Who Will Be The Kraken’s First Coach?

Who will be the first head coach of the Seattle Kraken? Aside from the roster, it’s the biggest unknown that remains for a team that’s already hired most of its front office personnel. It’s a question that Kraken General Manager Ron Francis, the man who will be tasked with hiring the coach, knows is on many people’s minds, fans and media alike. In a media availability last Wednesday, Francis joked that it was impressive that it took six or seven questions before someone broached the subject. In that same media availability, Francis provided an update on the Kraken’s timeline for hiring a head coach.

Francis reiterated that the Kraken are going to take their time to conduct as thorough a coaching search as is necessary. That likely means waiting until the current season is over to see which coaches are let go by their current teams. As Francis said, “you’re not going to really know a lot of [who will be available] until the next month or two.”

When the time comes to hire a coach, what will Francis be looking for? While overall he was pretty tight-lipped on the issue, Francis did provide one hint as to what type of coach the Kraken will hire. “In a perfect world, I’d like a head coach who’s been in that role before.” I do think we can read into this one. While Francis didn’t rule out having a first time head coach behind the Kraken’s bench, I’d say the odds are pretty heavily stacked against any applicant without head coaching experience.

As we eagerly await Francis’ decision, here are some of the leading candidates to be the first Kraken head coach:

The Current Coaches

In his answer on a coaching hire timeline, Francis mentioned “guys that are currently working that maybe have expiring contracts” as part of his reason for waiting to make a decision. Could that mean Francis is waiting for someone specific? It’s certainly not out of the question- and if he is, it’s probably Rod Brind’Amour. Brind’Amour is in his third season coaching the Carolina Hurricanes and despite it being his first stint as a head coach, he’s already established himself as one of the top coaches in the NHL. His Hurricanes team currently sits in first place in the hyper-competitive Central Division and is in position to make another deep playoff run. The Canes’ fast, skill-based style of play is fun to watch and emblematic of the modern game.

A 21-year NHL veteran and Stanley Cup winner, Brind’Amour commands respect among the players he coaches. The 50-year-old coach may even be in better physical shape than some of his players. The summer after he was named Hurricanes head coach, Brind’Amour put himself through the same training regimen that his players would use to make sure it was up to the right standard. The photos back it up, too. He made headlines after going shirtless during an off day in last year’s playoff bubble. Here it is for those who are so inclined:

Throughout the staff building process, Ron Francis has used his connections to hire people he knew from past positions. It stands to reason he would ideally like to do that with his coaching choice as well. Brind’Amour and Francis were teammates as players with the Carolina Hurricanes from 1999 to 2004. After their playing careers, Brind’Amour was an assistant coach with the Hurricanes for the entirety of Francis’ tenure with the team. Given Brind’Amour’s coaching skill and years of coordination with the now-Kraken GM, he’s the perfect fit for what Francis is trying to build in Seattle. If he hired Brind’Amour, Francis would know that his coach was on board with the entire organizational philosophy from day one. There are other excellent coaches out there, but none would be as seamless a fit. In Brind’Amour’s case, the question isn’t so much would he be a good coach but rather will he be available?

Brind’Amour’s contract with the Hurricanes expires at the end of this season, which has led to plenty of speculation about his future. The key sticking point in contract negotiations could be salary. It’s been reported that Brind’Amour’s current contract only pays him $600,000 a year. NHL coach salaries are often shrouded in mystery but we do know that figure is well below league average. Of the 11 known NHL coach salaries listed on Capfriendly.com, the average is $3.39 million. With his recent success, it’s clear that Brind’Amour is due for a raise. Canes owner Tom Dundon has admitted as much. But how much of a raise will Dundon be willing to offer? Dundon has a reputation for being stingy in contract negotiations and has publicly stated his belief that NHL coaches and general managers are overpaid. Some may call Dundon’s hardline stance in negotiations being cheap. Others may call it wisely sticking to an internal assessment of value regardless of market pressures. Whatever your view, the Kraken have benefitted from Dundon’s philosophy in the past. Kraken play-by-play announcer John Forslund was with the Hurricanes for 30 years before Dundon decided not to renew his contract. The Kraken were happy to scoop him up and presumably pay him what he felt he was worth. Might the same thing happen with Brind’Amour?

