Playoff results could impact Sabres’ coaching search

Could Jason Botterill be waiting to see if any current playoff coaches are fired before ending his search for a new bench boss?

Following last week’s rumor frenzy surrounding the Buffalo Sabres’ reported interest in former Edmonton Oilers head coach, Todd McLellan, things have gone relatively quiet. It appeared as though the Sabres were in a dead-heat with the Los Angeles Kings for McLellan’s services, but Bob McKenzie later reported that he was no longer in consideration for the job in Buffalo and that the team never even sent him a formal offer.

In all likelihood, Jason Botterill caught wind that the Kings were prepared to make McLellan a serious offer and wanted to get their chance to chat with him first. Obviously that meeting blew-up as a much bigger deal than it really was.

Initially, fans speculated (myself included) that Botterill’s immediate interest in McLellan meant that he had his heart set on a veteran coach this time around. That remains to be seen, but since then, no other candidates or anticipated interviews have been reported by reputable sources. With so many coaching vacancies across the league (six to be exact), it seems somewhat odd that no other reports have surfaced at this time. Could the Sabres (along with the five other clubs searching for their next bench boss) be waiting to see how the first round of the NHL playoffs shakes-out before filling the position?

Let’s examine the current landscape. Of the 16 coaches currently participating in the postseason, there are seven coaches who have virtually zero chance of being fired after the first round. Barry Trotz (Islanders), Todd Reirden (Capitals), Rod Brind’Amour (Hurricanes), Gerard Gallant (Golden Knights), Jim Montgomery (Stars), Bruce Cassidy (Bruins) and Bill Peters (Flames), will all be back with their current clubs next year, barring something completely unforeseen. Trotz, Reirden, Brind’Amour, Montgomery and Peters are all in their inaugural seasons while Gallant and Cassidy have done an outstanding job in year two with Las Vegas and Boston, respectively.

So what about the remaining nine coaches? For coherency’s sake, we’ll start by assessing the coaching situations of the lower-seeded teams and work our way up.

Jared Bednar - Colorado Avalanche

Colorado Avalanche head coach, Jared Bednar might end up in hot water (okay, probably more like “lukewarm” water), especially if his team is handed a first-round exit at the hands of the Calgary Flames. In his third season in Colorado, Bednar’s squad just barely squeaked into the playoff picture following an impressive 47-point improvement that took place from 2016-17 to 2017-18.

Despite the fact that his club did regress by five points this season, it would be tough to oust him just one year after orchestrating one of the most impressive single-season turnarounds in NHL history. We’ll go ahead and count him as safe, but stranger things have happened.

He probably doesn’t have the type of winning pedigree required to attract the Sabres, but he did coach developing players in the ECHL and AHL before getting his first NHL job with Colorado, so his track to the type might be attractive to Botterill who clearly values the ability to develop youth.

John Tortorella - Columbus Blue Jackets

Next up is a very popular name that has surfaced more than a few times over the past decade. The infamously hot-blooded John Tortorella has been rumored to be on thin ice in Columbus all season. When the organization opted to part with significant assets at the trade deadline, the pressure was immense for a team who, at that point, was not currently in playoff position. Tortorella’s club just barely prevailed, securing the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

His job status looks increasingly safe as the Blue Jackets currently hold a 3-0 series lead over the top-seeded league juggernaut, Tampa Bay Lighting. If his squad can pull of the unthinkable and sweep the Lightning in a massive first-round upset, it’s tough to see him losing his job. Should Tampa Bay mount a surging comeback however, that situation could change.

In 18 seasons as a head coach for four different franchises, Tortorella has qualified for the playoffs 11 times, winning one Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2003-04. In the 15 seasons since, he’s only made the Conference Finals once.

Mike Babcock - Toronto Maple Leafs

Mike Babcock, a man who four years ago used the Sabres as leverage in order to drive up his price tag, is one of the biggest names on this list. If the Toronto Maple Leafs are indeed handed their third consecutive first-round exit this season, with wunderkind Kyle Dubas waiting in the wings, Kyle Dubas could very well decide to move on from the veteran skipper.

It would be interesting to see if the Sabres still have interest in a man whom they felt scorned them in 2015. Tim Murray was in charge at the time and it’s entirely possible that Botterill wouldn’t even be interested. Babcock has developed as a reputation as someone who tends to clash with his young stars. It’s all speculation, but where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. That trend seems to conflict with the front office’s well-documented desire for a coach who is capable of developing young talent.

That point aside, his results as an NHL head coach are tough to match. In 15 years as a head coach in the NHL, his teams have failed to qualify for the playoffs twice. Recently however, Babcock’s teams have been eliminated in the first round in four consecutive appearances between Detroit and Toronto.

Mike Sullivan - Pittsburgh Penguins

Given Botterill’s past experience with him in Pittsburgh, could Mike Sullivan be a person that the third-year general manager is waiting for to come available?

Probably not. After winning back-to-back Stanley Cups just two years ago, even a first-round exit at the hands of Trotz’s Islanders likely isn’t enough to cost him his job. On the off chance that he does become available however, it wouldn’t come as a shock if he became Botterill’s top target in Buffalo.

Sullivan helped develop the Penguins’ young contributors during his time in Wilkes-Barre and seems like the perfect fit for what the Sabres are searching for. Again, he’s likely safe regardless of what happens, but there remains a small chance that he’d become available, and boy, would that be exciting.

