AHL Coaches Are The New Black

Two NHL clubs hired new coaches earlier today. The Wild and Stars both interviewed a variety of candidates, including a pair of highly experienced former NHL coaches – Craig MacTavish pursued the Minnesota job, while Ken Hitchcock was interviewed for the top gig in Dallas – before settling on the young coaches running their respective AHL farm teams.

Mike Yeo, the new bench boss in Minnesota, turns 38 at the end of July. He will be the youngest coach in the NHL. Glen Gulutzan, who got the job in Dallas, will turn 40 midway through August. Neither has been a long-term member of his current organization – Yeo took over the Wild’s farm team just last year after working as an assistant to Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh, while Gulutzan just finished his second season with the Texas Stars.

Both are interesting hires, particularly given which coaches we saw in the conference finals this season. While it’s true that former AHL coaches like Bruce Boudreau, Dan Bylsma and most recently Guy Boucher have enjoyed success with their teams, it was a pair of NHL re-treads – Claude Julien and Alain Vigneault – who found themselves the last men standing at the end of the season.

In any case, both Yeo and Gulutzan have positives, based on their previous coaching work. Let’s start with Gulutzan.

Gulutzan had a fairly pedestrian playing career, as far as coaches go. He had a couple of nice seasons in the WHL, spent some time playing Canadian university hockey, and spent most of his professional career in the WCHL with the Fresno Falcons. That’s how he got into coaching, spending his last two seasons with Fresno as a player-coach before getting a job as the head coach of Calgary’s ECHL affiliate in Las Vegas. He spent six seasons in the ECHL, with his last four years being his most successful – his team made it at least as far as the third round in all four years. As a rookie AHL coach, he took the Texas Stars to the AHL finals in 2009-10. There is also no shortage of people happy about his hiring:

Mike Heika, Dallas Morning News:

“Yes, [Gulutzan] is young, and yes he is cheap, but those aren’t the reasons Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk selected him. He picked Gulutzan because he has a history of winning, he knows how to be a head coach and run a program, and because he has shown an ability to adapt to the talent that’s available.”

Brandon Worley, Defending Big D:

“Gulutzan is a coach that knows the organization well and has been instrumental in building hockey into an extremely popular sport in Austin. He’s a very charismatic coach who gets along well with the media, who is honest while being very sincere and forthcoming publicly. His ability to connect with the fans and the public is going to be a big key into repairing the damage done the past three seasons and he’ll be counted upon to not only help rebuild the hockey team, but also to help restore the faith of a fanbase that is hungry for anything resembling hope. More importantly, he’s one hell of a hockey coach.”

Yeo is a less-experienced head coach. While Gulutzan has spent eight years in the role, Yeo’s first season as head coach was 2010-11. He has, however, been an assistant coach in the Penguins’ AHL and NHL system since 2000-01.

Yeo has been a survivor. He kept his job as an assistant in Wilkes-Barre when they made the switch from Glenn Patrick to Michel Therrien, and followed the latter to an NHL job with the parent Penguins. When Therrien was replaced by Dan Bylsma, Yeo again retained his position. In 2010-11, he took over the top job in Houston from Kevin Constantine, and presided over an improvement of 12 wins over the previous season (though admittedly a lot of that improvement had to do with going from 3-5 to 10-5 in shootouts). Like Gulutzan, it’s easy to find people optimistic about the hiring:

Chuck Fletcher, Wild GM:

“He knows how to motivate players, he knows how to get players to buy into what he’s selling and why they should and get them to believe in it, and that’s a hard skill to master. I’ve seen it when he was an assistant coach in Pittsburgh, and I saw it this year when he’s been a head coach. I’ve seen it with young players like Colton Gillies and I’ve seen it with veteran players like Crosby and Guerin and (Sergei) Gonchar. He finds a way to get buy-in. To me that’s a hallmark of a good leader and a good coach.”

Bryan Reynolds, Hockey Wilderness:

“That said, the hiring of Mike Yeo is a great one. He is a great choice, and Fletcher is right, he fits the team. At least on paper. Yeo has some solid defensive team training from Therrien and Tippet, he coached an Aeros team that was strong defensively, and has shown he can win with players that shouldn’t be able to win.”

With both of these coaches, it’s tough to really get a read on them from the records of their minor pro teams. However, the fact that both impressed their respective general managers enough in short farm club tenures to get a shot at an NHL job speaks loudly in their favour.