebec Major Junior Hockey League coach Benoit Groulx is on the same path now with the NHL in his near future.

Buffalo’s Phil Housley got some experience as the U.S. world junior coach but went right from high school hockey to being an assistant in Nashville. And Rod Brind’Amour spent seven seasons as an assistant after his playing days were over before being named Carolina’s coach on Tuesday.

Hurricanes GM Don Waddell said Brind’Amour’s “fresh ideas, ability to motivate and understanding of what it takes to bring a championship” to Carolina set him apart. As the New York Rangers look to fill their job after firing Vigneault and other openings come up in the next few offseasons, there will be plenty of fresh coaches to choose from.

Boston University’s David Quinn has been linked to the Rangers but will stay at least one more year and run the U.S. world junior team before likely being the next to graduate from college to the NHL. Sweden national coach Rikard Gronborg might also be in the mix sooner than later.

“I’ve kind of done all that stuff and coached some of the best players in the world,” Gronborg told Sportsnet recently. “Now I’m interested to have my ideas, to (implement) them over a period of time and do them overseas, and kind of challenging the coaching community over in the NHL. I bring a different perspective on things.”

Germany national coach Marco Sturm also brings a different perspective after playing 14 NHL seasons and leading an unheralded team to capture the silver medal at the most recent Olympics. Sturm would like to coach in the NHL but said: “I’m only 39 years old, I’ve still got time and I’m still learning and I want to learn and we’ll see what the future presents.”

With an eye on the future, Nill looked at the present success of young coaches like Cooper and New Jersey’s John Hynes and widened his net. It ended with Montgomery and perhaps a new thought process from Nill on how to go through coaching searches.

“Once we went through this process, I just think … who was Scott Bowman? Someone gave him a chance,” Nill said. “Who was Mike Babcock? Somebody gave him a chance. This is a guy that he deserves a chance.”

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