Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The fork in the road

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

As the Stanley Cup playoffs proceed, some of the other clubs in the NHL seems to be at one of those forks in the road about which Robert Frost wrote almost a century ago. Ron Wilson was relieved of his duties yesterday as coach of the San Jose Sharks. The problem for Wilson was not his regular season production – he finished his tenure with the Sharks 206-122-19-32 – but his playoff record. With a 28-24 win-loss record and failure to reach the Stanley Cup final in his four tries, Sharks management decided that a change was in order.

Wilson joins Joel Quenneville and Paul Maurice as veteran coaches looking for employment this off season. Meanwhile, as James Mirtle wrote last Friday, there is another line of thinking that finding an AHL bench boss might be a more productive strategy – the “Bruce Boudreau” strategy, if you will.

Pro sports of all types are risk-averse entities given to trying to copy the latest success. In the matter of coaching, risk-aversion often means recycling the same set of names. Wilson has coached for three franchises in his 14 seasons behind an NHL bench. Quenneville has had two postings in his 11 seasons. Maurice has had two teams (three, if you count Hartford, the predecessor to the Carolina Hurricanes) in his 11 years. Other coaches with multiple teams on their resumes have already surfaced for vacancies. Pat Burns, for example – with four teams in 14 years on his resume – has already been identified as a potential candidate for both the Colorado and Toronto vacancies.

But while these coaches with more than one NHL stop in their careers are the focus of speculation in some quarters, coaches like John Anderson, Scott Gordon, Don Lever, and Randy Cunneyworth might be getting long looks by teams with vacancies in an attempt to recreate the success the Capitals had in selecting Bruce Boudreau.

There are a few clubs standing at that place where two roads diverge. On one lies familiarity as coaches with hundreds of games of experience become available. On the other lies risk as coaches with fine resumes at the minor league level stand ready to take the next step.

The Washington Capitals chose the road less taken twice in recent years. The first time – selecting the Grand Rapids Griffins’ Bruce Cassidy – was a famously unsuccessful experience. The second time, however, the club hit the jackpot with Adams Trophy finalist Bruce Boudreau, brought from behind the Hershey Bears’ bench 21 games into the season to lead the Caps to the playoffs.

This is going to make for some interesting decisions that bear watching and that might have repercussions that extend well into next year. Should these teams with vacancies take that less-travelled path, those experienced coaches will still be out there waiting and watching…

…and available.