A few weeks ago, the prospect seemed unlikely. Reports surfaced that the Hurricanes and Brind’Amour were closing in on an extension and that an announcement was imminent.

But days and weeks have passed and still nothing has come of those rumors, which may indicate a setback in negotiations or perhaps that the two sides were never that close to begin with. It’s certainly a situation to monitor. While Brind’Amour says he’s hoping to get a deal done with the Hurricanes, what if he’s presented with the opportunity to join an old friend for an exciting new journey while being paid significantly more money? It might be difficult to resist.

How about this as a way to jump start the inevitable Kraken-Canucks rivalry? Brind’Amour isn’t the only current NHL coach the Kraken may have their eye on. Ron Francis may also be waiting to see what happens with their rival just north of the border.

Canucks coach Travis Green is no stranger to coaching in the Pacific Northwest, even before his current job with Vancouver. Green started his coaching career with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks as an assistant coach in 2008. When Winterhawks GM and Head Coach Mike Johnston was suspended by the WHL for player-benefit violations in the middle of the 2012-13 season, Green took over the team as interim head coach. The Winterhawks went on a 37-8-0-2 run as Green led them all the way to a WHL Championship and the Memorial Cup Final. Green parlayed that success into a head coaching job with the AHL’s Utica Comets, the Canucks’ AHL affiliate. When the Canucks had a head coaching vacancy four years later, they chose Green to fill the spot.

In his time with the Canucks, Green has overseen the growth of a young Canucks core headlined by Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Bo Horvat, and Brock Boeser, which culminated in an impressive playoff run last season. Green deserves a lot of credit for that success, given that his Canucks team was not even close to having the depth pieces to seriously contend for a Stanley Cup. Throughout his coaching career, you always get a sense that Green is getting the most out of the roster he has.

Although the current Canucks season hasn’t gone according to plan, Green’s ability to handle adversity has been on full display. The Canucks were hit harder than any other team by the COVID-19 pandemic, with over 20 players catching the virus this month. The Canucks were made to return to play last week, even with some players stating they were “not ready” to resume play so soon after the virus had ravaged the team. Despite being massive underdogs (some of the longest betting odds of any NHL regular season game), the Canucks won both of their games against the division-leading Maple Leafs and are now 3-1-0 since their return. The fact that Green, who had COVID himself, was able to get his team focused and prepared to play under the worst of circumstances tells you everything you need to know about what kind of coach he is. Canucks GM Jim Benning would be wise to sign him to a contract extension right away. That said, Canucks fans will be quick to tell you that Benning can rarely be trusted to make the right personnel decisions. If he’s foolish enough to let Green go (or feels he might need a scapegoat for his own failures), the Kraken could step in, take advantage, and score an early win in their rivalry.

The Free Agents

By one measure, Gallant would seem to be the obvious choice to be the Kraken’s first coach. Coaching an NHL expansion team under the new expansion format is a unique kind of job, with challenges different from any other coaching position. Gallant is the only person in the world who has done it before- and with about as much success as one could possibly expect. Gallant took a team of players who had never played together and led them to a division title and Stanley Cup Final appearance in their first season.

He achieved that success using a quick strike, transition-oriented style that generated much of his team’s offense off the rush and took the NHL by storm at the time. The exciting style of play helped win newer fans over, which is all the more important when coaching an expansion team. Here’s a short video of the NHL Now crew explaining how the Golden Knights’ transition game makes them so dangerous to play against:

Gallant’s time with Vegas was his third stint as an NHL head coach. He coached the Columbus Blue Jackets from 2004-2006 and the Florida Panthers from 2014-2016, so he more than satisfies the experience element Ron Francis is looking for. Gallant has shown he can carry his success from one job to the next. He never had a sub-.500 record in any of his seasons with the Panthers or Golden Knights. By nearly any measure, Gallant is an excellent head coach and it’s kind of crazy that he’s still on the open market.

