By Tony Fiorello, Buffalo Sports Page
The Buffalo Sabres’ firing of Ralph Krueger last week marked the fifth consecutive instance that a coach was axed by the team since Lindy Ruff was canned in 2013. He’s also the fifth straight coach to last two years or less at the helm of the hapless NHL team.
We at Buffalo Sports Page won’t go over the circumstances that led to Kreuger’s ouster – that’s been talked about ad nauseam both on this site by our colleague Budd Bailey and by other outlets. Instead, we’ll look to the future.
There are numerous bench bosses who are prospective candidates to take over the Sabres (including interim skipper Don Granato) and the first thing that general manager Kevyn Adams should look for in them is someone who can stabilize the position after years of revolving coaches. Someone who not only can connect with and develop players, but is willing to be flexible with his system, who can push buttons when necessary, can create chemistry on lines and defense pairs and is able to play the matchup game well against opposing coaches. Having prior success doesn’t hurt either.
Hiring said coach is easier said than done, of course, given Buffalo’s current predicament. But that’s up to Adams and Terry and Kim Pegula to figure out. Here are the top coaches rumored to be in the mix who match those qualifications, ranked from the least likely to be looked at by the Sabres to the most:
- Mike Hastings
Current position – head coach, Minnesota State (WCHA)
Hastings has been with the Mavericks since 2012-13, taking over a program that had just one winning season in their prior nine and turning them into a powerhouse. Despite a lack of playoff success, Hastings has compiled a record of 234-88-24 while at Minnesota State.
His win-loss record speaks for itself, but I can’t see Hastings wanting to leave a place where he has long-term security (he signed a 10-year extension in 2017) for a circus in Buffalo. He’d probably pick a place with more stability or take an AHL coaching job first.
- Scott Sandelin
Current position – head coach, Minnesota-Duluth (NCHC)
Similar to Hastings, Sandelin has been at his current post for a long time – as a matter of fact, this season is his 21st with the Bulldogs, where he’s racked up a record of 405-331-91 at the time of this writing. Sandelin has also led the school to five Frozen Four appearances and three national championships.
Also like Hastings, however, I think it’s highly unlikely that Sandelin would leave Minnesota-Duluth for just any job. Given his longstanding ties to the school, it’s likely he would stay put unless a perfect situation would arise.
- Jay Leach
Current position – head coach, Providence Bruins (AHL)
A former NHL journeyman with the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, New Jersey Devils, Montreal Canadiens and San Jose Sharks, Leach was the kind of player who shuttled between the NHL and AHL for most of his playing days. After he retired, he became an assistant coach for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins before taking over as head coach in Providence in 2017. He’s seen their winning percentage rise from .625 and .572 in his first two years behind their bench to .661 last year before the COVID-19 virus forced the cancelation of the rest of the AHL’s season, and the Bruins currently have the best record in that league’s Atlantic Division.
The simplest reason why I can’t see Leach going to Buffalo would be because of Providence’s parent club. Boston probably wouldn’t want one of their own going to a division rival, so that probably eliminates Leach from consideration here.
- Benoit Groulx
Current position – head coach, Syracuse Crunch (AHL)
The former longtime head honcho of the Gatineau Olympiques – who led them to the Memorial Cup tournament three times – Groulx coached the Rochester Americans for two years before eventually taking over as the coach of the Syracuse Crunch. Overseeing the Lightning’s prospects, Groulx has posted a record of 165-95-40 while in Syracuse and led them to a berth in the Calder Cup Final in 2017.
Groulx is likely to be on the Sabres’ radar, but he probably won’t go to Buffalo for the same reason as Leach – Buffalo and Tampa are divisional rivals. Groulx has done an excellent job developing the Bolts’ prospects and had a major hand in molding a good chunk of the Lightning’s roster that won the Stanley Cup last season.
- John Stevens
Current position – assistant coach, Dallas Stars
Stevens is coming off a year where he helped Rick Bowness and company reach the Stanley Cup Final, and previously won two Cups as an assistant to Darryl Sutter while with the Los Angeles Kings. He also had two stints as a lead bench boss in the NHL, leading the Kings and Philadelphia Flyers to a combined mark of 171-148-43.
I view Stevens as a bit of a one-hit wonder as a head coach. Besides taking a Flyers team from worst to nearly first in 2007-08 (a single-season turnaround from 56 to 95 points and an Eastern Conference Final berth), Stevens’ record has been mediocre at best. It seems as if Stevens might never elevate himself to anything more than one of the NHL’s premier assistants.
- Steve Ott
Current position – assistant coach, St. Louis Blues
After a 14-year playing career – and a 107-game stint in Buffalo where he briefly served as captain of the Sabres – Ott is now in his fourth season as an assistant with St. Louis, where he won his first Stanley Cup two years ago under Craig Berube.
