Thoughts: Pens Coaching Candidates

By: Meesh Shanmugam (@HockeyMeesh)

As everyone not-so-patiently awaits a coaching decision, names are starting to pop up on who the Penguins are interviewing or attempting to interview this week and beyond.

  • According to Dave Molinari of the Post-Gazette, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach John Hynes had his interview with Jim Rutherford on Monday afternoon.
  • From TSN’s Darren Dreger, the Penguins are scheduled to talk with former NHL head coaches Marc Crawford and Ron Wilson this week.
  • From William DePaoli of TIOPS, the team is also scheduled to talk with Tom Renney.
  • Elliotte Friedman said Pittsburgh has requested for permission to talk with current LA Kings assistant coach John Stevens.
  • Finally, Rob Rossi added Ulf Samulesson and Bill Peters to the list. He also mentioned that Rick Tocchet is under consideration to be added as an assistant coach.

*Crawford is still in the running with two other candidates (Bylsma and Gerard Gallant) for the Florida job. Renney, Wilson, and Peters were the rest of Florida’s top six, but didn’t make it to the final three. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes have also requested for permission to talk with Stevens and are also speaking with Samuelsson.*

Here’s a look at the options we’ve heard about so far:

John Hynes (Age: 39), Head Coach – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins

Hynes has been the head coach for WBS since the 2010-11 season, when he won the AHL coach of the year. He was previously an assistant to Todd Reirden in 2009-10 and was promoted to head coach when Reirden was promoted to be an assistant coach with Pittsburgh. Hynes has put together a 186-102-20 record over the past four regular seasons in the AHL. Meanwhile, his teams have reached the playoffs every season, where they have lost in the 2nd round twice and in the 3rd round twice. He is quite familiar with the remains of the organization (Botterill, Guerin, Fitzgerald) and has largely run the same system that Pittsburgh has used on the ice. Last summer, Josh Yohe mentioned Hynes as “widely regarded as a can’t-miss future NHL coach.” He has survived the never-ending recalls from the Penguins, has often been credited for successfully focusing on the details in a prospect’s game, and has often been praised for his focus on defensive intelligence.

Hynes also has ties to USA hockey. He spent six seasons as the head coach of the USA National Team Development Program, a season as the head coach of the US under-17 development team, and also helped the US under-18 national team to three medals (head coach of the ’08 bronze medal team).

Thoughts: The general consensus from WBS seems to be that Hynes would be an excellent candidate. My biggest question is how far away do the Penguins want to drift from the former regime in terms of systems/styles/philosophies? The coaching consistency could be great for many of the younger players that need to take on bigger roles and promoting from within certainly worked with the Bylsma hire initially, but is that the path the Penguins want to take again after the past few years? It’s unfortunate for Hynes, but he would probably be a much “sexier” coaching pick if he was coming from another organization. That also suggests to me that he’s a worthy candidate though.

Marc Crawford (Age: 53), Head Coach – Zurich Lions (also, TSN Analyst)

Though Crawford’s past two years have been spent in Switzerland coaching the ZSC Lions, he has quite a long (and sometimes rocky) NHL resume. Going back to his playing days, Crawford played 176 games in the NHL as a left winger as he frequently bounced between the NHL and AHL.

After he retired, he coached in the OHL for two seasons before moving on to the AHL. In the AHL, he took the St. John’s Maple Leafs to the Calder Cup Final (losing) in his first season and then won AHL coach of the year in his second season.

In 1994-95, he broke into the NHL as the coach of the Quebec Nordiques and won the Jack Adams as coach of the year in his first season. In his second season, the team moved to Colorado and won the Stanley Cup. He coached two more seasons in Colorado, losing in the Conference Finals and then the Conference Quarterfinals before declining a contract extension and resigning. During his last season in Colorado, Crawford also coached Team Canada to a disappointing 4th place finish in the Nagano Olympics. He took a lot of heat for the “failure” and was critiqued heavily for his lineup and shootout decisions. Back in the NHL though, Crawford’s Quebec/Colorado teams finished first in the division in all four years he was there.

