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Looking For Mr. Right

As of this morning, the Washington Capitals are one of four NHL teams with a head coaching vacancy. It’s the second time in three years that the Capitals are dealing with an offseason opening behind their bench.


Vancouver, Florida and Carolina are also seeking their next coaches, and Pittsburgh seems likely to make a change behind its bench between now and the start of next season, too. The Caps and Nashville were the only NHL teams with a head coaching opening when the team relieved Adam Oates of his duties late last month, but three more teams have followed suit since.


The guy behind the bench for the Capitals when the 2014-15 NHL season gets underway will be the 17th man to occupy that position. Ex-Caps general manager George McPhee hired the last five Capitals coaches, and all five of them were first-time coaches in the NHL. But that’s a trend that pre-dates McPhee’s term in the District; 12 of Washington’s 16 coaches were first-time hires at the NHL level. The Caps once had a run of six straight first-time NHL head coaches, starting with Tom McVie in 1975 and running through Terry Murray in 1994.


Washington’s current situation is a bit different from that of Vancouver, Florida and Carolina. The Caps are also seeking their next general manager. Vancouver and Carolina recently made changes at their GM position, and those GMs – Jim Benning in Vancouver and Ron Francis in Carolina – are now in the process of hiring their first head coaches.


Seventeen summers ago, Darcy Regier was hired to serve as the GM of the Buffalo Sabres. It was his first GM post after having served in the hockey operations department of the New York Islanders and having been an assistant coach with Hartford.


With New York, Regier was able to work under GM Bill Torrey and coach Al Arbour, two of the men largely responsible for the Isles’ dynasty that claimed four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83.


In Jason Farris’ excellent 2011 book on NHL general managers “Behind The Moves,” Regier talked about how he went about hiring Lindy Ruff to coach the Sabres in the summer of 1997.


“I was fortunate enough to be in the Islander organization and watch Bill Torrey and Al Arbour’s relationship. … I saw those guys work together, and for me, that represented just a very natural, realistic relationship. I viewed that as a strength relative to what other teams were doing. … So when I was hired [in Buffalo], I probably naively just said, ‘Well, that’s how we’ll do things here.’ Knock on wood, that’s how Lindy [Ruff] and I have worked together. [A GM hiring a coach] is a big decision, an enormous decision. … I asked Al [Arbour], ‘What do you think I should do?’ Al said, ‘You’re young. Hire someone young so the two of you can grow together.’” (Farris, Behind The Moves, pg. 146)


When the Capitals hired McPhee that same summer, they already had a coach [Ron Wilson] in place. McPhee and Wilson were introduced to the Washington media as the Capitals’ new GM/coach tandem on June 9, 1997. The Caps hired Wilson to coach the team while the search for a GM was ongoing. They did so because they believed that if they waited, they might miss out on the services of Wilson, who was clearly the best coach available that summer and one who wasn’t expected to be available when the 1996-97 season concluded.


In each of the last two instances in which Washington had a summertime vacancy at the head coach position, more than a month passed before a replacement was hired. The Caps announced on April 26 that McPhee and Oates would not be returning next season


Ron Wilson was relieved of his coaching duties on May 10, 2002. Bruce Cassidy was hired on June 25, 2002. Dale Hunter left the Caps’ employment on May 14, 2012 and Adam Oates was hired to replace him on June 26, 2012.


Only four coaches of the 16 in the team’s history were hired during the offseason: Jimmy Anderson, Wilson, Cassidy and Oates.


Anderson was the team’s first head coach; he took over a team that had no players and had yet to take the ice. Hired on May 31, 1974, Anderson inked a two-year deal for a reported salary of $60,000 per season. Just under two weeks later, Caps general manager Milt Schmidt conducted the expansion draft on June 12, 1974, getting some players for Anderson to coach.


It’s probably a good thing the Caps hired Anderson on May 31 of that year. If they had waited until June 13, Anderson likely would have turned the job down.


As of the end of last season, a total of 351 coaches have served in the NHL.  The average career length of a coach is 3.95 seasons, and that includes all stops made by those coaches who served more than one team.


Only 51 of those 351 men have done what they set out to do: win the Stanley Cup.


Scotty Bowman holds the NHL record for regular season games coached; he was behind the bench for 2,141 games, 534 more than the second guy on the list (Arbour).


Three men coached in only one game, including Washington’s Roger Crozier. Crozier holds the unique distinction of being the only man to serve the Capitals as player (three games), coach (one game) and GM (less than one season).


Only 124 of those 351 NHL head coaches (35%) coached more than one team. That means that nearly two-thirds of all NHL coaches are hired one time to coach one team, and that’s it for the coaching career at this level.


Six of the Capitals’ 16 head coaches went on to NHL employment after their bench work in the District was done: Tom McVie, Bryan Murray, Terry Murray, Schoenfeld, Wilson and Bruce Boudreau.


Red Sullivan, Schmidt, Schoenfeld and Wilson are the four Caps coaches who had prior experience in the league before landing in Washington.


So, who’s it going to be this time, and when will the announcement be made? I have no answers to either of those questions.


Instead, I’ll leave you with another quote from the Farris tome, this one from Bud Poile, father of ex-Caps GM David Poile. The elder Poile played in the NHL, coached in the minor leagues and served as the first-ever GMs of both the Philadelphia Flyers and the Vancouver Canucks. Here are Poile’s thoughts on coaching versus managing:


“Coaching is the cream of the business. When I took over [as Philadelphia Flyers GM], I had all I could handle just building it up. I felt I had to turn the coaching over to someone else. But I’d rather coach than manage any day. As a coach, I looked forward to every game. As a manager, you miss some games and the games blend into each other. You’re off at a distance planning the war, instead of being in the trenches with the men fighting the battles. As a manager, you have all the suffering the coach has, but can’t do as much about it. I take defeat harder than most men, but I never minded the suffering. The ups wouldn’t mean as much if you didn’t have the downs.” (Farris, Behind The Moves, pg. 65)