His ties to the Sabres – and his playing career being not that far in the rearview mirror – could lead some to believe that Ott could be considered a candidate by Buffalo. However, my guess is that Ott will likely stay with the Blues a little bit longer before he becomes a head coach.
- Mike Babcock
Current position – NHL on NBC analyst
One of the best hockey coaches of the 21st century, Babcock is also one of the most decorated bench bosses. Aside from 700 career victories – which places him ninth all-time – Babcock is a Stanley Cup champion (having won it in 2008 with the Detroit Red Wings), taken his teams to two other Final appearances (2009 with Detroit and 2003 with Anaheim) and has won gold medals for Canada at the Olympics (2010, 2014), World Cup of Hockey (2016), IIHF World Championships (2004) and IIHF World Junior Championships (1997).
Given the controversy surrounding the treatment of his ex-players following his firing from the Toronto Maple Leafs in late 2019 and his recent lack of NHL success – Babcock hasn’t guided a team beyond a conference semifinal since ’09 – teams may be a bit leery of giving him another chance so soon. This corner believes he will get another opportunity to coach in the National Hockey League again, but just not from Buffalo.
- Luke Richardson
Current position – assistant coach, Montreal Canadiens
Richardson, widely believed to be one of the NHL’s most promising young skippers, is a former NHL defenseman who spent 21 years plying his craft with the Maple Leafs, Flyers, Lightning, Edmonton Oilers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Ottawa Senators. After his retirement Richardson spent four seasons as the Senators’ coach of their AHL affiliate in Binghamton, where he compiled a record of 153-120-31. Since then, he has spent a combined seven years as an assistant with the coaching staffs in Ottawa, the New York Islanders and in his current post with Montreal.
Like Groulx and Leach, it’s doubtful the Canadiens would let Richardson leave for a division rival in the Sabres. But stranger things have happened.
- Jacques Martin
Current position – assistant coach, New York Rangers
Martin has coached in the NHL since 1986 and has been the head man in charge with the Blues, Senators, Canadiens and Florida Panthers. The highlight of his head coaching career was leading the Sens and Habs to conference final appearances in 2003 and ’10, while also spending time as an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks, Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche, Pittsburgh Penguins (winning back-to-back Cups with them in 2016 and ’17) and now on Broadway. He also served as general manager of the Panthers from 2006-07 to ’08-’09.
One wonders if Martin has the itch to be a head coach any longer, seeing that he’s 68 and hasn’t led an NHL team since December 2011. With his credentials he could bring some respectability back to the Sabres, but he might be content working under David Quinn in New York at the moment.
- Rod Brind’Amour
Current position – head coach, Carolina Hurricanes
Wait a second, you might be saying. Brind’Amour is currently the head coach in Carolina. How could he leave for a lateral move?
Brind’Amour, or “Rod the Bod”, as some call him due to his ridiculous commitment to physical fitness, is a free agent after the 2020-21 season concludes. Having played 20 years with the Hurricanes, Flyers and Blues (winning a Cup in 2006 and reaching two other Finals in ’02 and 1997), Brind’Amour spent seven years as an assistant under Paul Maurice, Kirk Muller and Bill Peters before ascending to head coach in 2018. He led the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference Final in his first campaign and Carolina fell in the first round last summer – both times they were defeated by Boston.
Should owner Tom Dundon decide to make a change after this season, Adams could make a phone call to his old teammate to see if he’d want to come to Buffalo. They spent five years sharing the same dressing room and lifted the Cup together – making the fit a natural one.
- Scott Arniel
Current position – assistant coach, Washington Capitals
Arniel’s bounced around a bit but is known for being one of the NHL’s best assistants. Having played 11 seasons at pro hockey’s highest level – including four seasons with Buffalo from 1986-87 through ‘89-90 – he’s spent time as an assistant in Buffalo (2002-03 through ’05-06), the New York Rangers (’13-14 through ’17-18, where he was a member of the Rangers’ run to the Final in 2014) and now in Washington. He also had a 123-game stint as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets from 2010-12.
Having been around successful teams as often as he has, is it possible the Sabres could come calling for Arniel to rejoin the franchise a third time? I wouldn’t rule it out.
- Nate Leaman
Current position – head coach, Providence Friars (Hockey East)
Nate Leaman is in his 18th consecutive season leading a major school and is currently in his 10th year overseeing Providence after an eight-year stint at Union. He’s won nearly 57 percent of his games at both institutes, and his winning percentage of .612 with the Friars is the highest in the history of the program – even higher than Hockey Hall of Famer Lou Lamoriello (.578).
Leaman is also an accomplished skipper. He’s taken the Friars to the Frozen Four twice (2019, ’15) and led them to a national title in 2015. He also oversaw USA Hockey at the most recent iteration of the World Junior Championships where they captured a gold medal.
