NHL assistant coaches take leap into the unknown
When Kirk Muller decided not to return as an assistant for the St. Louis Blues, he started considering his next move. Before Muller could even start planning, interested NHL teams kept calling.
Todd Richards has had plenty of time to plot his next adventure after the Columbus Blue Jackets fired him as their head coach in October. Still, he had options to consider.
Muller landed a job as associated coach for the Montreal Canadiens and Richards decided to join the Tampa Bay Lightning as an assistant as part of a bevy of moves over the past two weeks. With the Stanley Cup Final winding to its conclusion, it’s the time of year for potential assistant coaches to play musical chairs, and several took the tracks less traveled for new adventures.
“There’s something about relationships in the business that we’re in and knowing what to expect when you go in,” Richards said. “But I think there’s something about going in and being completely different and new.”
Richards could have easily rejoined old colleague Dan Bylsma in Buffalo, and Muller could have stayed in St. Louis to await a head-coaching job in a year when Ken Hitchcock departs. Scott Stevens left his comfort zone on the East Coast to join Bruce Boudreau’s staff in Minnesota because it was the fit he wanted.
The Buffalo Sabres have two vacancies after Dave Barr took a job with the Florida Panthers, and the Detroit Red Wings hired former Wild interim coach John Torchetti to fill the spot left by Tony Granato when he went to the University of Wisconsin.
Muller’s decision to go back to Montreal, where he served as captain during his playing career and began coaching as an assistant, stood out because he didn’t even think about interviewing for head jobs with the Anaheim Ducks or Calgary Flames. One phone call from Canadiens coach Michel Therrien was enough to convince Muller that it was the place he wanted to be.
“I didn’t really even evaluate what was out there,” said Muller, who hadn’t worked for Therrien before. “I love the opportunity of what was there in Montreal. ... That’s the reason I didn’t try to pursue any head-coaching jobs because I didn’t feel that I needed to.”
Muller spent parts of three seasons as coach of the Carolina Hurricanes and at 50 is still considered head-coaching material. That’s why when Therrien spoke to Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin, he told him: “Make sure you close the deal because this is exactly what we need.”
Richards, also likely to get another head job after stints with the Wild and Blue Jackets, could be just what the Lightning need as a new voice under Jon Cooper. He had no previous relationship with Cooper, GM Steve Yzerman or associate coach Rick Bowness but heard great things from about the organization from the people he respects around hockey.
“I still had to make the decision because there was another team that was available, and it was really tough,” Richards said. “Once I made the decision, I felt that it was right for me and what I want and what I need. I’m looking forward to going down to a team that is definitely on the upswing of the curve. They’ve had lots of success, made the Stanley Cup Final and conference finals and I think that it’s a team that’s set to win in the future.”
Muller’s old team, St. Louis, is set to win more in the near future, too. That could lead them to hire former Wild coach Mike Yeo as the coach-in-waiting after Hitchcock.
Stevens, who played for the Blues almost 30 years ago, could also have a future as an NHL head coach. The Hall of Fame defenseman was co-coach of the Devils for a stretch of the 2013-14 season before working at NHL Network for the past year, and Boudreau was thrilled just to have the chance to talk to him.
Boudreau and Stevens didn’t know each other before, either, but a three-hour conversation about coaching and defensive philosophies made them agree this would be a good partnership.
“I really liked his vision and how he coaches,” Stevens said. “I look to learn a lot from Bruce, also, while I work with him. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”