Let’s Try Again: Resetting the Stage for the Pens Coaching Search

By: Meesh Shanmugam (@HockeyMeesh)

Jim Rutherford reportedly spent his weekend at home in North Carolina, hopefully relaxing and getting refreshed before the first “big” week of his tenure as the Penguins general manager.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh fans and media tore the situation to shreds based on the entire past week, which was filled with coaching rumors, reports, altered reports, more rumors, and in the end, a swing and a miss.

On the plus side though, the optics of the situation do not completely match the current state of the Penguins. Here’s a look at the week ahead:

1) Searching For a Coach, Obviously.

Last week was a mess for several reasons, which you can read about here if you really want to go insane again.

There was only one real update over the weekend. Marc Crawford is officially out of the running. He had a limited timeframe to move from Switzerland to the NHL and he has informed his team in Switzerland that he will be returning to them.

Based on who the Penguins interviewed previously, the current candidates appear to be: Ulf Samuelsson, John Hynes, Ron Wilson, and Doug MacLean? Meanwhile, Rick Tocchet seems to be a likely assistant for any coach.

Gone from the picture: Marc Crawford (Switzerland), Bill Peters (Carolina), Willie Desjardins (likely Vancouver)

It was rumored that Tom Renney had interviewed with Rutherford, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. The same goes for Jeff Daniels and Mike Keenan according to Rob Rossi’s article on Friday. Since Rutherford said he plans to talk to two or three guys he didn’t speak to previously, perhaps all three will become candidates.

Adding to that list, Dave Molinari suggested a few possible candidates to join the group. His list includes Kevin Dineen, Glen Gulutzan, Phil Housely, Mike Johnston, Todd Nelson, and Guy Boucher (who I don’t believe is available).  I’ll wait for more information before bombarding you with their backgrounds.

More names will inevitably pop up as we get through the week.

I want to offer two comments regarding the idea of “retreads.” First, my article about the last 30 Stanley Cup finalists. There are plenty of “retreads” there.

Second, a quote from this week’s Sports Illustrated article about the Kings. (It’s not available online yet)

“In December 2011, with the Kings stumbling along at 13-12-4, Lombardi fired coach Terry Murray and hired Darryl Sutter, who had coached for six years under Lombardi in San Jose. Critics decried Sutter’s gruff disposition and his 15 years as an NHL coach (for the Blackhawks, Sharks and Flames) without a Cup. But a dozen players Sutter had coached sent emails to Lombardi saying that while Sutter had been a taskmaster, he had also made them better players.”

Forget “retreads” vs. “up-and-coming” coaches. Focus on what a coach can do for individuals and the team. Get rid of the labels.

Moving away from the candidates, let’s talk about optics vs. reality.

Bad Optics Part I: Pittsburgh isn’t everyone’s top destination.

Last week looked worse than it actually was because the perception of the Penguins franchise has been cracked. Possibly Bill Peters and definitely Willie Desjardins decided to go to other franchises over what the Penguins were offering. Despite some big free agent rejections (Hossa, Parise, Jagr, etc.) over the years, the waiving of no-trade clauses by guys like Iginla and Morrow have always kept Pittsburgh in the category of “places everyone wants to go.” A coach deciding against working with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is a shock to the system for an organization that has been very blessed over the past three decades.

Bad Optics Part II: Pittsburgh zeroed in on someone. Pittsburgh didn’t get that someone.

How often does a coaching search get to the point of zeroing in on one candidate, talking to that candidate, and then that candidate fleeing the scene immediately?

Rutherford originally said he wanted to hire a coach by July 1st at the latest, so technically last week was still early in his timeline. Suddenly, everything became very rushed.

The Penguins were among four teams searching for a coach last week, joined by Florida, Carolina, and Vancouver.

Florida’s process was well-publicized. It started with several candidates, then a list of six that was out in the media, then a list of three out in the media, and then they hired Gerard Gallant as their guy. Carolina’s process was less visible. It was often reported when they requested to speak with assistant coaches from other teams, but it wasn’t as public as with Florida. Many thought Ulf Samuelsson was a shoe-in for Carolina, but Bill Peters turned out to be their man and they were the first team to lock a coach down. Vancouver has also been rather quiet, acting much like Carolina. Everything ramped up very quickly when Desjardins left Pittsburgh and suddenly became the favorite in Vancouver.

Then there’s Pittsburgh. There were several candidates early in the week, one candidate late in the week, and no coach at the end of the week. If you take away the “Penguins have zeroed in on their guy” part of the story, there is barely a blip on the radar. It would look like Desjardins came to interview in Pittsburgh, the two sides weren’t interested one way or another, and then he went to interview in Vancouver. The aspect that makes it optically ugly is that the Penguins picked one man and he spurned them, regardless of the reasoning (not even including how Peters may have fit in prior to Desjardins). All of the other teams narrowed down their searches and hired one man, not narrowed down their searches to one man and were left scrambling.