In five seasons as a head coach between Pittsburgh and Boston, his teams have clinched the playoffs four times. There probably isn’t anyone more suitable to become the next head coach, but again, he’ll probably get at least another season in Pittsburgh.

Craig Berube - St. Louis Blues

Berube is in an interesting situation. When he took over as interim head coach after Mike Yeo’s ousting early in the season, very few expected him to help elevate his club from the league basement and into playoff position, let alone within one point of the Central Division crown.

It’s quite possible that his performance has earned him a shot to become the permanent coach in St. Louis. Obviously he had a lot of help from rookie netminder, Jordan Binnington but that shouldn’t be held against him. If for some reason the Blues decide to move in a different direction, he might be someone to consider. While he isn’t the most experienced candidate, he did serve as the head man in Philadelphia from 2014-16.

Paul Maurice - Winnipeg Jets

Another coaching veteran who could be at risk of losing their job is Winnipeg Jets’ head coach, Paul Maurice. The Jets regressed significantly, down 15 points from last season where they just barely missed out on the President’s Trophy with 114 points (second only to Nashville with 117 points).  After losing in the Western Conference Finals in 2017-18, the Jets entered this season with very high expectations.

As a two-seed, currently down 2-1 to the aforementioned Blues, would a first-round ousting be enough to inspire Kevin Cheveldayoff to make a change behind the bench? It’s quite possible, but would the Sabres be interested? In 21 years of head coaching experience, Maurice has only led his team to the playoffs seven times. Not exactly a sterling track record. If they are truly looking for a candidate with a long track record of success, he probably isn’t a good fit.

Peter Deboer - San Jose Sharks

In his first seven seasons as an NHL head coach, Deboer was the definition of uninspiring. Between the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils, his squads only made one playoff appearance (in which he reached the Stanley Cup Final with the Devils in 2011-12).

Since taking over in San Jose, he’s experienced a bit more success but, to be fair, he was set up with a really nice roster already in place. His Sharks teams have qualified for the playoffs in all four years of his current tenure, but since making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in his inaugural season, they’ve had a lot of trouble advancing. It’s well withing the realm of possibility that another first round exit could result in him being shown the door.

He certainly fits the mold of an experienced candidate who has nearly gone all the way on two different occasions with separate franchises, but each time he’s done it, the rosters he inherited were pretty well established. That obviously isn’t the case in Buffalo.

Peter Laviolette - Nashville Predators

Laviotlette’s rise to stardom is something that Sabres fans had the unfortunate displeasure of experiencing first-hand. His 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes squad thwarted Buffalo’s Stanley Cup aspirations in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final, and eventually advanced past the Oilers for their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Still, Sabres fans should be open to the possibility of him becoming the team’s next head coach. Though his tenure in Carolina fizzled after three consecutive years of missing the post-season, in the nine years since, (between Philadelphia and Nashville), Laviolette’s teams have only missed the playoffs once.

On the surface it might seem bizarre if the Predators were to make a change behind the bench, but their Stanley Cup window will only be open for so long. After being unceremoniously ousted in the second round last season, a first-round exit might spell the end of Laviolette’s tenure.

Jon Cooper - Tampa Bay Lightning

Let’s get this out of the way right up front. There is a 99.99-percent chance that no matter what, Jon Cooper will return next season as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Less than a month removed from signing an extension with the team, it would be an incredible turn of events if they were to let him go. The only thing that could reduce that 99.9-percent likelihood down by a few decimal points would be a series sweep.

After what was a historic season where the his team posted 128 points, Jon Cooper’s squad was the Stanley Cup favorite, by a mile. It’s all but safe to assume that the Blue Jackets will close the deal and send their opponent home early after taking a 3-0 series lead last night. Not even the most loyal Columbus supporter saw this coming.

In six seasons with the Lightning, his tenure has had a few modest ups and downs. After missing the playoffs in his first year with the organization (2012-13), they made it back the very next season. In 2014-15 Tampa Bay returned to the Stanley Cup Final, but lost to Joel Quenneville’s Chicago Blackhawks. The following year they made another deep run, falling just short of another finals appearance, and then missed the playoffs again in 2016-17.

There’s no doubt that Cooper has always had a talented roster at his disposal, but that shouldn’t take away from his reputation as a master tactician. In the immensely unlikely event that his run in the Sunshine State comes to an end, the Pegulas should spare no expense to secure his services. It’s crazy, it’s bananas, it’s  pipe-dream, but it’s also ridiculously fun to consider, and that’s what this time of year is all about.

No Need To Rush

After the initial hoopla involving McLellan, some fans have become anxious. With so many teams all vying for the top available coaches, there is some concern that if the Sabres do not strike quickly, they might miss out on a top target. Still, there is no reason to be hasty.

Botterill is well aware that this is likely his last chance to hire the right head coach in Buffalo. With the very real possibility of a current playoff coach coming available in the coming weeks, the team would be wise to wait until everything shakes-out.

There is likely validity to the theory that the organization wants to bring in an established veteran. The current crop of available coaches with experience is extremely underwhelming. Hiring one of these men for the sake of beating other teams to the punch is unwise. At the very worst, Chris Taylor is a fine fall-back plan if none of the aforementioned playoff participants come available, so there is much less pressure to make a move than it might appear.