As the Ottawa Senators wrapped up exit interviews, many fans expected changes to come. The only real change was that Kurt Kleinendorst’s time as the head coach of Ottawa’s AHL affiliate had come to an end. It’s no secret that many fans who followed the Belleville Senators’ inaugural season were, for lack of a better term, hoping for this change to come.
Throughout the season, Coach K had been noted for continuously playing AHL veterans over NHL prospects and putting winning games over developing players. The worst part of it all was that his strategy for winning games didn’t work. While there was plenty to love off the ice - community involvement, a freshly renovated arena, and the buzz of hockey’s return to Belleville - very few followers of the team would use the word “love” when describing the on ice product. The Senators finished the season with a 29-42-2-3 record, finishing in the bottom five in both goals for and against. The Senators were also the most penalized team in the AHL and their special teams ranked similarly to that of their NHL affiliate: “Not. Good.”
While there hasn’t been an abundance of talk about who Pierre Dorion and Randy Lee will select as Belleville’s new head coach, we thought we’d take a look at the horses in the race. Below we’ve profiled a few candidates from the AHL and NCAA who might be a good fit in Belleville.
Of all the NCAA options here, Berry is likely the best. Berry was a second round pick of the Winnipeg Jets in 1983. He spent the following three seasons with the University of North Dakota before joining the Jets. While he played a mere 241 NHL games, he put together a respectable playing career across the AHL, NHL and IHL from 1985 to 1999. He quickly joined the University of North Dakota as an assistant coach, spending six seasons on the Fighting Hawks’ bench before taking an assistant coach gig with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL in 2008. By 2010, he was an NHL assistant in Columbus. In his second season with the Blue Jackets, head coach Scott Arniel was shown the door. When Berry wasn’t selected as Arniel’s successor, he returned to UND where he eventually became head coach in 2012 after the previous head coach, Dave Hakstol, was hired by the Philadelphia Flyers.
As a head coach, Berry’s track record is solid. The Fighting Hawks were NCAA champions in Berry’s first season - and he was named NCAA Coach of the Year. It doesn’t hurt that one of Berry’s freshmen that year happened to be Brock Boeser. UND placed fourth in his other two seasons behind the bench, having winning regular season records every year.
One interesting tidbit is that, under Berry, UND has placed a program-record 22 players on the NCHC Academic All-Conference Team in 2016-17. It may not be something to put too much stock into but a coach that’s able to develop his young team both on the ice and in the classroom is one I want on my bench in the AHL.
With time spent behind benches in the NCAA, AHL and NHL, Berry is a logical choice for the Senators. If you’re Berry, why wouldn’t you look at joining an organization that’s almost certainly going to have an NHL coaching vacancy by next summer?
If recent organizational changes under Eugene Melnyk’s regime will continue into this decision, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the B-Sens end up opting for an internal promotion for one of their current assistants. Both Boutilier and Cimellaro are new with the organization having only been hired within the past year, although promoting from within would ultimately be the move that saves the team the most money.
That’s not to discredit them from their past accomplishments, however, as Boutilier previously served as an assistant coach to the Thomas Chabot and the Saint John Sea Dogs for three successful seasons (1st round loss, 3rd round loss, championship title). He also has a Stanley Cup under his belt as a player, latching onto the end of the New York Islanders’ dynasty in 1983. As a coach, he was put in charge of the Sea Dogs’ defensive tactics, which found success as the Sea Dogs allowed the second least amount of goals in 2016-17, while also possessing the QMJHL’s best penalty kill. Furthermore, he’s a firm supporter of applying data and analytical thinking, serving as the Sea Dogs’ director of analytics in his time there as well.
It’s worth noting that Boutilier missed significant time last season with health concerns, so it’s difficult to judge how much of an impact he had on Belleville’s defence in his first year. Considering he wasn’t given a whole lot to work with due to Randy Lee’s poor acquisitions, I’m looking forward to see what Boutilier will be able to do with next season’s roster, whether he’s promoted to the bench boss or not.
