Inside the NHL
One benefit to the Kraken waiting this long to hire a coach is that it has provided time for additional options to materialize depending on how bold the team dares to be.
Let’s face it: Most Kraken fans would have been high-fiving two years ago if presented a coaching choice among Mike Babcock, Bruce Boudreau and Gerard Gallant. Now there’s a fair chance that none is picked.
Waiting has provided the Kraken improved perspective on some candidates. Take Gallant, whose Vegas Golden Knights made the Stanley Cup Final their expansion season. In 13 months since his Vegas firing, the Knights returned to the conference final last fall under new coach Peter DeBoer and this season have just one regulation loss in seven games.
So, yeah, it’s pretty clear the Knights were stacked to begin with and probably not expansion misfits galvanized by Gallant’s superior coaching. That’s not to diminish Gallant, because good coaches typically have good players, and he’s still somewhat viewed as the front-runner here. But it does add perspective.
Rather than pouncing on Gallant this winter, the Kraken watched him vie for the Washington Capitals’ coaching vacancy. The Kraken isn’t shy about throwing money around and could have paid one extra season’s salary to lock up Gallant.
Yet it risked losing him. Perhaps because it sees other options emerging.
For one, Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour becomes a free agent this summer unless given an extension most assumed was coming two offseasons ago. Instead, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on NHL revenues. The Hurricanes were never a financial behemoth to begin with, and their relatively new owner has a reputation for playing hardball with some business decisions.
So waiting around has created an opportunity the Kraken might never have imagined. And you’d best believe Kraken GM Ron Francis would jump at bringing his former teammate and employee to Seattle. Brind’Amour — known as “Rod the Bod” for his fanatical workout regimen going back decades — is credited with fostering a Cup-contending culture in Carolina and meshes with a Kraken organization looking to make fitness and nutrition an organizational cornerstone.
Now, it would take bold money to lure away Brind’Amour. But the Kraken, as mentioned, has money and, unlike NHL teams currently playing games, isn’t losing it during the pandemic.
The Kraken likely would be less bold on some other guys if Brind’Amour stays with the Hurricanes. Sure, Babcock is out there, working for NBC Sports and trying to soften a reputation decimated when he was fired by Toronto in November 2019 and accused of being mentally abusive toward some players.
Babcock also was a finalist for the Caps job, and I’m sure he’ll get a second chance somewhere to modify his coaching style. I just don’t see a new organization such as the Kraken having the surplus energy for his baggage.
Same with Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella, whose contract expires this summer. He’s a Cup winner like Babcock, with the most victories all-time by an American-born coach.
But his spat last month with Pierre-Luc Dubois — hastening the star center’s trade to Winnipeg — could be what makes Tortorella available to begin with, a final straw of sorts barring a surprising Cup run by his team. Tortorella seems to seek out feuds with some players and the media at every NHL stopover, including a forgettable lone season with the Vancouver Canucks.
I just can’t see the Kraken having surplus PR energy to deal with that when, beyond on-ice play, it needs to sell the NHL product in a new market.
Rather than taking risks on Babcock and Tortorella baggage, the Kraken could make a choice that would engender positive vibes and potentially broaden the fan base beyond typical NHL demographics.
I’m talking about hiring former New Jersey Devils assistant coach Mike Grier, who stepped away from the game this season after they cleaned house under new coach Lindy Ruff.
It’s Black History Month, and the NHL, as always in recent years, will spend the coming weeks declaring it’s a changed league from decades past. Still, the league hasn’t had a Black head coach since Dirk Graham — its first and only — was fired by Chicago in 1999 after just 59 games.
Detroit native Grier was the first Black NHL player fully developed in the U.S. The tough winger was highly regarded by peers, playing more than 1,000 games with four NHL teams and serving as alternate captain with Edmonton and San Jose.
After two seasons as a Devils assistant, the team asked him back, but GM Tom Fitzgerald told reporters that Grier declined.
“If something comes up that gives him the opportunity to grow more with more responsibilities than we could have offered him, then he’ll consider that,” Fitzgerald said.
Well, Kraken coach fits that description.
We’ve mentioned Grier’s on-ice leadership traits, and his 14 NHL seasons played are 14 more than the total by Tortorella or Babcock. Grier is only 46, and he uses video and preaches skills development as part of a communicative style that today’s players favor. Like Brind’Amour, Grier also has long maintained a rigid fitness and nutritional regimen he has tried to pass on through coaching.
Don’t overlook that fitness aspect. The Kraken hired former NHL forward Gary Roberts as a performance consultant and hope to “Moneyball” some extra victories by tapping this largely untapped area.
Grier’s father, Bobby, was vice president of player personnel for the New England Patriots — when Pete Carroll was their coach — and later an associate director of pro player personnel for the Houston Texans. And Grier’s brother, Chris, is GM of the Miami Dolphins.
So Grier has undoubtedly gleaned extra tips about team-building and maximizing player output. I’ve asked around, and Kraken decision-makers are well aware of Grier’s attributes.
The Kraken has prioritized racial and gender diversity, making analytics chief Alexandra Mandrycky its first hockey operations hire. Cammi Granato later became the NHL’s first female pro scout and Everett Fitzhugh its first Black play-by-play broadcaster.
Naming Grier the coach would be right in line with the Kraken’s history-making course. He’d be untested, but he has intangibles that make this a calculated risk with enormous upside.
Considering this team already named itself the Kraken, hiring someone who hasn’t been a head coach probably shouldn’t be considered its most daring decision. Sure, Grier would still be a relatively bold move. But — especially if Brind’Amour stays in Carolina — not bold enough to prevent the Kraken from actually doing it.