Leaman’s believed to have been a candidate for the Sabres’ coaching job before. It’s not confirmed but he may have interviewed with the team following the release of Phil Housley two years ago, and he could speak with their front office again. However, like Sandelin and Hastings, he has been at his present post for a long time and he might be picky about where he would want to go before he’d leave the comfy confines of Providence.
- John Tortorella
Current position – head coach, Columbus Blue Jackets
One of the most successful American-born coaches in hockey history, Tortorella has won virtually everywhere he’s been in the NHL (with the exception of a one-year stint coaching a declining Vancouver Canucks squad). From lifting the Lightning from expansion team status to a Stanley Cup champion, to guiding the Rangers to an Eastern Conference Final berth in 2012 and turning Columbus from also-rans to a respectable outfit, Tortorella has seen and done it all – mainly with a roster that is focused on physicality and a hard forechecking system.
The outspoken “Torts” is in a comparable situation to Brind’Amour in that he is also in the last year of his contract with Columbus. Given the Blue Jackets’ current struggles and the team’s failures to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs (except for their sweep of Tampa Bay two years ago), the franchise may look to make a change. His history with the Sabres may prod the Pegulas into giving him a chance.
- Gerard Gallant
Current position – unemployed
Except for a 142-game stint with Columbus from January 2004 to November 2006, Gallant has been very productive at every level. A gold medal winner at the 2007 World Championships and Memorial Cup winner with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL in 2011, Gallant also spent time as an assistant with the Canadiens and New York Islanders before being named the leader of Florida in 2014.
Utilizing an up-tempo approach, the Panthers posted seasons of 91 and 103 points (and a playoff appearance in 2016) before Gallant was let go after a slow start in his third year at the helm. The Panthers’ loss turned into the Vegas Golden Knights’ gain, as he was hired as their inaugural bench boss and proceeded to guide the team to the best first two years any expansion team had in any sport. A 109-point season and Stanley Cup Final appearance in their first campaign and a 93-point year with another playoff appearance seemed to ensure that Gallant would be in Vegas for years to come.
Once again, however, a slow start in his third year leading a team would cost him his job as Gallant was fired midway through last season. One would think, given his success with an expansion team, that the newly formed Seattle Kraken are taking a long look at him, but would Gallant want to take on that challenge again? Knowing that lightning isn’t likely to strike twice, he may want to coach someone else, and Buffalo could be that opportunity.
- Claude Julien
Current position – unemployed
Despite being let go by the Montreal Canadiens after a second stint with the franchise, Julien remains one of the game’s elite coaches. Julien oversaw a powerhouse in Boston – taking the Bruins to a pair of Stanley Cup Final appearances (and winning the Cup in 2011), reaching the postseason seven times over nine full seasons, recording at least 100 points in a season four times and won the President’s Trophy in 2014 as the league’s best regular season team. He was also successful outside the NHL, winning a Memorial Cup with the Hull Olympiques in 1997 and was an assistant for Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The problem with this scenario is twofold – one involving money and the other involving roster fit. Given Julien’s prior accolades, he may ask for a financial commitment from the Pegulas that they might not be willing to pony up due to their recent cost-cutting measures. Also, it seemed as if Krueger tried to take a roster that was more finesse-oriented and attempted to make it more defense-oriented. Julien’s preference everywhere he’s been – in Montreal, New Jersey and in Boston – has been to play a heavy, 200-foot game featuring a collapsing zone defense. Could this sort of approach work in Buffalo after one coach already tried to take a square peg and fit it into a round hole?
- Bruce Boudreau
Current position – NHL Network analyst
The 66-year-old Boudreau may be out of a coaching job at the moment, but he’s easily the best candidate for the Sabres – and there should be mutual interest between the two parties.
Among coaches to have been behind an NHL bench for at least nine years, Boudreau’s winning percentage is third-best in league history (behind Scotty Bowman and Tampa’s Jon Cooper) and one of the few awards missing from his resume is the Stanley Cup. Using a fast and aggressive system that lets his players be creative – and a solid defense to boot – Boudreau’s teams have had loads of success, leading him to win the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year in 2007-08 and a President’s Trophy in 2009-10.
But his one bugaboo has been the playoffs. Despite his regular season accolades, Boudreau’s rosters with Washington, Anaheim and the Minnesota Wild have gotten past the second round of postseason play just once – in 2015, a seven-game loss to Chicago. He has won a Calder Cup with the Hershey Bears in the AHL though, for what it’s worth.
Boudreau has gone on record saying that he would be interested in coaching the Sabres and given his track record, you’d think he would be near the top of Buffalo’s wish list. It all comes down to money, however. Like some of the other big names on this list, he may not be willing to take what the Pegulas offer him if they’re not willing to pay top dollar.