That said, there is one area where Gallant might not be the best fit for the Kraken- and that’s the use of analytics. NHLtoSeattle pointed out that Gallant’s attitude toward analytics might not mesh well with the Kraken’s philosophy.

The Kraken are committed to using analytics heavily from top to bottom in their organization. While that’s probably a difference the two sides could overcome (when they’re winning anyway), it might add some complication to an otherwise logical choice for the Kraken.

Former Capitals, Ducks, and Wild coach Bruce Boudreau had been out of the spotlight for over a year after he was fired by the Wild in early 2020. But his name recently resurfaced in the news when in a February article by The Athletic’s Ryan Clark, Boudreau expressed a strong interest in coaching the Kraken. When I saw the story, my first thought was, “I, too, would be very interested in coaching the Kraken.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen or that it would be a wise decision for the team. Frankly, Boudreau probably shouldn’t be on any NHL team’s coaching radar.

When taking a cursory look at his record, a case can be made for why Boudreau should be in the mix as a coaching candidate. He has 567 wins to only 302 losses and his teams have won their division eight times. Boudreau even won a Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach in 2007. While that all may look promising, every one of those accomplishments is limited to the regular season.

The problem with Boudreau has always been the playoffs. The game changes in the playoffs and Boudreau’s teams consistently fail to change with it. Yes, the playoffs are an inherently small sample size and even the best of coaches have found their teams bested by bad luck, bad goaltending, or sheer randomness. But Boudreau’s playoff failures rise to the level of a pattern. In Washington, Boudreau was gifted with a talented roster every season. The Capitals won their division every year he coached them and never seeded lower than 3rd in the East. Yet Boudreau’s Caps couldn’t advance past the second round of the playoffs, losing to teams seeded 6, 4, 8, and 5 in the conference. Boudreau fared slightly better with the Ducks, reaching one conference final, but was fired after his team was eliminated in a game 7 for the fourth consecutive year. In his first season in Minnesota, Boudreau’s Wild had an impressive 106-point regular season but fell apart in the first round of the playoffs, losing all three home games. The following year, the Wild had another 100+ point regular season followed by a 1st round playoff exit. When it matters most, Boudreau’s teams have looked anywhere from unprepared to downright mentally fragile.

By all accounts, Boudreau is a wonderful person, liked and admired by those who work with him. But the Kraken are here to have playoff success and ultimately win a Stanley Cup, something Boudreau has shown he is unlikely to do.

The Rising Stars

The Kraken have already shown they’re not afraid to think outside the box with their hiring decisions. If they choose to go in that direction with their coach, Rikard Grönborg might be the preferred candidate. The 52-year-old Swede would be the first European NHL head coach since Alpo Suhonen coached the Blackhawks and Ivan Hlinka coached the Penguins in the 2000-01 season. Grönborg got his coaching start in the college and junior levels in North America early in his career. He even spent some time in Washington as an assistant coach with the Spokane Chiefs in 2004-05.

But Grönborg’s real work started after that, when he took over the Swedish national program. He overhauled their philosophy, wrote a new training playbook, and implemented the entire system. Grönborg coached the Swedish men’s, U20, and U18 teams with considerable success. His teams won three World Championship gold medals, a World Junior gold, and had 12 other top-3 finishes. Here’s a short video excerpt form a presentation where Grönborg talks about the changes he made to the Swedish hockey program:

Even with all his success at the national level, one thing was still missing from his résumé: experience coaching a club team. Grönborg set out to fill that gap when he joined the Swiss League’s ZSC Lions in 2019. The Lions were one of the most prestigious teams in the Swiss league, even having signed current Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews as a 17-year-old as recently as 2015. But the team had fallen on hard times and Grönborg’s task was to right the ship. Sure enough, Grönborg turned the team around, leading them to a 1st place regular season finish in his inaugural season as coach, up from 10th place the year before.

