After three seasons of no playoffs and no finishes higher than 12th in the Eastern Conference, Kirk Muller's days as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes may be approaching their end.
Ron Francis is expected to take over the general manager position from Jim Rutherford before the end of April and get the ball rolling on the sweeping generational transition anticipated throughout the Hurricanes organization.
For Muller and fellow assistant coaches John MacLean and Dave Lewis, the coming weeks could spell the end of the road.
But who would replace each of the three—and particularly Muller—behind the bench?
While the current NHL head coach market doesn't boast any household names (like Lindy Ruff in 2013), the selection of prospective coaches is surprisingly intriguing and promising.
Whether Francis and Co. seek an experienced former NHL coach, up-and-coming assistant or perennially successful minor league coach, their choices will be plentiful.
A compilation of seven qualified and intriguing candidates, and an analysis of the experience and success of each, lies below.
Barry Trotz said an emotional goodbye to Nashville earlier this month after it was announced that the Predators would not renew his coaching contract this summer. Trotz, 51, had spent all 15 years of his NHL coaching career with the team; likewise, the Preds had employed him as coach for all 15 years of their existence.
But now, after one final classy move in last Sunday's Tennessean, it is time for Trotz to find a new job.
No one expects it will take long.
Working with another small-market, Southern franchise operating below the salary cap and with some of the poorest offensive talent in the league, Trotz has qualified Nashville for the playoffs in seven of the last 10 seasons and topped 100 points in four of the last nine seasons.
Four Hurricanes forwards made more in 2013-14 than the Predators' top-paid forward, yet Nashville averaged 2.61 goals per game to Carolina's 2.50.
Simply put, Trotz has given a club very similar to the 'Canes the very success that Carolina has longed for ever since the 2006 Stanley Cup title. And despite ranking 14th all time in NHL games coached, Trotz is only 51—the exact same age as his potential future boss Ron Francis.
The Hurricanes have formed connections all over the Sutter family in recent years. They could add yet another with former Calgary Flames coach Brent Sutter this offseason.
Sutter made it to the first round but lost in both 2007-08 and 2008-09 with New Jersey, then missed the postseason three straight campaigns with Calgary before parting ways.
Also age 51 and the father of former 'Cane Brandon Sutter, Sutter did, however, hit the 90-point plateau on all three occasions with a Flames roster that overachieved just to get to that milestone.
After coaching the Canadian world junior team in 2013-14, Sutter could be itching for another opportunity behind an NHL bench.
Guy Boucher, then just 39, became a sensation of the coaching universe when he led the Tampa Bay Lightning to a dramatic Eastern Conference Final appearance in his first season as an NHL head coach in 2010-11.
After a 2011-12 campaign of just 84 points and a 13-17-1 start to the 2012-13 season, however, Boucher was canned by the Bolts. Plagued by terrible goaltending and an underperforming offense, the Lightning turned toward a new star in Jon Cooper.
In January, Boucher signed a coaching contract through 2015-16 with SC Bern of the Swiss National League; Bern finished the year 23-27 and missed the playoffs. Nonetheless, if an NHL job becomes available, there's little doubt he'll happily leave Switzerland to snatch it.
Current Los Angeles Kings assistant and rising hot name in the coaching market, John Stevens, 47, has orchestrated much of the Kings' defensive steadfastness over the past four seasons. He has a shiny Stanley Cup ring as evidence.
Often conveniently forgotten, however, is Stevens' tenure as Flyers head coach. Philadelphia won just 21 games (the same as the 2013-14 Sabres) under Stevens in 2006-07, then lost in the first round with one of the league's most stacked teams in 2008-09. The New Brunswick native was fired the following autumn.
While Stevens' name is sure to generate plenty of buzz, Carolina should be cautious about promoting directly from an assistant position in a very different organization.
A little-known coach to keep an eye on this summer—whether in Carolina or elsewhere—will be Jeff Blashill. He's only 40, got his first head coaching job at any level as recently as 2008 (in the USHL) and has been a smashing success in his first two seasons coaching at the professional level.
Blashill led the Grand Rapids Griffins, AHL affiliate of the Red Wings, to a Calder Cup title last spring with 42-26-8 regular season and 16-9 postseason records.
Entering the 2014 playoffs, Grand Rapids is coming off an even better campaign (46-23-7, the fourth-most wins in the AHL), and Blashill is enjoying another piece of hardware as the AHL coach of the year. A whopping 13 players from Blashill's 2013 squad (including Gustav Nyquist, who scored 28 goals in 57 NHL games) missed AHL time skating for Detroit this season, yet the Griffins posted another spectacular record.
Last June, Peter Wallner of MLive.com reported that Blashill did have interest in eventually moving on to an NHL job. "But I don’t go out seeking opportunities. I haven’t. If I do the best job I can, and we have success, things will take care of themself," Blashill said.
Blashill could be a brilliant add for a Ron Francis looking to lead the Hurricanes in a fresh direction.
The Hurricanes organization has always had strong ties with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL—Justin Williams, Brett Bellemore, Justin Peters, Chad LaRose and Michal Jordan all came out of Plymouth at one point.
Mike Vellucci, head coach of the Whalers since 2001, entered 2013-14 with four Western Conference first-place finishes and zero sub-.500 records in his last eight seasons. He had produced five first-round picks, including 2010 No. 2 Tyler Seguin, the past four seasons. But Plymouth posted their worst season ever this year, going 28-33-7 and putting a severe dent in Vellucci's NHL coaching prospects.
Possibility remains, though. Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos raved about Vellucci, 47, to the Detroit Free Press in May 2013 (h/t to Cardiac Cane for the find), and Hockey Night in Canada insider Mark Seidel tweeted this last week:
Vellucci could be among a number of less-publicized, legitimate candidates for the Hurricanes' head coaching job if Muller is indeed fired.
When Paul Maurice was fired in Nov. 2011, creating the vacancy eventually filled by Muller, Jim Rutherford reportedly discussed the opening first with AHL coach Jeff Daniels.
Three years later, Daniels has more experience under his belt and remains a very involved voice in the franchise with prospect development and call-up decisions.
But has the 45-year-old done well enough in the minors to warrant a promotion? The Charlotte Checkers' second-half run in 2013-14 fizzled late, eventually missing the AHL playoffs by six points; Daniels has a respectable but fairly unremarkable 204-147-37 record (52.6 percent winning percentage) the last five years with Albany/Charlotte.
Daniels could be a dark horse for the Hurricanes' potential vacancy this summer, but such a decision would be a risky one regardless.