Niyo: Yzerman has world of options as he embarks on Red Wings' coaching search
Steve Yzerman doesn't need a hockey history lesson. He has seen and done just about everything there is to see and do in the game
But since we're talking about the future here, and since the Red Wings' general manager was openly soliciting job referrals from the media Monday during his postseason wrap-up session, let's just consider this a helpful suggestion.
The Red Wings owe so much of their most recent success to Europe — and Russia, for that matter — that maybe it’s time to repay the debt.
The same thought holds true for Yzerman, Detroit’s legendary former captain, who might never have hoisted the Stanley Cup if not for Nicklas Lidstrom and the Russian Five a quarter-century ago.
The brightest hopes for the future of the franchise he's now running also have European roots, from Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond to a raft of Yzerman’s recent draft picks from Sweden. So why not import a coach who could lead them, too?
It’s an idea for Yzerman to consider, at least, as he embarks on a coaching search in the days and weeks ahead, following Saturday's announcement that the Wings wouldn't bring Jeff Blashill back for another year behind the Wings’ bench.
As hard decisions go — and Yzerman explained some of the reasons why it was in a 45-minute Zoom interview Monday — that was the easy part, seeing the second-half regression from Blashill's team this past season and deciding it was time for “a new voice, a new coach, a different approach, maybe a different way of doing things.”
Next behind the bench
The difficulty now is determining what the next voice should sound like.
Maybe Yzerman is inclined to bring in one that’s a bit more grating, a taskmaster that won’t have trouble calling out players when he’s not calling out line changes. A former NHL head coach like John Tortorella or Rick Tocchet or, yes, even Mike Babcock probably would fit that bill, though that last one understandably would be a tough sell to some in the Red Wings’ organization.
Or maybe it’s a voice that Yzerman finds familiar. Perhaps a former teammate like Lane Lambert, the well-respected Islanders’ assistant who once roomed with Yzerman in Detroit when both were NHL players. Or a head coach in the minors like Benoit Groulx, who began working for Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate (the Syracuse Crunch) during Yzerman’s time as the Lightning GM. Or an assistant coach like Derek Lalonde, who has helped Yzerman’s last head-coaching hire — Tampa’s Jon Cooper — win back-to-back Stanley Cup titles the last two seasons.
For what it’s worth, Yzerman acknowledged Monday that those ties really do bind.
“To kind of reveal a little more than I really care to,” he admitted at one point, “I find it difficult to really hire people that you don’t really know, that you haven’t worked with, or somebody that you (haven’t) really worked closely with and knows kind of the way I want things done or the way I do things. That’s a bit of a challenge, and I’m gonna have to overcome that.”
He insists he will, though, vowing Monday that he’ll “look at all different avenues, different leagues, different backgrounds of coaches.” And that’s an encouraging sign on the heels of an honest recognition. Because even if Yzerman still ends up in a comfortable place at the end of this hiring process, he’ll be better for it if he does think outside the box — and so will his team.
Which brings me back to where I started, and this whole idea of thinking globally about the Red Wings' next coach, the guy we'll all be expecting to get them back to the playoffs at some point.
It has been more than 20 years since a European served as a head coach in the NHL, despite the fact that more than one-third of the players in the league are now European. Ivan Hlinka (Pittsburgh) and Alpo Suhonen (Chicago) were the last coaches, and neither lasted more than two seasons.
So as track records go, that’s hardly encouraging. But it’s still worth exploring. Because there is a long list of possible candidates coaching overseas, and it stretches well beyond the names that probably are most familiar to Red Wings fans.
Sergei Fedorov just led the famed CSKA Moscow club to a KHL title in his first season as head coach, while Igor Larionov has turned from his work as an agent to coaching, first with the Russian national junior team and now reportedly with a new deal to coaching Torpedo in the KHL. I’m not sure how viable either candidate is here for a variety of reasons, including the geopolitical realities.
How Swede it is
But Rikard Gronborg, the longtime former coach of the Swedish national team, certainly could be. His record is impressive, and Lidstrom, the Wings’ new VP of hockey operations, is among many in Detroit's front office who have worked with or played for Gronborg in the past. Gronborg interviewed for the Buffalo Sabres’ coaching vacancy last spring, and reportedly spoke with New Jersey the year before.
Yzerman claims he hasn't even made a list of coaching candidates yet, other than "a few names kind of bouncing around in my head." But once he does, and after he has pared that list down to a manageable number, maybe Gronborg is one of those that gets an interview.
There are other possibilities, of course. The Red Wings have spent so much time scouting and drafting the talent on Frolunda’s roster in the Swedish League — prospects like Raymond and Simon Edvinsson that’ll be part of the core of the next playoff team in Detroit — why shouldn’t they consider poaching the coach, Roger Rönnberg, that has helped keep that machine humming for the past decade.
Neither of Yzerman’s two previous coaching hires in Tampa — first Guy Boucher, and then Cooper — had NHL coaching experience at the time. Both were coaching in the AHL when Yzerman gave them the call. And while Boucher’s tenure with the Lightning was short-lived, Cooper is now the longest-tenured head coach in the league, chasing a third consecutive Cup this spring.
And while on the one hand, Yzerman sounds conflicted about making "an educated guess" by hiring someone he doesn't already know, on the other, he insists, "I don’t want to rule anything out or exclude anyone because they have coached or they haven’t coached or they’ve not been in North America or whatnot." (He also sounds like the Yzerman we all know when adds with a laugh, "I’m trying to say as much as possible while actually saying nothing, if you haven’t figured that out right now.")
But the point still stands: There's a world of options out there, and Yzerman finds himself in a unique position, three years into a rebuild but with the kind of job security that few, if any, GMs ever get.
So if ever there was a time, and a place, to try a "different approach" and "maybe a different way of doing things," as Yzerman said, maybe it's here and now. In Detroit, where it has worked before.