While Cimellaro may be less likely than Boutilier for a promotion due to his newness with the organization (he was hired mid-way through the season in December), he also has ample experience working in junior hockey. He was the Kingston Frontenacs’ assistant coach for nine seasons until 2010, a particularly rough time for the organization as they failed to win a playoff round in that span. He joined Queen’s University as an assistant coach the following season, which is where he coached for seven seasons until being picked up by Belleville.
Like Boutilier, Cimellaro was put in charge of the penalty kill and defensive tactics for Queen’s. His teams put up decent PK, ranking consistently in the top half of Canadian USports, and going as high as 3rd in 2016-17. It’s again hard to judge how much of an impact he had since he came in mid-season, although considering the B-Sens didn’t improve their PK at all en route to a third-worst finish, some skepticism should be in play for both him and Boutilier.
And in case you think his name sounds vaguely familiar, he played two games for the Ottawa Senators back in their inaugural 1992-93 season.
Last spring, the Chicago Blackhawks relieved Dent of his AHL coaching duties. Dent spent 10 seasons in Rockford, five as an assistant and five as the head coach. As head coach, the IceHogs had a 223-179-33-21 record under Dent. Unfortunately, Dent’s team only managed one playoff win in five seasons. Dent’s departure from Chicago had a bit of drama attached to it, as he sent a tweet apologizing to fans after the Blackhawks traded a number of players from the IceHogs roster. The tweet was later deleted. Following his departure, he joined the Niagara Ice Dogs as an associate coach.
While the jump from an AHL head coach to an OHL associate coach is pretty large, I’d be willing to bet Dent was just looking to stay employed, rather than fall off the radar. His AHL playoff record wasn’t great, but his record of developing players who later went on to be impact players for the Blackhawks makes him an intriguing option for the bench at the Yardmen.
Wait, you mean, that Jody Hull? Yes, it’s that Jody Hull, the former Sens player who scored 34 points in the team’s inaugural season, then came back ten years later to finish out his career with Ottawa. He’s since transitioned to coaching, where he’s worked his way up with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes. He was promoted to be their head coach for the start of the 2012-13 season, and has found nothing but success. Well, until this season. The Petes made the playoffs every year from 2013 to 2017, going as far as the semifinals a year ago. However, 2017-18 quickly turned into a rebuilding year for the Petes, and Hull was fired in January.
Taking a look at the Petes’ stats under his tenure, they haven’t been spectacular in any particular area, consistently placing in the middle of the pack both offensively and defensively. The most prominent player to develop under Hull has been Nick Ritchie, who ended up being a top ten draft pick for Anaheim. Hull’s consistency as a coach, plus his familiarity with the organization, could make him an attractive option for the B-Sens.
I’ll go on the record immediately (this is Colin writing), I do not want Sylvain Lefebvre to coach the Belleville Senators. I’ll explain why in a second, although he still deserves his due diligence as a potential candidate.
First off, Lefebvre is full of experience. Starting off as a defenceman and capturing a Stanley Cup with Colorado in 1996, he later transitioned to coaching with the Cleveland Monsters, who were at the time the AHL affiliate to the Avalanche. He quickly turned his assistant position there to an assistant position in the NHL, where the Avs only qualified for the playoffs once. He then left for his first head coaching gig with the Montreal Canadiens’ AHL affiliate, a position he’s held since his firing last month.
In his six seasons, he missed the playoffs five times, with the sixth season simmering out in the first round. He’s seen through the development of players such as Sven Andrighetto, Charles Hudon and Nikita Scherbak, although as our friends at Habs Eyes on the Prize have pointed out, his systems and development philosophies have been inexcusable. He’s exhibited the same traits that led Kleinendorst to his demise — burying prospects, relying too much on washed up vets, the whole nine yards. Despite having the AHL’s leading scorer on their roster this season and one of the top scoring defencemen, the Laval Rocket still managed to finish dead last in the AHL.
