The NHL‘s coaching carousel has been turning for a while now, but with the draft just two weeks away, there’s finally been some real traction.
To quickly recap the major developments since the Red Wings fired Jeff Blashill: The Islanders made a shocking decision to move on from Barry Trotz, and the Bruins followed suit by parting with longtime coach Bruce Cassidy; the Golden Knights quickly scooped up Cassidy after parting ways with Pete DeBoer, who promptly latched on in Dallas; the Flyers hired John Tortorella; and the Panthersfresh off a Presidents’ Trophy (but also a second-round exit) under interim coach Andrew Brunette, have decided to instead hand over the keys to Paul Maurice.
Meanwhile, the Red Wings … well, they’re still on the hunt.
Steve Yzerman’s tight-lipped ship has kept just about all of Detroit’s search out of the public eye. That’s still the case. But now that some of the big names have started signing, and with the draft closing in, it’s a good time to reset the search and dig into some top remaining candidates — with the caveat that, under Yzerman, there could always be a surprise in store.
Derek Lalonde and Jeff Halpern, Tampa Bay Lightning assistant coaches
Let’s start with two of the most obvious connections to Yzerman. It’s been easy to wonder, with Detroit’s search unresolved, whether part of the holdup might be wanting to interview candidates who are still a bit busy at the moment. That would apply to Lalonde and Halpern, the pair of Lightning assistants taking part in their third straight Stanley Cup Final run.
Both joined the Tampa Bay organization when Yzerman was still general manager — though Yzerman stepped down into a senior advisor role before the pair actually coached behind the Lightning bench starting in 2018-19. Nonetheless, Yzerman would still have familiarity with both — which he has said is important to him — especially with Halpern, who had already been part of the club as an assistant coach in AHL Syracuse for the previous two seasons.
The broad appeal of hiring from a highly successful organization formerly run by Yzerman is clear, with Halpern and Lalonde having seen what it takes to win in the modern NHL. Both have also had an up-close view of how Jon Cooper has helped turn a highly talented team into a ruthless winning machine.
Beyond that, though, their resumes are actually quite different.
Halpern played 14 seasons in the NHL, from 1999 to 2014, and moved into coaching in 2015. That gives him not only a shorter resume behind the bench, but also the valuable perspective of having played in the league fairly recently. That was also the case for the Red Wings’ last coaching hire, assistant coach Alex Tanguay last summer, and could be useful when it comes to relating to players.
Lalonde, meanwhile, has coached his way up from being an assistant for NCAA Division III North Adams State, starting when he was 23 and taking the long route to the show. His path has included stops at Ferris State, the University of Denver, USHL Green Bay, ECHL Toledo and AHL Iowa, serving as head coach at the final three.
In that role, his record is quite impressive. He won a USHL championship in his first season with the Gamblers and took the Walleye to a conference final Game 7 in Year 1 — after the team finished last in the conference the previous season. The Wild did miss the postseason in both Lalonde’s seasons there, but it’s worth noting they also had points percentages above .500 in both seasons, after being the AHL’s last-place team before he took over. And clearly, the Lightning saw enough to hire him as an assistant.
Those are both compelling arcs that Yzerman and the Red Wings are no doubt well aware of, and it’s why both immediately stand out from the field.
“He’s the ‘yin’ to Coop’s ‘yang.'”
ICYMI on @TBLightning assistant Derek Lalonde, whose brief stint filling in for Jon Cooper hit home for those who saw his rise. Meet “Newsy,” and find out why he was late to his own wedding @CourtlandMhky @GamblersHockey https://t.co/jN3tzbqRL9 pic.twitter.com/PMN9GSDQDV
— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithTB) December 31, 2021
Benoit Groulx, Syracuse Crunch (AHL) head coach
Sticking with the “raid Tampa Bay” ethos, Groulx certainly brings familiarity, having been hired by Yzerman’s management group in 2016. Since then, he’s helped the Lightning churn out players for their juggernaut — including Yanni Gourde, Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, Carter Verhaeghe, Ross Colton and more — and done so while winning the whole way. His Crunch teams have never had a points percentage below .556, and he’s had three teams over .640 in six seasons.
Syracuse did go out in the quarterfinals this season, and it’s fair to wonder: If the Red Wings were going to hire Groulx, wouldn’t they have done so by now? But it would certainly make sense if Detroit wanted to go through an entire process before making the hire. And Groulx’s resume, ties and the fact Yzerman’s two Tampa Bay head coach hires came out of the AHL mean he still merits inclusion here.
Ryan Warsofsky, Chicago Wolves (AHL) head coach
Warsofsky doesn’t check the familiarity box with Yzerman, and he is just 34. But his resume just keeps getting better — even from when we mentioned him at the end of April. In five pro seasons as a head coach, he’s never had a points percentage below .583, and that floor goes up to .598 in his three AHL seasons.
Right now, he finds himself in the AHL Calder Cup Final — so, if you’re of the mind the Red Wings’ search has been slowed by teams still playing, he would fit that narrative. And in terms of helping to fix Detroit’s team defense, the Wolves gave up the fewest goals per game (2.55) of any team in the AHL this season … while also ranking among the league’s highest-scoring teams.
His young age and lack of history with Detroit’s GM make it a little tougher to connect the dots than anyone from the Tampa tree, but he certainly looks like a rising star.
Barry Trotz, free agent
But of all the veteran candidates who have become available throughout this process, Trotz and Cassidy are the two whose blend of overall resume and recent success have been most appealing. And with Cassidy off the market, Trotz would seem to be the top remaining option with significant NHL experience.
Still, no matter how much his winning pinchant could help the Red Wings take the next steps, the bet here is Trotz will opt for a different opportunity — whether it’s behind the Jets’ bench or somewhere else.
(Photo of Jeff Halpern, left, Jon Cooper and Derek Lalonde: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)