Like an SOS carved in the sand, or smoke signals shooting into the sky, several Winnipeg Jets players were sending not-so-subtle messages towards the end of this most frustrating hockey season that they desperately needed help.
Much of the distress appeared focused on the type of direction they were receiving from behind the bench, where inconsistent play, sloppy systems and a failure to get miscreants and malcontents to fall in line became hallmarks of a massively underwhelming campaign.
Now the pressure is on the organization to get it right, with only goalie coach Wade Flaherty set to return. A new head coach, and a clean slate of assistants, will be tasked with getting this talented but deeply flawed squad back on track.
Along with what to do with Mark Scheifele this summer — speaking of malcontents — it’s without a doubt one of the most important decisions of the Jets 2.0 era.
The rumour mill is already working overtime, and plenty of hopefuls are likely polishing up resumes to send Kevin Cheveldayoff’s way. Although there’s no timeline for a decision, the Jets would like to have their ducks in a row by the time the draft and free agency roll around in early July.
Let’s review who might be looking for work — and who might be on the local radar.
The odds are slim and none, and slim just left town
Let’s address the elephant in the (dressing) room right off the hop. As much as he might bring some qualities they desperately need, the Jets will not be hiring John Tortorella. Not unless they want to run their next No. 1 centre, Pierre-Luc Dubois, right out of dodge rather than lock him up to a long-term deal, which is another big item on the to-do list. "Torts" and PLD have quite the history in Columbus, and there’s no way that’s coming north of the border.
I’ll also put two other big names in the "no chance in heck" category — Joel Quenneville (who NHL teams are apparently inquiring about with commissioner Gary Bettman regarding possible reinstatement following his expulsion over the Chicago Blackhawks sexual assault scandal), and Mike Babcock, who is said to eagerly want another chance. Both are toxic with a capital T, and I can’t seen any scenario where True North thinks they are the answer.
If so, I will not only eat my words, but write plenty as well taking the franchise to task for what would be a tone-deaf move.
It’s not surprising both Randy Carlyle and Scott Arniel’s names have come up. Both have significant ties to ownership and this market. Carlyle, 66, has been out of the league for three years, and I just don’t see a fit there. That ship has sailed, in my eyes. Arniel, however, could be a viable candidate. The 59-year-old is currently in his fourth year as an assistant with Washington, and no doubt would love another chance to be a head coach in this league after a brief stint with the Blue Jackets a decade ago. At the very least, I’d expect the Jets to seek permission from the Capitals for an interview.
Another tie to the past is Alain Vigneault, who has a track record of coming into a new team and making a difference. The 60-year-old former Moose coach was kicked to the curb in Philadelphia earlier this season and is waiting for another shot.
Pascal Vincent, the 50-year-old former Jets assistant turned Moose head coach who is now an assistant in Columbus, is a terrific communicator who is eventually going to get a look somewhere. Why not here?
Same for current Manitoba bench boss Mark Morrison, 59, who led the AHL club to a terrific regular season despite a wave of injuries, call-ups and COVID infections. He’s done stellar work and obviously knows the current lay-of-the-local landscape better than anybody. Question is, would the organization prefer to go external, rather than internal?
Finally, old friend Todd Woodcroft, a former Jets assistant who left two years ago to take the top job with the University of Vermont, would no doubt like to join younger brother Jay (currently leading the Edmonton Oilers) behind an NHL bench. The 49-year-old is a savvy, modern-day systems-oriented coach that could bring some much-needed structure. His time will come, but I wonder if he has to go the longer route and perhaps start with a main gig in the AHL, first.
What about a local?
Perhaps the most intriguing potential name is James Patrick, a Winnipegger who played in 1,280 NHL games during his career and certainly looks like an NHL head coach in the making.
The 58-year-old spent 11 years with Buffalo and Dallas as an assistant before jumping to the Western Hockey League, where he guided the Kootenay Ice for two years and the Winnipeg Ice for the last three. That would be the same Winnipeg Ice currently ranked No. 1 in the WHL, and No. 2 in the Canadian Hockey League, with a legitimate shot to be competing for the Memorial Cup next month.
The former defencemen might bring the kind of focus and structure the Jets sorely need in their own end, and he clearly has the chops to work with both young players and established, multi-million dollar pros.
You likely haven’t heard much about Lane Lambert or Derek Lalonde, but both are viewed as top coaching prospects around the league. And their recent track records are certainly impressive.
Lambert, 57, has spent the past four years on Long Island as Barry Trotz’s right-hand man. The Swift Current native, who has previous head coaching experience in the WHL and AHL, is garnering plenty of buzz. Same for Lalonde, 49, who has won two straight Stanley Cups as an assistant to Jon Cooper with Tampa Bay. The native New Yorker, who was previously named coach of the year in both the USHL (2012) and ECHL (2015) is primed for a promotion.
With Winnipeg, Philadelphia and Detroit currently looking to fill vacancies, and a number of other teams possibly adding to that list in short order, I’d expect both these gentlemen to garner lots of consideration.
If they were to become available
Bruce "There It Is" Boudreau is currently employed by Vancouver, although there’s an out clause that could be exercised by June 1 that is worth watching given the lukewarm words uttered earlier this week by his boss, Jim Rutherford. Put me in the camp of people who would love to see Boudreau, 67, here — if only for the soundbites that he’d deliver — but I say the chances are slim even if he becomes available. There would likely be a bidding war for his services, and the Jets would have to uncharacteristically break the bank to lure him here.
Same goes for Manitoba product Trotz, 59, who would no doubt be terrific for multiple reasons. I just don’t see the New York Islanders cutting him loose. Sure they missed the playoffs this year — in part thanks to a murderous schedule to start the year and being forced to play games through a major COVID outbreak — but it came after back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference Final.
Pete DeBoer, 53, is potentially hanging by a thread with the Vegas Golden Knights, and Paul Maurice’s best buddy would likely garner some interest around here if he hit the open market, but after previous gigs in Florida, New Jersey. San Jose and now Sin City, I’m not sure going the recycled route and hoping the fifth time would be the charm is the best play.
Bigger names who are available
Travis Green was axed by the Vancouver Canucks earlier this year, and many believe the 51-year-old was the victim of poor roster construction who would prove critics wrong if given another opportunity. Rick Tocchet, currently working as a TV analyst since being fired by Arizona a year ago, also wants back in the game, although the hard-nosed 58-year-old has been linked to the Flyers vacant gig. I don’t see either landing here in River City.
At one point, I would have pegged another local in Ralph Krueger as a potential candidate. But after an ugly stint in Buffalo ended last year, which came after his previous unremarkable run in Edmonton, I suspect the 62-year-old Steinbach native might just be out of the NHL game for good.
Nobody asked me, but this is who I'm bringing in for an interview
Assuming Boudreau and Trotz aren’t available, I’d be bringing the following seven men in to the True North offices for an extensive sit-down. Or are they still doing all of this by Zoom?
Scott Arniel. Derek Lalonde. Lane Lambert. Mark Morrison. James Patrick. Alain Vigneault. Pascal Vincent. It’s a mix of young(ish) and old(ish), experienced (at the NHL level) and inexperienced. Familiar and fresh. Old-school and modern.
And I believe it’s bound to produce the next head coach of the Winnipeg Jets.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.