Although he should be the clear weak link on the list, Randy Lee may be attracted to his experience. He displays many of the same traits that previously hired coaches have shown, so maybe their hiring process will continue to exhibit the same flaws.
Madigan is currently the head coach of the Northeastern Huskies in the NCAA’s Hockey East. At the age of 55, the Montreal-born hockey coach has an impressive commitment to the Huskies on his resume. After spending four seasons as a player in the 80’s, he joined the coaching staff as an assistant after his senior year. He’s been at Northeastern ever since. Having spent time as an assistant coach, the Director of Athletic Development and as the Associate Dean, amongst other roles, Madigan took over the men’s hockey team as head coach in 2011. With a 120-106-32 regular season record, Madigan seems to know what he’s doing. The only issue so far is his playoff success leaves much to be desired. Most of Madigan’s team’s have placed around 5th or 6th, with the exception of last year’s second place group.
For Madigan, a move to the AHL seems like the logical next step. He’s spent plenty of time working on his craft at the NCAA level. The only issue that may stand in the way is that Madigan signed an extension in September 2017 and it doesn’t expire until 2021. We don’t know the details of the contract but there’s always a possibility that an out clause exists. However, this detail may be too big of a road block for the Senators to manoeuvre for a coach that doesn’t have an exceptional playoff record.
Immediately after the firing of Kleinendorst, people started pointing at Mann as a potential replacement. Not only is he strongly connected to the Sens by being the older brother of Ottawa’s director of amateur scouting Trent Mann, but he has a strong track record of coaching in the AHL. For the past four seasons he’s served as coach of the Hershey Bears (affiliates to the Washington Capitals), although they parted ways after they decided to not renew his contract.
As a franchise with Mann manning their bench, the Bears have twice fallen in the second round and once in the Finals. 2017-18 was less successful, as their 30-37-9 record was the franchise’s worst since 1992-93 — granted, they’ve been one of the AHL’s most successful franchises for a while. He’s able to bring the best out of his players, although my only concern is that he hasn’t worked with as many prospects. The Bears have earned their success through finding and signing top notch veterans, whereas the Capitals have had a bit of a strained prospect pool due to their NHL roster being in a competitive window. There have still been some recent graduates such as Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson, although with a large influx of young talent coming into the AHL for Ottawa, it may present some new challenges for Mann should he be hired.
You may recognize Nelson’s name as the guy who took over for Dallas Eakins in Edmonton. Or perhaps because his Grand Rapids Griffins won the Calder Cup last season. In fact, in all of Nelson’s non-NHL coaching seasons, his team has yet to miss the playoffs. The Prince Albert native is one of three people to have won the Calder Cup as a player, assistant coach and head coach. Fun fact!
Anyways, Nelson is a long shot. His next gig is more likely to be in the NHL, but the Senators should absolutely be sliding into his DMs with a job offer. Craig Custance recently posted about Nelson’s future (paywall) and it seems pretty likely that 2017 Calder Cup winning coach will have his fair share of offers from clubs for an Assistant Coach position. That being said, towards the end of the post, Nelson admits moving to another organization where he can be more visible is another option for him. Where would he be more visible than in Belleville, where the questions marks in Ottawa are endless and if Boucher’s Senators don’t come out flying, Nelson could be on the next train in.
There are many factors to take into consideration when selecting a new head coach but, for us, a focus on prospect development is pretty much all it takes to ace that interview. The Senators need a coach who will give Filip Gustavsson and Marcus Hogberg the net to start the season, without flip flopping either of them to the ECHL. More than that, the Senators need a coach who will favour the Filip Chlapik’s and Logan Brown’s of the team over the AHL lifers who have hit their ceiling. Whichever candidate can put the NHL prospects in the best position to succeed - by giving them ice time - should be the top candidate.
If we’re putting money on it, the family connection of Mann probably has him as the favourite, regardless of his coaching experience or philosophies.
After all, the Senators have a track record of tripping over themselves to add a player with a local connection so why wouldn’t they do the same with a coach?