Friday, 19 April 2013

Try Before You Buy

Team Canada General Manager Steve Yzerman has begun assembling his team of coaches for the upcoming World Hockey Championships, and there should be little surprise that a long-tenured former NHL head coach was selected as the man to organize the players once they hit the ice. Former Buffalo Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff was given the reins to the team, and there will most likely be an emphasis on defence and puck control with Ruff at the helm. But there is one thing that everyone should remember in looking at this appointment of Ruff - Steve Yzerman never removed the "interim" label from Jon Cooper's head coaching promotion. Could we be seeing an NHL general manager kicking the tires of a well-established NHL head coach in an effort to bring him to Tampa Bay?

While Yzerman has never alluded to Jon Cooper not remaining in his current role with the Lightning, he hasn't exactly announced that Cooper will be in the same role next year. After all, Cooper led the AHL's Norfolk Admirals to the Calder Cup last season, and was taking the newly-affiliated Syracuse Crunch to new heights this season as their head coach. Cooper might be a better AHL coach than NHL coach, and there's nothing wrong with that assessment.

After relieving Guy Boucher of the head coaching duties in Tampa Bay, Yzerman was asked about a timetable in terms of replacing him. "A specific timetable, no, but I’m hopeful that I can get something in place as quickly as possible," Yzerman said to reporters. "I’m not looking to drag things out. I have an idea of what I want to do and I’m trying to get that accomplished as soon as possible. I am going to hire and name a head coach for the remainder of this year and years to come."

Splitting the timeframe - "the remainder of this year and years to come" - could mean that Jon Cooper will be leading the Lightning next season as the head coach. But if it were interpreted as "we'll name a replacement for the remainder of this year, and then look at who is available for the years to come", it now appears that all available coaches not currently employed by an NHL team will have a shot at the Lightning bench job.

Lindy Ruff is under contract with the Sabres through the remainder of this season, so it's clear he cannot jump into another head coaching position without Buffalo's permission. Buffalo, at the time, was in a battle with the Lightning for a playoff spot, so it would be very unlikely they would allow Ruff to join the Lightning for the remainder of the season. In the meantime, Cooper is working with the Lightning as they will finish out of the playoffs, and the Sabres are officially done with a loss tonight. Let's just call a spade "a spade" - they are done too.

Once the season is over and all the games have been played, though, Buffalo would probably allow any and all teams to speak to Ruff in order to rid themselves of the contractual obligations they may still owe him. Steve Yzerman, who may still be looking for a battle-tested NHL head coach, now gets approximately one month to work with Lindy Ruff in putting together a team for the World Championships.

They'll undoubtedly discuss coaching philosophies, strategies, and how they want to approach this tournament while perhaps seeing if one another mesh in terms of their ideas. Yzerman will most likely be doing more of the measuring, but if things go well and Ruff gets a good performance out of the players he and Yzerman select for the competition, Yzerman may have some things to consider over the summer when looking at his coaching situation.

Adding another layer for Ruff being a potential candidate is his experience against the teams of the Northeast Division, Tampa Bay's new home for next season. Ruff has coached against the powerful Northeast teams for a long time, and knows a lot about those teams' tendencies and players. Having a guy who brings that kind of considerable NHL experience and knowledge is fairly rare, and finding a guy who has 500 wins under his belt who isn't retired is almost impossible.

Of course, if things go horribly wrong, Yzerman can deny ever considering Ruff. All of this speculation on my part could be nothing more than a mental exercise of "what could be". Perhaps Yzerman is happy with Cooper and will make his announcement in the summer that the "interim" tag has been removed, and Cooper will be with the Lightning for the foreseeable future. Perhaps Yzerman already has another person in mind, and will be making his pitch to this other candidate when the season ends.

Trying out a coach before "buying" him with a contract is a pretty nice luxury for Canada's World Hockey Championship general manager. Regardless of the outcome of Canada's entry into the tournament, Steve Yzerman will have a pretty clear picture in terms of who Lindy Ruff is and whether he would be a good fit with his youthful Lightning squad.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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