Inside the NHL
We’ve had a good two-year run-up, but here’s where things are starting to get really fun, interesting and possibly creative with the Kraken and its pursuit of a coach.
In the midst of the Florida Panthers’ opening-round playoff showdown with the Tampa Bay Lightning, veteran New York Post hockey writer Larry Brooks last weekend offered-up a jarring tidbit. Brooks suggested there have been rumblings about Panthers coach Joel Quenneville leaving his job and joining the Kraken.
Now, we sometimes tie ourselves in knots chasing down every new Kraken coaching possibility, and naturally, they all can’t work out. Travis Green did indeed sign an extension with the Vancouver Canucks, so he isn’t coming. Ex-Coyotes bench boss Rick Tocchet will interview here.
Rod Brind’Amour is still without a new deal in Carolina, so we’ll see what happens. And then there’s this Quenneville stuff, which, despite all the holes, appears to have legs. And given Quenneville having the second-most all-time NHL coaching wins behind Scotty Bowman, this is a huge deal until somebody confirms it isn’t.
Sure, I can cite reasons it should be a non-starter. Quenneville is only two seasons into a five-year contract paying him an NHL-best $5.25 million annually. And he just guided Florida to its best regular season in years.
So why leave? Well, the Panthers are on the verge of being knocked out by the defending champion Lightning, which, in isolation, is no big disgrace.
But there’s also Quenneville’s history with Kraken general manager Ron Francis, his Hartford Whalers teammate in the 1980s. When Quenneville was let go by the Chicago Blackhawks in November 2018 after leading them to three Stanley Cup championships, he seemed a solid fit for an expansion team that would clearly need a veteran coach.
Back then, remember, Francis was still a half-year from being hired by the Kraken, but Dave Tippett — another Whalers teammate from the 1980s — was then an NHL Seattle senior adviser. Also, the franchise was a month from being awarded to Seattle, and back then it appeared the team would begin play in October 2020 instead of this fall.
So sure, Tippett talking Quenneville into joining the Kraken early and waiting a year-and-a-half to coach wasn’t beyond imagination.
But the NHL delayed the Kraken’s launch by a year. For Quenneville, who’d just turned 60, there was no possibility he’d stay away from an NHL bench that long. So he took the Florida job in April 2019, when Tippett was negotiating to become the Edmonton Oilers’ coach and three months before Francis even got here.
It’s possible Quenneville now sees a Kraken opportunity with an ex-teammate that didn’t exist when he took the Florida job. But there’s one other important factor that’s happened since.
Onetime NHL defenseman Dale Tallon, the GM who hired Quenneville in Chicago and Florida, was fired by the Panthers last August. Nothing against rookie replacement Bill Zito, who the Kraken approached about its GM vacancy pre-Francis, but he doesn’t have the history with Quenneville that Tallon did.
And we don’t know what has gone on behind the scenes since that front-office change. It’s possible Zito wants his own hire.
Also, we don’t know whether Panthers ownership, in light of COVID-19 financial shortfalls, has a different financial approach from when Quenneville was hired. The Panthers have several pending unrestricted free agents the next two offseasons, including team captain Aleksander Barkov — who came up huge in Game 5 of the Lightning series — after the 2021-22 campaign.
Getting an inkling that some of your playoff team’s core might be broken up can drive coaches to leave teams.
Anyhow, we won’t know more until Florida’s season ends. The Panthers fell to the Lightning in Game 6 on Wednesday night, losing the series 4-2.
Quenneville’s insertion of backup Chris Driedger in place of No. 1 goalie Sergei Bobrovski for Game 2 blew up on the Panthers, who have played musical netminders since with mostly porous results.
Florida’s season was saved in Game 5 when rookie Spencer Knight, formerly of Boston College, became the first goalie to play in the NCAA and start an NHL playoff game the same season. After allowing an opening-minute goal, Knight turned aside everything else in a 4-1 victory.
Still, the coach’s goalie handling has given the Panthers an excuse — albeit a rather flimsy one — to move on from Quenneville should they choose, either for financial reasons or to appease their GM. Of course, getting rid of Quenneville requires paying him $15.75 million to do nothing for three more seasons.
But if the Kraken takes on Quenneville’s remaining salary, it becomes much easier to part company.
It’s a bit more difficult — but not impossible — for Quenneville to come here if he’s the one — not the Panthers — who wants out. In that case, some big-time compensation would need to be paid to the Panthers for Quenneville to get out of his deal.
Fortunately, there’s this thing called the expansion draft July 21, in which the Kraken will already be cutting side deals with teams. Francis has said he has held pre-draft discussions with every club, so, there likely have been preliminary talks with the Panthers about the cost of him not picking certain players.
It isn’t too far of a stretch to jump from those conversations to compensation talk for Quenneville. Or, to include some expansion draft guarantees as part of any Kraken compensation package.
These are unusual NHL times, given the coming draft, the financial impact of COVID-19 on teams and the ability of the cash-flush Kraken to provide some squads with salary relief. In other words, scenarios that appear a longshot — as this one still does — cannot be ruled out until somebody does that.
Right now, Quenneville and the Panthers have not quashed this fire when they easily could have.
In other words, keep an eye on this all-Floridian series. Now that the Panthers are eliminated and if Quenneville doesn’t immediately dismiss rumors of his pending departure, the Kraken could very well make a play for an iconic coach.