Willie Desjardins of AHL’s Texas Stars is one of the best coaches not currently in the NHL (Photo: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
The common thought among Capitals fans is that the team’s new coach must have NHL experience. The Caps last five hires — Adam Oates, Dale Hunter, Bruce Boudreau, Glen Hanlon, and Bruce Cassidy — were all rookie head coaches. This time around, names like Barry Trotz and John Stevens are getting a lot of buzz, whereas Willie Desjardins and Phil Housley are getting little.
Experience matters. All other things being equal, you should hire the guy with more experience, but that does not mean the Caps should discount what a rookie coach might bring. Because if a coach’s best quality is his experience, that’s not a great sign.
Say you’re an executive looking to hire somebody. One job candidate has experience in the same position as one of your competitors (where he got fired, which is important). The other one works in a similar position at a smaller company or maybe he has a lesser position with one of your competitors. The second guy doesn’t have experience in a company like yours, but if he has better ideas, more skills, and fits in better with your company’s philosophy, you’d certainly hire him.
Just like with players, a rookie coach just out of the AHL or juniors can produce better results than a veteran of many seasons. Recent NHL history proves that.
I’m not saying a rookie coach is necessarily a better fit, but I don’t think experience is crucial to NHL success. AHL coaches and NHL assistants aren’t just riff-raff; they’ve got this far in their careers for a reason. If you have evidence that a rookie coach can get results, would you dismiss that just to get more experience?
Among Jack Adams candidates this year you’ve got Patrick Roy, who turned the 29th place Avalanche into a division winner, and Jon Cooper, who finished second in the division despite missing his superstar player for 45 games. Also having a strong showing behind the bench was Craig Berube, who turned around the season of the Philadelphia Flyers following the firing of Peter Laviolette. All three are first-time head coaches in their first year in the NHL.
Of the last eight Stanley Cup-winning coaches, three were first-time hires in the NHL (if you don’t count John Tortorella’s four-game-long stint as an interim with the Rangers in 2000-2001). Torts won the Stanley Cup in his fourth year as an NHL bench boss. Winning it all took two seasons for Randy Carlyle and less than one full year for Dan Bylsma.
Experience isn’t the secret ingredient to turn a mediocre team into a winner. Check out the Dallas Stars. New GM Jim Nill hired Lindy Ruff, who had spent 15 seasons with the Sabres, by far the most experienced coach available when the Stars made a change. In the first year of his tenure, he turned Stars from just-out-of-the-playoffs team to just-in-the-playoffs team who suffered a predictable defeat at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks. Would Caps fans be content with a first-round exit at this point?
Considering how many rookie coaches have succeeded in the NHL, it seems like the Caps’ mistake in hiring Oates and Hunter was more connected to McPhee’s weakness in forecasting and the team’s desire to hype the franchise with big names than to some systemic problem with first-time coaches.
Should two unsuccessful coaching hires by an ex-general manager disqualify all rookie coaches for the position? I don’t think so.
If Caps’ own history is important, than we should note that the only two Jack Adams winners in franchise history, Bryan Murray and Bruce Boudreau, were first-time NHL head coaches.
At the end of the day, experience won’t help if the coach’s philosophy clashes with players ability. We saw that in Vancouver last season. John Tortorella has a decade of experience, eight postseason appearances, and his name on the Cup. Like the Post’s John Feinstein said of GMGM’s hirings, Tortorella to Vancouver “appeared to make sense,” but that experience didn’t get the Canucks into the playoffs, and it ultimately cost general manager Mike Gillis his job.
Coaching experience is important, for sure, but the substance behind the coach is what truly matters.