Buffalo Sabres: Who Will Their Next Head Coach Be?
The Buffalo Sabres and general manager Tim Murray have begun the team's first head coaching search since Lindy Ruff was hired before the 1997-98 season.
The circumstances surrounding this search are a bit different than the one that occurred in the summer of 1997.
The biggest difference is where the team stands.
Ruff inherited a team that had won the Northeast Division the prior season and lost in the second round to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia Flyers. Ted Nolan also won the Jack Adams Trophy, honoring the league's best head coach, in 1996-97.
A spat with the front office, however, led to Nolan not being offered another contract and the Sabres landing Ruff.
This time, the Sabres are fresh off of their second-straight 30th-place finish. Nolan was officially fired this time around and Murray is conducting his first-ever NHL head coaching search. The new head coach isn't necessarily walking into a playoff-ready roster like Ruff did, but there's a ton of promise.
Who will that promise lure behind the bench?
As if things couldn't get any weirder this season, the fact that a head coach is by far and away the most coveted free agent cements things.
There has been talk about Babcock leaving Detroit since last offseason and, now that its season has ended, the speculation has hit a fever pitch. With the Sabres one of four teams currently without a head coach and four others potentially looking for one soon, Babcock has a lot of options.
His team's performance against Tampa Bay may be earning him even more praise in light of Montreal's struggles with the Bolts during this second round, and may, in turn, boost his price tag.
Babcock has had his share of superstars in Detroit, but it's his work with the players who aren't that helps make Detroit a playoff team every year. He also can adjust his team's game plan to its benefit whenever it's needed.
Detroit finished 10th in the NHL in goals per game this season, but played a much more defensive game against the Lightning, which allowed the Wings to push the series to seven games.
The biggest question surrounding Babcock is whether or not he leaves Detroit—and whether the Sabres can entice him to come—a question that could be answered soon.
In most other years, Todd McLellan would be the No. 1 free agent coach, but he's relegated to the second spot with Babcock being potentially available.
But McLellan certainly is garnering a ton of interest.
As it stands, the Sabres, per the Associated Press, have indicated that McLellan is a candidate for their position, and he has also reportedly met with the Oilers both before and after their hire of Peter Chiarelli.
McLellan's list of possible destinations is likely to grow as the offseason progresses, and it's easy to see why.
While he has been cast in a negative light, given the Sharks' struggles in the playoffs, the reverse sweep last year against Los Angeles was essentially the last nail in his coffin. Yet that does not diminish the offensive dominance his Sharks teams had during his tenure.
McLellan got a ton out of his bottom-six forwards and usually made it work with not much on the defensive end. In other words, he'd likely already be in a better spot defensively with the Sabres than he was most years in San Jose.
The biggest question mark with McLellan is his ability to develop young players. The Sharks were stocked with veteran talent when he took over and he was able to surround his younger players with that talent. Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski both became integral parts of McLellan's Sharks teams, but were they the beneficiaries of playing with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau? That's a question requiring an answer before he is entrusted with the Sabres' youth.
Dan Bylsma has had a year off from an NHL coaching job, but it's unlikely he'll get a second.
Bylsma was let go from his position as the Pittsburgh Penguins head coach after they fired general manager Ray Shero last offseason.
Bylsma's tenure began extremely well, with a Stanley Cup win in his first half-season in Pittsburgh, but after a few more deep playoff runs, the team seemed to fall flat. Whether that had more to do with Shero's inability to find him a bottom-six forward group with which to work or Bylsma's coaching is the big debate, but his coaching certainly took some hits down the stretch last year, especially in the Olympics.
Bylsma certainly got results early in his Pens career, especially when either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin were out of the lineup.
If you haven't heard the name Luke Richardson before, expect to hear it a lot more between now and whenever the Sabres hire a coach.
Richardson has been regularly linked to the Sabres job during the season because of his connection to Murray, who functioned as the GM for the AHL's Binghamton Senators while he was in Ottawa, the team Richardson currently coaches.
It's logical that everyone would christen Richardson as "Murray's guy," and it has been confirmed by the Associated Press that the Sabres want to talk with Richardson about the position. The only reason that Richardson has been deemed Murray's "guy" is because Murray hasn't been around long enough as a GM to have multiple favorites.
Despite the realization that he's not the only candidate Murray could have ever possibly talked to, Richardson has done an excellent job developing players in the Ottawa system. The play down the stretch of youngsters such as Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Matt Borowiecki helped Ottawa make the playoffs this year, and Richardson was the one tasked to get them ready for the NHL.
It's no secret that's what the Sabres need and want in a new head coach, so Richardson has the inside track in that regard, yet his inexperience at the NHL level could be an issue.
Despite that, Ken Warren of the Ottawa Sun reports that Richardson is ready and willing to listen to NHL offers, so there's a good chance he'll get one from Buffalo.
If there were a dark horse in the process, Jeff Blashill may be the best candidate for the title.
But any talk with Blashill is currently, and could be indefinitely, in a holding pattern for two reasons.
First, he coaches the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins, the Red Wings' top affiliate, and they have advanced to the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. He certainly won't be taking any interviews while his boys work for a second Calder Cup under his watch.
The second, and potentially more intriguing, reason is that he is almost certainly the successor for the Red Wings post if Babcock were to leave. Blashill signed an extension last offseason and it seems that was done to keep him in the fold in case Detroit's current situation presented itself.
As long as it's assumed that if Babcock leaves Blashill takes the Red Wings job, it seems that Blashill would only be available if Babcock stays in Detroit.
In the event that the assumption is wrong or Babcock stays put, Blashill is seen as the clone of Jon Cooper, the current Tampa Bay Lightning coach. Blashill is essentially a developer who knows how to manage a game and a roster as well, qualities that could be perfect for a Sabres roster in need of much development.
Even Blashill's purported lack of experience could be a non-factor given his Calder Cup win.
The biggest negative surrounding Blashill is probably Buffalo's slim odds of landing him.
Other Coaching Options
There are plenty of other recognizable names on the coaching market this year.
Paul MacLean, the former Ottawa Senators coach, was fired 27 games into this season. He has obvious connections to Murray, having coached in Ottawa, so depending on Murray's impression he could be a strong candidate.
Randy Carlyle, fired by the Maple Leafs after 40 games, is known as a disciplinarian, but has won a Stanley Cup. That Cup win came with an Anaheim team Murray helped construct while he was the Director of Player Personnel. It's unlikely that he would be the choice, but he has talked to San Jose about its opening.
Peter DeBoer, also fired this season by New Jersey, is a defensive-minded coach who could potentially fix the Sabres' possession problems. However, his style probably does not mesh with the roster Murray is building. DeBoer has also made the Stanley Cup Playoffs only once in his six-plus seasons in the NHL, albeit losing in the Final to the Kings.
Other names to keep an eye on, at least for the purpose of interviews, include Guy Boucher, Peter Horachek and Dallas Eakins.
Three names not included elsewhere in this list, due to the uncertainty surrounding their futures, are Claude Julien, Dave Tippett, and Todd Nelson.
Julien is awaiting word on his future as the Boston Bruins looks for a new GM, but he would be a fit with the Sabres' roster.
Tippett apparently has an out in his contract with Arizona, but there has not been much news regarding that since the end of the season. Tippett has shown that he's an excellent coach with the Coyotes, but he might not be available in time.
Nelson is also in limbo, much like Julien. He did an admirable job with the Oilers after Eakins was fired, but it would make a lot of sense if Edmonton kept him in the fold in some capacity.
Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all offseason: @mattclouden.