Grönborg describes his coaching style as a hybrid between the North American and European games. Given the faster, more skill-based turn the game has taken in North America, the time could be right for Grönborg’s style to thrive in the NHL. Grönborg has also tried to innovate off the ice. According to an article by Sportsnet’s Luke Fox, Grönborg has a “monthly sit-down where his players set the agenda.” Grönborg explains, “If they want to talk hockey, we talk hockey. If they want to talk about something else, we talk about something else. That’s my initiative, but it’s their meeting.” Given the recent accusations that have come to light regarding coaches like Mike Babcock and Bill Peters’ behavior towards their players, Grönborg’s kinder, more approachable demeanor is a welcome departure from the more old-school coaching style.

Wherever Grönborg ends up coaching in the NHL, I’ll be very interested to see how he performs. And it appears as though it’s not a matter of if, but when. At least one NHL team tried to interview him for their coaching vacancy last summer, but the ZSC Lions denied the interview request, as they understandably were not willing to let Grönborg out of the final year of his contract. Grönborg has since signed an extension with the ZSC Lions that runs until 2023, but does have an NHL out clause. That means if the Kraken want him, Grönborg’s contract won’t be an issue.

If the Kraken are considering current NHL assistant coaches for their head coach position, Todd Nelson could be an attractive option. The current Dallas Stars assistant was instrumental in the team’s Stanley Cup Final run last year and, like Travis Green, has helped keep his team on track during a rough, COVID-influenced season this year. As far as assistant coaches go, Nelson has about as much head coaching experience as you can get, having been a head coach in the AHL for eight years with the Oklahoma City Barons and Grand Rapids Griffins. His teams made the playoffs in all eight seasons, including a Calder Cup win with the Griffins in 2017.

Nelson also has some NHL head coaching experience, albeit brief. After a 7-19-5 start, the Oilers fired head coach Dallas Eakins midway through the 2014-15 season and named Nelson the interim head coach. Nelson was able to improve the team’s record, going 17-25-9, but was not retained for the next season as the Oilers opted to bring in Todd McLellan. The Oilers’ considerable struggles since indicate that Nelson’s coaching was not the problem there.

Since the Kraken will likely have a very young roster, they may want a coach who can balance winning at the NHL level with a focus on developing younger players. With Nelson, they would be getting someone who has proven he can do both.

The final coach I’ll profile is more of a longshot for the Kraken coaching job, but I feel he deserves a quick mention. Karl Taylor, the reigning AHL Coach of the Year, coached the Milwaukee Admirals to the best record in the AHL last season at 41-14-5-3. Aside from Grönborg’s unique coaching résumé, Taylor is the only coach on this list without any NHL head coaching experience. But, thanks to some unexpected circumstances, he is currently gaining a unique type of experience that may help qualify him for the Kraken’s coaching job.

Due to of COVID complications, the Admirals folded for the season and their players and staff merged with the Chicago Wolves. As a result, Taylor’s official title this year is “Team Consultant” with the Chicago Wolves. Despite the difficulties of merging two rosters together, the Wolves have a 15-5-1 record this season and are 1st place in the AHL’s Central Division. Taylor’s task of bringing structure to a team thrown together from multiple rosters is unusual, but bears some similarities to what the Kraken’s head coach will be asked to do. If Taylor can leverage that experience and impress in an interview, he may be a surprise candidate for the Kraken.

Coach Video Coming Soon!

Want to hear more about the Kraken’s coaching search? Check back in Friday here on the website or our YouTube channel for the release of a new ECH Debate video where Dylan and I discuss our thoughts on the Kraken’s head coaching search and which candidates we’d like to see behind the Seattle bench.

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