After a few months off, Crawford then moved on to Vancouver, where he coached for six-plus seasons after getting hired in the middle of the 1998-99 season. After missing the playoffs in his first two seasons, Crawford took the Canucks to the playoffs in each of the next four seasons, though he lost in the quarterfinals three times and in the semifinals once. Coming out of the lockout in 2005-06, Vancouver missed the playoffs and Crawford was let go.

A month later, he was hired by the Los Angeles Kings, where he spent two dismal seasons not making the playoffs before getting fired with a year left on his contract still. He spent that year off working with Hockey Night in Canada before being hired by Joe Nieuwendyk to be the head coach of Dallas in 2009. Crawford spent two seasons with Dallas. The Stars finished 5th in the Pacific in both seasons under Crawford, though they were just a win away from the playoffs in his second season.

After another season off, Crawford was hired to coach in Switzerland and has spent the past two seasons there, winning a championship this past season. He signed a two-year extension in March, but has been in talks with NHL teams this summer.

Crawford’s NHL coaching record stands at 549-421-100-77. In 14+ seasons as a head coach, he has made the playoffs eight times, none of which came in his five seasons since the full season lockout. His playoff record is 43-40 with a Stanley Cup Championship, a conference finals loss, a conference semifinals loss, and five conference quarterfinals losses.

Mike Heika wrote some interesting things about Crawford’s exit in Dallas a couple of years ago:

Crawford likes to control most things with his team. He was one of the rare coaches who rotated not only the forwards but the defense pairs, and he definitely liked to have a say in all of the decisions. So when a coach makes all the decisions, and the team doesn’t respond well, then there is going to be more responsibility for decisions made. It goes with the territory. The Stars had a ton of tests this year, and we have pointed them all out. That big homestand. The ensuing road trip. The final game against the Wild. The Stars didn’t respond well. Is some of that on the players? Yes. Is as much on the coaches? It has to be.

The players also had some of the same questions you did about the coaching. Why did Crawford lean so heavily on Kari Lehtonen when Andrew Raycroft seemed like a viable alternative? Why did he favor Jeff Woywitka over Mark Fistric. Why was he constantly juggling lines? Why wasn’t Loui Eriksson out there more at the end of games. Crawford had a tough job. There were injury issues, there was the big trade that took away James Neal and shook up the chemistry a little, there were moves made (like Brandon Segal to the minors) that were made simply because of money concerns.

But, when he made a move that didn’t work out, it eroded the confidence of the players.

The other problem that Crawford had is that he is an old school coach. He was not going to bond with the players or push many individual motivational buttons. He was going to give them the structure to play, but he left it up to them to find the reason to play. That’s not that unusual in this business, but it was different from what the players had seen from Ken Hitchcock or Dave Tippett. The stories of Hitchcock’s ability to poke Mike Modano at the right time are legendary, and Tippett got more out of Mike Ribeiro because he knew exactly what buttons to push. Again, that’s the difference between Buck Showalter and Ron Washington. The players find a different gear for Washington.

Joe Nieuwendyk honestly believes that Marc Crawford has done a ton of good things, but it became very clear that the players didn’t respond to his style of coaching in very big games this season.

Thoughts: Based on how the Bylsma era ended and how the Penguins played in the playoffs, I would have just about zero interest in Marc Crawford. The Penguins are an extremely talented team and every single one of those talents appears to be motivated in vastly different ways. I already have my questions about getting the best from Letang and finding a good hockey mind for Crosby. It doesn’t sound like Crawford is the type of guy that is going to really get the best out of either. That final line from Heika is quite a red flag as well. Not responding to his style in big games? We’ve seen enough earlier-than-expected playoff exists.

Ron Wilson (Age 59), Not Currently Coaching

Wilson’s career is even more extensive than Crawford’s and includes multiple Olympic stints as he has close ties with USA Hockey.

His actual playing career included parts of six season in the NHL and six seasons in Switzerland as a defenseman. He retired in 1988 and became an assistant coach for the Vancouver Canucks in 1990. When the expansion Anaheim Mighty Ducks joined the league, Wilson was named their first head coach. He spent four seasons there, largely dealing with the struggles of building up a franchise, but making the playoffs and losing in the second round in his fourth season. Despite the final season successes, Anaheim let go of Wilson and he moved on to Washington.

