Last NHL job: Montreal Canadiens interim head coach 2011-12
Biggest accomplishment: 2005 Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award (Coach of the Year)
NHL Head Coaching Record: 15-18-23 (.450)
Connection to Tim Murray: Was promoted to Sabres development coach by Murray last off-season
The Sabres are in need of a head coach. Could they choose someone who is already in the organization?
Cunneyworth has ties to the Sabres organization both as a player and a coach. The Sabres drafted him in the 8th round in the 1980 draft. He spent a majority of his time in the organization with Rochester, only playing 35 games for the Sabres. After stints with Pittsburgh, Winnipeg, Hartford, Chicago and Ottawa Cunneyworth returned to the team who drafted him in 1998.
He played his final season in 1999-00 as a player-coach for the Americans. He was named the team's head coach upon his retirement.
Cunneyworth was behind the Rochester bench for eight seasons, developing many of the players that would become the core of the mid-2000's Sabres. Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Ryan Miller, Brian Campbell, Ales Kotalik, Henrik Tallinder and Andrej Sekera all spent time with Cunneyworth in Rochester. His teams experienced consistent success, as he finished above .500 in his first five seasons as the Amerks coach. This was also during the time that the Sabres and Panthers both split Rochester as an AHL affiliate, meaning Cunneyworth had to balance both teams' prospects.
The last three years were a mixed bag for Cunneyworth. In 2006-2007 he had his second best record with Rochester. That season was sandwiched between two of his worst seasons. His final year in Rochester the team went 24-46-10.
After 2008 the Sabres were set to change their AHL affiliation for the first time since 1979, now getting their own affiliate in Rochester. Cunneyworth decided it was time to leave Rochester as well, taking an assistant job on newly hired John Anderson's staff in Atlanta. The Sabres would choose Kevin Dineen as their head coach for the Pirates.
He spent two seasons behind the bench in Atlanta, coaching two very mediocre Thrashers teams. The first season they were six games under .500. The second they were just one over. After missing the playoffs twice Anderson and his staff were fired. Former Sabres player and coach Craig Ramsey would coach the Trashers in their final season in Atlanta.
Cunneyworth moved back down to the AHL, coaching the Hamilton Bulldogs for one season in 2010-11. It was a successful stint for him, as Hamilton went 44-27-9 and finished first in the North Division. The Bulldogs lost to Houston in the Western Conference Finals.
His success earned him a call-up to the big show, as Cunneyworth was added as an assistant on Jacques Martin's staff in Montreal in 2011-12. The Canadiens, who had made the playoffs the year prior, stayed around .500 at the start of the season. Sitting 13-12-7 through 22 games, GM Pierre Gautier fired Martin, his personal friend, after two and a partial season behind the bench. He promoted Cunneyworth to interim head coach, marking the first and only time Cunneyworth was in charge of an NHL team. Also joining him was Gaurtier's assistant GM Larry Carriere, who had the same position with Rochester for six seasons. He became an assistant for the first time in his career.
Things did not get better for the Canadiens. Their point pace actually got worse, and the struggles off the ice were just as noticeable as the ones on it. Cunneyworth could not speak French, the first time a Montreal coach could not do so since 1971. Gauthier explained this in his introductory press conference, but it still left many irate. There were calls for boycotts on Canadiens products, protests and the Quebec government even released a statement saying that the Canadiens need to fix the issue.
The Canadiens also issued a statement, apologizing for Cunneyworth's lack of a bilingual talent. Many read it as the Canadiens throwing him under the bus, setting up a feeling that he was never really part of the long-term plan in Montreal.
"Although our main priority remains to win hockey games and to keep improving as a team it is obvious that the ability for the head coach to express himself in both French and English will be a very important factor in the selection of the permanent head coach," said the statement. "We would like to thank all our fans for their understanding."
The Canadiens went 18-23-9 during his time as interim head coach. Montreal finished last in the Eastern Conference.
Cunneyworth was replaced at the end of the season by Michel Therrien, who speaks French fluently. He was kept on as an assistant until Therrien's hiring as a way for the new coach to decide whether he'd like to keep any of the staff. Therrien opted to bring in his own people, relieving Cunneyworth of his duties the day after Therrien was hired.
He hasn't been behind the bench since. Darcy Regier brought Cunneyworth back to the Sabres organization in 2013 as a scout. He's been promoted twice since by two different people. One of Pat Lafontaine's few moves with the Sabres included making Cunneyworth the American's Player Development Coach in January of 2014.Terry Pegula now owned the Americans, and the idea of "Sabres University" was reaching airwaves. Cunneyworth made sure there was communication between the Amerks and Sabres, which included attempting to run a similar system across the board.
In August Tim Murray expanded Cunneyworth's role, naming him the Sabres Player Development coach. His work now includes development of Sabres players as well as the Amerks and prospects that are not yet signed.
Q&A with a Canadiens Expert
1. How would you describe his coaching style?
From what we saw of Randy Cunneyworth in Montreal, he seemed to be a "hard work wins" kind of coach, while his usual partner Randy Ladoceur was more of the tactical guy. Unfortunately, because Cunneyworth was undercut immediately upon being named coach, with both the owner of the team and the GM apologizing for having hired an Anglo, everyone in the room knew he had no authority. So I can't speak to how well he could motivate.
2. What are his strengths and weakness?
To be perfectly honest, there weren't many perceptible strengths when Cunneyworth was with the Habs. Ladoceur created a fantastic, aggressive penalty kill that was among the best in the NHL both offensively and defensively, but at even strength the team was a complete mess. One of the things that was rumoured when he was in charge was that he catered too much to the wants of veterans on the team, specifically Erik Cole, which led to some brutal decisions, like scratching P.K. Subban for a game. He made pretty crazy lineup decisions, playing Mike Blunden on the second line with Tomas Plekanec for sustained periods, but at the same time he seemed unafraid to trust young players, specifically getting the best year out of former prospect Louis Leblanc.
3. How big of a deal was it that Cunneyworth couldn't speak French?
It was made a bigger deal than it actually was, there was a protest one game with about 30-50 people by the Bell Centre, but the problem was that the outrage over it undercut his authority as a coach immediately. That killed him and made him look awful.
4. Do you think he really ever had a fighting chance to have the interim tag taken off of him, or was he simply a stopgap before the Canadiens could conduct a true coaching search?
Zero chance at all. The best option he had was that he might be an assistant again the following year, but that season just ended up being too much of a disaster.
5. The team ended up preforming about the same between Martin and Cunneyworth when you look at the records. Did the team's play on the ice change much at all?
The team was 13-12-7 under Martin, about an 85 point pace, while they were 18-23-9 under Cunneyworth, about a 74 point pace. Both were likely going to miss the playoffs, but there was a drop off under Cunneyworth. The Canadiens were dealing with loads of injuries, the most in the NHL at the time of Martin's firing, but they still managed a 49.7% Corsi, while they dropped to 46.7% under Cunneyworth. The system didn't change much from one coach to the other, but the changes Cunneyworth did make weren't good.
6. Montreal moved him back to the assistant position, only to be fired by Therrien a day after he was hired. Was it expected that the new coach would probably can him and Ladoceur? How did that go over in Montreal?
It was pretty expected that he would be gone. I'm not sure why the Canadiens went about it the way they did, but I'm guessing that's just how Therrien operates. There were a lot of fans that wanted Randy Ladoceur back though, he seems to be a legitimately good penalty kill coach.