Coaching searches are unpredictable, but there is no question that the Penguins *looked* completely “awkward turtle” last week.  At the very least, they allowed far too much information to get out about their intentions.

Reality Part I: Jim Rutherford now has no competitors.

Last week’s timeline suggests that the Penguins may have pushed their efforts largely due to the competitors in the market for a coach. Maybe they should have moved even quicker, but is that the best way to get the *right* head coach for this roster? Assuming Desjardins does get hired in Vancouver, Pittsburgh is now the only head coaching position available. There are no competitive threats, negotiating tactics, or outside forces (aside from time) to consider anymore. Rutherford can properly assess literally every candidate available now and make a decision without worrying about other teams. Maybe he lost his best options in Peters and Desjardins, or maybe he will take the time to find one who fits this roster even better.

Reality Part II: The optics won’t matter in October.

The organization looking like a bride left at the altar is inconsequential to the team’s performance in the upcoming season. The only thing that matters is getting the right coach, no matter how it happens. Desjardins and Peters are gone. Forget they existed as candidates. I was neutral on Peters and liked Desjardins, but neither of them are irreplaceable guys. No coaching mind is irreplaceable. There are still several great ones out there; some we know about, and some we don’t.

It’s time to start the week anew.

2) Let’s Talk About Free Agency.

While Rutherford wants his coach in place by July 1st, there is another issue to consider in his timeline. On June 25th (Wednesday), a window opens for free agents to talk with interested teams. Free agents are not allowed to enter any agreements, but they are allowed to discuss potential future parameters and interests.

Not only do the Penguins current free agents not know who they could be playing for, but potential free agent acquisitions have no clue either. When the Desjardins train was moving at full speed, rumors were abound that Matt Niskanen did not get along with him and hiring Desjardins would signify the end of Niskanen’s Penguins tenure. While I think Niskanen is gone either way, it’s certainly hard to tell how any coach might help or hurt the case of retaining a free agent based on past or future potential relationships WHEN THERE IS NO COACH.

Meanwhile, when June 25th hits, what are the group of Pittsburgh GMs going to say to potential free agent acquisitions? They can probably still get contract parameters, but coaching relationships are important and they won’t be speaking about that at this rate. It’s not detrimental to the process, but it’s a disadvantage that no other team will be working with and a disadvantage that the Penguins don’t need given their plethora of depth issues.

3) Drafting and Dealing.

Finally, the NHL Draft will be held in Philadelphia on June 27th and 28th (Friday-Saturday). There are several big names on the trade market (Kesler, of course) and I also hope that the Penguins trade the rights of some of their free agents (Niskanen), though I imagine that will be much more difficult/worth less after the interview period opens up on June 25th.

The Penguins pick 22nd overall on Friday night and then not again until the 4th round on Saturday. While this is Rutherford’s first draft as the Penguins GM, it might as well be considered Botterill’s draft. As Rob Rossi reported, Rutherford isn’t set on making the final call on picks because of his limited time with the organization and how much of that time has been spent on the coaching search.

Other interesting notes from that Rossi article:

  • The Penguins retained their 13 amateur scouts that had been working under Shero.
  • Kyle Woodlief, who runs the Red Line Report scouting service, says the Penguins are in an odd spot:

“It’s odd from a Pittsburgh perspective,” said Woodlief, who runs the Red Line Report scouting service. “There’s like three tiers to this draft: the top four guys; a second one with eight or nine guys; then a third tier of another eight guys. Around 21, it drops off the table. Everyone after that has significant warts.”

For your draft needs, I suggest looking into Jesse Marshall’s (@jmarshfof) work at Faceoff-Factor.com. He is releasing his draft rankings throughout the week and has already released Part 1.

Of course, also take a look at our 20-in-20 series from Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy) and Melissa Esing (@Off_thepost) as they cover the top 20 prospects in the draft and we hope one falls to Pittsburgh.

Also: 4) Schedule Released, 5) Hockey Hall of Fame, 6) NHL Awards

If you missed it, the Penguins released their schedule on Sunday.

On Monday, the NHL will announce the 2014 Hockey Hall of Fame class. Expect to hear Dominik Hasek’s name. Peter Forsberg, Mike Modano, and Mark Recchi are new possibilities to get inducted as well.

Finally, don’t forget the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas on Tuesday night! It will be televised on June 24th at 7pm on NBCSN and CBC. Sidney Crosby will accept his Art Ross Trophy and is the HEAVY favorite to take home the Hart Trophy and the Ted Lindsay Award.

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There’s your look ahead at the week! Hopefully the Penguins find a coach soon and all of the drama will disappear forever (or a day). Thanks for reading!!