In his first season in Washington, Wilson immediately took the Capitals to the Stanley Cup Final, losing to Detroit. His team missed the playoffs the following season before rebounding to finish first in the Southeast in the next two seasons. However, Washington was ousted in the first round in both of those seasons (by the Penguins both times). He coached one more season in Washington, missing the playoffs, before getting fired in 2002. He admitted afterwards that it was time to go as players were starting to tune him out.

The Sharks quickly picked up Wilson and he spent the next five seasons in San Jose. After missing the playoffs in 2002-03, the Sharks made the playoffs in each of his next four seasons. They lost in the Conference Finals in 2003-04 and then the second round in each of the next three seasons. The inability to get the Sharks over the playoff hump led to his firing. He was available for less than a month before Toronto hired him to be their head coach.

With the Leafs, Wilson struggled more than anywhere else. He spent 3+ seasons in Toronto, missing the playoffs three times and getting fired late in the 2011-12 season despite receiving a one-year extension midway through that season. The writing was on the wall for Wilson as his team won just 1 of his final 11 games, leading the Air Canada Centre to chant “Fire Wilson!” and nudge GM Brian Burke into making the move as the Leafs fell out of the playoff race. He has not coached since.

His regular season NHL coaching record stands at 648-561-101-91. In 18 seasons, he has taken his teams to the playoffs eight times. In those eight times, he has lost in the Stanley Cup Final once, lost in the conference finals once, lost in the second round four times, and lost in the first round twice.

Along with his NHL experience, Wilson coached Team USA to their disappointing 1-3 record in Nagano in the 1998 Olympics. He received a bit of redemption in his second stint coaching Team USA, taking them to the gold medal game in 2010, where they lost to Canada in overtime.

An article written by Jonas Siegel around Wilson’s firing in Toronto sheds him in a different light than Crawford:

Years of experience not surprisingly produced an evolution, not only in the coach but the person. “You simplify as you get older,” he explained. “I think when you’re younger you focus more on complicated things, like little details that might have been important to you when you played, but then you realize you’ve got to simplify. That’s the art of coaching is to make something that is complicated that you’ve spent a lot of time [on] and you’ve got to simplify, you’ve got to get right down to the basics.”

Wilson agreed that the practice was not so dissimilar to the art of teaching.

“Yeah you break down the equation, but you don’t solve the problem,” he said when the math analogy was presented. “The players have to go out and solve the problem. But all your students are different. Some don’t want your involvement at all and some want a lot of information so that’s what you learn over time. You don’t flood the guys who don’t want information with that information [or] you’ll lose them fast. So you make it available somewhere else that they can see the information.”

Thoughts: Wilson’s teams have often done well offensively, though there have been some very inconsistent efforts from month-to-month and season-to-season in his history. His tenure in Toronto came to an end largely due to poor goaltending and a defense that consistently fell apart down the stretch. He’s the type of coach that can probably keep the Penguins at their current level without fail, but can he boost them all the way towards the Stanley Cup? His tenure in San Jose lends itself to some questions in that regard, but that was also several years ago and the Sharks are doing their best to demonstrate that coaches aren’t the problem. I would view this hiring just as I viewed the Rutherford hiring, with a *shrugs*.

Tom Renney (Age: 59), Assistant Coach – Detroit Red Wings

Renney began his coaching career in the WHL, where he led the Kamloops Blazers to two WHL championships and also a Memorial Cup win.

He took his first NHL head coaching job with Vancouver in 1996-97. The team finished 4th in the Pacific and Renney was then fired 19 games into the 1997-98 season as the Canucks started off 4-13-2.

Renney later moved on to the Rangers as the Director of Player Personnel and was eventually given the head coaching position at the end of the 2003-04 season after Glen Sather removed himself from the coaching position to focus on his GM duties. Renney finished out the season with a 5-11-0-4 record and then coached the Rangers for 3+ seasons. In his three full seasons coaching the Rangers, Renney led the team to third place finishes in the Atlantic and a playoff berth each year. The team lost in the conference quarterfinals in 2005-06 before losing in the conference semifinals the next two seasons. In 2008-09, Renney was fired late in the season despite going 31-23-0-7 to that point because the Rangers were slumping and in danger of missing the playoffs.

