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Who should be the next Blue Jackets coach?

Apr 29, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Edmonton Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft and the bench celebrate the victory against the Los Angeles Kings in game six of the first round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

After less than three weeks on the job, new Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Don Waddell finally made his first major move on Monday, removing Pascal Vincent as head coach. This comes as little surprise. Vincent was the second choice for the job, taking over just days before the start of training camp after the sudden firing of Mike Babcock. Despite a more talented (and slightly healthier) roster, the results were not significantly better than the season that got Brad Larsen fired. In addition, the power play continued to struggle for all three seasons that Vincent was on the staff.

He seems like a good man and he tried his best to succeed here. He got the players to play hard, but they never played smart. With a new, outside voice in charge of hockey operations, it makes sense to start with a clean slate behind the bench as well.

The pressure is on for Waddell to move quickly to find Vincent’s replacement. Ideally, the new coach will be in place prior to the draft (June 28) and the start of free agency (July 1). Waddell and the new coach should also look to hire new assistants (please, please, pleeeeeeeeeease replace Steve McCarthy). The coaching carousel had stopped, with the last open spot (San Jose) filled on Thursday. Buffalo, Ottawa, Toronto, New Jersey, Winnipeg, and Seattle also hired new coaches in the off-season. Still, there are several coaches relieved of duties during the season who remain on the market.

The Criteria

What should we expect from the next coach? For starters, I would expect that the coach will have NHL head coaching experience. There’s too much at stake to rely on another green coach. We don’t want him learning on the fly. This team needs to get better quickly.

To that end, it would be good if the coach has experience with rebuilding teams. Does he have experience turning a young roster into a playoff team?

Finally, my personal preference would be to hire a head coach with a reputation as a defensive coach. The lack of a coherent defensive system has been the biggest weakness of this team over the last three years.

The Front Runners

Jay Woodcroft

Speaking of Babcock, Woodcroft’s NHL coaching career started under him. He was video coach in Detroit when they won the Stanley Cup in 2008. After a stretch as an assistant with the Sharks, he coached the Oilers’ AHL affiliate. Midway though the 2021-22 season, he was promoted to head coach in Edmonton. Dave Tippett had started 23-18-3, then Woodcroft went 26-9-3 for the rest of the season and led the Oilers to the conference finals.

This season, Woodcroft was fired after a 3-9-1 start, but the Oilers had a poor stretch of luck to start. Connor McDavid was playing hurt, and Stuart Skinner was struggling in net. As we’ve seen in these playoffs, the Oilers’ success is still dependent on those two players producing.

Todd McLellan

Speaking of former Oilers coaches! McLellan only had one playoff appearance in 3 plus seasons in Edmonton, but I’m more intrigued by his other stops. In San Jose, he reached the playoffs in his first six seasons, including reaching the conference finals in 2010 and 2011.

In Los Angeles, he oversaw the Kings coming out of their rebuild. They hit rock bottom in the COVID seasons, but surprised many by getting back to the postseason in 2021-22, and each season since. The team has continued to get late career production from veterans like Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, while bringing along younger players like Adrian Kempe and Gabriel Vilardi. GM Rob Blake was active bringing in players like Kevin Fiala, Viktor Arvidsson, and Phillip Danault, and McLellan made all these pieces fit together.

McLellan was fired this season after a 23-15-10 start, after which Jim Hiller went 21-12-1.

Dean Evason

Evason is a low ceiling pick, but one who can raise the floor. In his coaching career he has a great record of making the playoffs, but not a great record at winning a round. He played 803 games in the NHL as a center (which should help earn respect in the locker room) before coaching in the WHL and AHL.

Over parts of five seasons as coach of the Minnesota Wild, Evason had a points percentage of .639. That was good for 8th in the league in that span (one spot ahead of Tampa Bay, who won two Cups and reached a third final in that span). The Wild are short on stars outside of Kirill Kaprizov, so Evason’s ability to win with a team of role players is impressive. He could establish a level of discipline and accountability that has been lacking.

The Next Tier

Gerard Gallant

A familiar face, Gallant coached in Columbus for parts of three seasons, with a record of 56-76-4. Things went better at his later starts, including a division title in Florida in 2015-16 and taking Vegas to the Cup Final in their inaugural season. He averaged over 100 points in two seasons with the Rangers, but was fired after a first round exit in the second season.

The red flag for me is that he’s been fired at each NHL stop. After being interviewed for the Jackets job in 2021, he was not a candidate a year ago. With his on-ice success, why didn’t he get another job right away last year, or in this cycle? He seems to wear out his welcome within three seasons, ,and has burnt some bridges.

Todd Nelson

We are familiar with Nelson’s recent work, as he is currently the coach of the Hershey Bears. They beat the Cleveland Monsters in a hard-fought Eastern Conference Finals, and are currently pursuing their second straight Calder Cup. Nelson also won the Calder Cup in 2016-17 with the Grand Rapids Griffins.

He has 51 games of NHL head coaching experience, going 17-25-9 with the Oilers in 2014-15. He should have learned from that, and his subsequent success in the minors suggests that he is ready for another shot at the NHL.

Nelson has a history with Waddell. He was an assistant coach with the Atlanta Thrashers, where Waddell was the GM.

Long Shots

Trent Vogelhuber

The Central Ohio native and former Blue Jackets draft pick has impressed in two seasons as the full-time head coach for the Cleveland Monsters. They won the North Division this season and reached the Conference Finals. After going down 3-0 to Hershey, they won three straight to force Game 7, where they lost in overtime. Everything the Monsters achieved, they did despite injuries to key players and a wave of late season call-ups to Columbus.

Vogelhuber turns 36 next month, so he is likely too young for an NHL head coaching job, and not yet experienced enough. We would hate to see him get an opportunity elsewhere, however, like Jared Bednar did with Colorado after winning the Calder Cup in Cleveland. Perhaps Vogelhuber could get an assistant job in Columbus instead? His assistant Mark Letestu would also be a good addition to the staff.

Brad Shaw

We kept the wrong Brad in 2021. Shaw didn’t even get a courtesy interview! He likely wouldn’t want to come back, and is line to succeed John Tortorella in Philadelphia.

I can dream, can’t I?

Jukka Jalonen

Part of me still holds the dream I had three years ago, that the Jackets would think outside the box and hire a coach with success in Europe. One that stands out is Jalonen, coach of the Finnish national team. He led his team to a gold medal at the 2022 Olympics, at three world championships, and the 2016 World Juniors.

Nadine Muzerall

Muzerall shows that it is possible to have an elite hockey coach in Columbus. It just so happens she coaches the Ohio State women’s hockey team. She has done a tremendous job with the Buckeyes, winning the first two national championships in program history. Her teams play a very enjoyable style of hockey: high possession on offense but physical and suffocating on defense. She just earned a new, long-term extension, so she may be content to keep the dynasty going. She did help out at Blue Jackets development camp last summer.

Which of these coaches would you prefer? Any others you would like to be considered?