Four teams entered the coronavirus-induced suspension of the NHL season with interim head coaches, and one of those clubs, the Devils, was also operating with an interim general manager when the (sports) world spun off its axis.
The prospect of resuming 2019-20 in any form grows more unrealistic by the hour even if the folks at the league office and the players scattered across the globe remain determined to get back onto the ice if it is all feasible. There is serious money at stake (As if that is unique to the NHL and its affiliated employees).
Even as we suffer and sacrifice through this coronavirus nightmare, there is business to be done. Those teams seeking new head coaches have an opportunity to take advantage of this unwelcome hiatus to get out in front of the game and get their first choice now before it becomes a free-for-all in an undefined offseason.
Yes, Calgary (Geoff Ward) and Minnesota (Dean Evason) would probably both be in the playoffs if the league were to reopen with an expanded tournament format. That could create some complications for those respective franchises if they were to hire replacements, but hardly insurmountable and likely worthwhile.
I mean, if either of these teams wants, say, Peter Laviolette to be behind the bench next year, wouldn’t it stand to reason to have him in place now so he could get a head start and coach the playoffs?
There should, however, be nothing standing in the way of the Devils hiring a new GM now if they are not committed to giving interim man Tom Fitzgerald the job on a permanent basis. I’m good with Fitzgerald, whose work in conjunction with advisor Martin Brodeur following Ray Shero’s Jan. 12 dismissal stabilized the operation. The approach to the trade deadline was judicious and the returns for Blake Coleman, Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen were impressive. The Devils could build with Fitzgerald.
But it’s a big job in New Jersey, one that myriad voices from around the league view as a very difficult one in light of the demands placed on the GM by the Josh Harris-David Blitzer ownership. If ownership is looking elsewhere, then the sooner the better for bringing in the new man so he can assimilate into the organization, get an early handle on the personnel and get a jump on hiring a new coach (if interim Alain Nasreddine is not retained) and on the draft.
Remember this, too. If there is some bastardized Stanley Cup tournament that runs into August, the offseason will be abbreviated and chaotic. Organizations might have a four- or six-week turnaround. Why would you want to be engaged in searching for a GM or coach under those conditions?
Slap Shots has learned that New Jersey ownership has in fact looked elsewhere. League sources report former Vancouver GM Mike Gillis has been interviewed twice, both times believed to have been before the March 12 shutdown.
Gillis has the gravitas and the résumé. His six years as the Canucks’ GM from 2008-09 through 2013-14 produced/coincided with the most successful era in the franchise’s 50-year-history. The club won division titles the first five years and advanced to the 2011 Cup final that the Bruins captured with a Game 7 victory in Vancouver. There were mistakes along the way: The Roberto Luongo contract became an albatross around the franchise’s neck, the Luongo-Cory Schneider goaltending situation became a mess, the team adopted a victim’s mentality and then the whole thing imploded in 2013-14 after the shotgun wedding between Gillis and John Tortorella forced upon the GM by the Aquilini ownership. When the Canucks missed the playoffs that season, both men were summarily fired.
It is unknown whether Gillis, who has always been a progressive thinker, is the leading or lone candidate for the job in New Jersey. But unless there are others currently under contract with other clubs who would therefore be unavailable for interview until this season is officially over, there is no reason not to get ahead of the game and hire Gillis immediately.
Unless, that is, “Misters Harris and Blitzer” just wouldn’t want to start paying his salary now.
So I was checking save percentages for the season to scope out the correlation between bad goaltending, bad teams and coaching firings and, lo and behold, someone please explain to me how the Capitals have the fourth-worst save percentage overall and the eighth-worst at five-on-five, yet have the fifth-best record in the NHL.
That has me thinking this might not be the most opportune time for Braden Holtby, who has the fifth-worst overall save percentage in the NHL with a 1980s-ish .897, to go on the open market as a free agent.
Then again the Sharks, whose last two seasons were undermined by dreadful netminding and who rank next-to-last in overall save percentage and last at five-on-five, may feel differently.
This idea of a tournament among bottom-feeders to determine the order at the top of the draft seems a lot more romantic than it actually would be. Because, right, folks will flock to a series of games in August featuring a string of matchups involving the Red Wings, Senators, Kings and Ducks.
Up to a third of these players won’t be on these teams next season, so what motivation would they have?
Indeed, in 1983-84, when the Devils needed to lose just about every game in order to finish last overall and thus be in position to select Mario Lemieux first overall, coach Tom McVie used that as a rallying cry to inspire his veterans to win.
“He’s going to take your job,” McVie would say to the group whose job security was threatened enough by the record of 17-56-7.
When the Devils missed out on Lemieux by three points, McVie lost his job.