The Oilers brought him on as an assistant coach that spring and he eventually took over as the head coach going into the 2010-11 season. Renney coached the Oilers for two seasons, finishing 5th in the Northwest both times before not having his contract renewed.

The Red Wings added him as an assistant coach two months later and he has remained in that position under Mike Babcock.

His NHL head coaching record stands at 260-255-9-68. In 9ish (three partial) seasons, he has led his teams to the playoffs three times. In those three playoff appearances, his teams have lost in the conference semifinals twice and conference quarterfinals once.

Renney hasn’t had the chance to work with many talented teams and a few people suggested he was moving Edmonton in the right direction when his contract wasn’t renewed. As David Staples pointed out, Renney sheltered younger players properly and had the team improving in all facets, albeit slowly, in Edmonton.

Thoughts: Renney doesn’t have a strong history of success, though that is partially due to the teams he has worked with. It’s certainly promising that he has worked with Mike Babcock over the last couple of seasons. In general though, it’s unclear what Renney could do with the talent the Penguins have. If the Penguins want an experienced NHL head coach, they might as well go for one who has dealt with more talent like Ron Wilson has.

John Stevens (Age: 48), Assistant Coach – Los Angeles Kings

This will always be hilarious. (Credit: kings.nhl.com)

This will always be hilarious. (Credit: kings.nhl.com)

Stevens had a long playing career, mostly in the AHL as a defensive defenseman, from 1986 to 1999. He was forced to end his career in 1999 due to an eye injury suffered while he was playing with the Philadelphia Phantoms. He stayed on with the Phantoms as an assistant coach and then became the head coach in 2000. He coached the Phantoms for six seasons, leading them to four playoff berths. His teams lost in the second round twice (both to WBS), the first round once, and his 2004-05 team won the Calder Cup.

After the 2005-06 season, Stevens was promoted to the Philadelphia Flyers as an assistant coach. He was promoted to head coach just eight games into the 2006-07 after the Flyers fired Ken Hitchcock. The Flyers struggled that year, finishing with the worst record in Flyers history and setting a couple of records for franchise futility.

There was an immediate resurgence though as the Flyers made the playoffs in each of the next two seasons under Stevens. In 2007-08, he led the team to the conference finals, where they lost to the Penguins. In 2008-09, his team ran into the Penguins again, this time losing to them in the first round. He coached the Flyers to a 13-11-1 record to start the 2009-10 season, but was fired as the Flyers were not meeting their expectations as a Stanley Cup favorite.

The following summer, the Los Angeles Kings hired him to be an assistant coach, where he has remained as a part of both of the Kings Stanley Cup Championship teams.

His NHL coaching record is 122-111-34. He led the Flyers to the playoffs in both of his full seasons, losing in the conference finals and the conference quarterfinals to Pittsburgh.

Stevens has been heavily credited for the work of the Kings penalty kill and the development of their strong defensive group (read: Doughty, Voynov, Martinez, Muzzin). Darryl Sutter has stated that he expects Stevens to be a head coach again and he acts like a head coach with the Kings. Along with that statement came rumors though. Several writers have suggested that Darryl Sutter may only remain for one or two more seasons and that the Kings would like to ideally move Stevens into that role next.

Thoughts: Stevens seems like a very promising candidate based on his work in LA and despite his lack of staying power in Philadelphia. Many, especially in this city, would suggest he ran into teams of destiny in the playoffs and he was given a surprisingly short leash in 2009-10. His tenure with the Kings speaks well to the potential development of Pittsburgh’s plethora of young defensemen, but there is a question of how much he can focus on that as a head coach. It may turn out that Stevens is just the perfect assistant coach, but he deserves another head coaching job before coming to that conclusion. Personally, I would be quite comfortable with that happening in Pittsburgh.

Ulf Samuelsson (Age: 50), Assistant Coach – New York Rangers

You may have heard of this guy. Samuelsson played over 1080 games in the NHL, mostly with the Whalers, Penguins, and Rangers, from 1984 to 2000. He is best known for several questionable hits and a gritty, “tough” brand of defensive hockey that wore down opponents quickly.

He transitioned into coaching in the mid-2000’s and was the assistant coach for the Harford Wolf Pack in 2005-06. He then moved on to the Phoenix Coyotes as an assistant in 2006. He was originally hired on Wayne Gretzky’s coaching staff and Gretzky spoke highly of his intelligence and passion for the game, suggesting he would be a great asset for young defensemen and developing prospects. Though Gretzky did not last, Samuelsson did, remaining with the Coyotes until 2011.

He then moved on to be the head coach of Modo Hockey in Sweden. Several Coyotes gave him great reviews as he left. GM Don Maloney suggested that he would return to the NHL as a head coach after his stint in Sweden and Keith Yandle also suggested he would be an NHL head coach very soon.

Samuelsson’s Modo team went 47-49-16 over two seasons and lost in the first round of the playoffs both years. He then returned to the NHL as an assistant coach for the Rangers under Alain Vigneault last season.

Much like John Stevens, Samuelsson has been in charge of developing the defense and working on the penalty kill. The PK has been a success, but it’s more difficult to judge the defense since the Rangers have a well-seasoned group to work with.

Thoughts: There would be several nice stories to this hiring with Samuelsson being a former Penguin and his son Philip in the organization. My enthusiasm ends there though. His proven success, even as an assistant, is currently lacking in comparison to all of the other candidates. He is also low on the list in terms of head coaching experience in general. Samuelsson is probably a smart hockey mind and could be a decent head coach, but he strikes me as having the lowest floor for where the Penguins could finish the season. That’s a risk that this team shouldn’t take given the age of their stars right now.

Bill Peters (Age: 48), Assistant Coach – Detroit Red Wings

I honestly know nothing about Bill Peters and thus will just quote his Red Wings bio:

“Peters is entering his second season as an assistant coach with the Red Wings. In his first season in the Motor City, Peters worked primarily with the team’s defensemen and penalty kill units. He joined the coaching staff following three seasons behind the bench of the Rockford IceHogs, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks. During his three-year tenure in Rockford, Peters compiled a 122-97-7-14 record and led the IceHogs to back-to-back 40-win seasons and consecutive Calder Cup playoff appearances in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Peters directed the second-youngest team in the AHL to a 38-33-4-5 record in 2010-11. During his time in Rockford, he helped 28 players ascend to the NHL ranks, including three members of the 2010 Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks – goalie Antti Niemi, and defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jordan Hendry.

Prior to his tenure with the IceHogs, Peters enjoyed tremendous success as a head coach at the junior level. He led the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League to a franchise record 50 wins and 107 points in 2008, and guided the Chiefs to the 2008 Memorial Cup title as champions of the Canadian Hockey League. The Chiefs defeated the Kitchener Rangers 4-1 in the championship game. In three seasons as the head coach in Spokane, Peters compiled a 111-82-10-23 record. He also served as an assistant with the Chiefs twice under current Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock, first as a midseason replacement in 1996-97 and then returning to the same position in 1999-00. Babcock and Peters led the Spokane franchise to a 47-win/100-point campaign that season, along with the WHL’s Western Conference championship.

Peters, 47, served as the head coach of the University of Lethbridge for three campaigns from 2002-05. He guided the Proghorns to one postseason appearance in his three seasons behind the bench before returning to Spokane as head coach of the Chiefs for the 2005-06 season. The Three Hills, Alberta, native also has impressive international credentials, having served as the head coach of Team Canada, which defeated Russia, 6-3, in the gold medal game at the 2008 U-18 Junior World Cup.”

Thoughts: Peters did well in the AHL and is certainly thought of highly since Mike Babcock has repeatedly looked to work with him. His inexperience at the NHL level is a concern, but perhaps for a team that is dying to have Babcock, his right-hand man is the next best bet.

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Out of that group, my preferred order would be Stevens, Wilson, Hynes, Peters, Samuelsson, Renney, Crawford. It’s clear at this point that there is no slam dunk candidate, so what’s your order?

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Thanks for reading!!  ***UPDATED: Add Willie Desjardins to the list.  Read more here.***