As well as preparing players for the rigours of the NHL, the AHL does a fantastic job of doing the same for coaches who ply their trade at this level.
I take a look at the coaches I think should be getting the chance to step up sooner than later.
Keith McCambridge – St. John’s IceCaps
Despite just 40 years of age, McCambridge has been coaching in the professional game since 2003.
A late round pick by the Calgary Flames, his playing career never reached any great heights and he spent his last three years on the ice as Player-Assistant with the Alaska Aces of the ECHL.
In the last of those seasons , the Aces won the Kelly Cup upon where McCambridge hung up his skates and became an Assistant coach in 2006 before being named head coach for the 2007/08 campaign.
His two years in charge of the Aces were relatively successful with a Round 3 and Kelly Cup final loss , where he was unlucky to come up against the dominant South Carolina Stingrays who had a certain Travis Morin amongst their number.
Two seasons as an Assistant coach in Manitoba would follow, where McCambridge served under Scott Arniel and Claude Noël.
When the team was relocated, McCambridge became the first ever coach of the St.John’s IceCaps in 2011 and almost capped a fairytale inaugural season before losing in the Eastern Conference Finals to the incredible powerhouse that was the Norfolk Admirals.
The lockout season was a struggle for many AHL teams and the IceCaps failed to make the post season but McCambridge guided his team this season all the way to the Calder Finals were they pushed the Texas Stars hard in a series that may have only lasted five games, but included three straight overtime finishes.
Being coach of the IceCaps brings it’s own set of unique problems, travel and weather to name but two and huge credit to McCambridge for the teams 121-84-23 record under his reign.
Luke Richardson – Binghamton Senators
Richardson’s long playing career in the NHL came to an end early in the 2008/09 season and he was immediately hired by the Ottawa Senators as an assistant coach.
After three seasons he was then given the job at head coach of the Binghamton Senators, who were in a rebuilding phase after the Calder Cup Championship team of two years previous had been broken up.
Despite having an extremely inexperienced roster, Richardson has led the team to successive 44-24-8 records, qualifying for the post season in the process.
The lockout season started well as Binghamton were able to use top prospects like Jakob Silfverberg and the team held the best record in the AHL at one point before January when the NHL got back to work. The playoffs would see a tough 3-0 series loss against a street wise Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins.
This past season would see Binghamton cope with losing their best players to Ottawa at different times this season, with notable losses being top scorers Hoffman and Da Costa towards the back end of the year.
Beating their rivals WBS Pens in the penultimate game of the season would see Binghamton clinch the divisional title and the third seed but this would set-up a second consecutive match-up with their rivals in the playoffs. The first three games of the series would be decided in overtime but once more WBS would come out on top, this time by three games to one.
Two round one losses may not sound like success but Richardson has achieved this with a roster averaging less than 23 years of age, and with the loss of five to six of the teams best players at times.
Richardson’s ability to get Ottawa’s young prospect NHL ready has been well noted this year and another year of success in Binghamton may well see bigger opportunities for him.
John Hynes – Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins
John Hynes isn’t your archetypal coach. With no playing career to speak of, from 1996 – 2009 Hynes coached in the NCAA and USDP, with the majority of his time spent in the junior side of the game.
During that time he also coached the USA U18 and U20’s teams, winning gold as head coach on two occasions.
In 2009, Hynes took a step up into the AHL as an Assistant coach for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, serving under Todd Reirden.
The following season would see Reirden promoted to the Pittsburgh Penguins with Hynes taking the Head coaching duties in Wilkes-Barre.
Under his leadership, WBS Penguins have been the model of consistency and an extremely tough team to play against.
His rookie season in charge saw a monumental 58-20-0-1 record (80 game season) and in the process top the Eastern Conference.
The following year would see his team keep up their consistency by finishing second in the East.
Both playoff runs in those years would see round two exits to Charlotte and St. John’s respectively.
The 2012/13 season would bring another divisional title and the third seed in the East.
Going one step further in the playoffs before falling to Syracuse Crunch in the Conference Finals.
This past season was a tougher affair for WBS, making the playoffs with just four points to spare.
Despite being seeded sixth, they blew past Binghamton 3-1 before coming out on top in an epic battle with top seeded Providence Bruins which went all the way to seven games.
St. John’s in the conference finals would prove a step too far as they fell in six games but perhaps in context of Hynes four years in charge, this was their best season.
Hynes hard-edged coaching style made him a candidate for the Pittsburgh Penguins job this summer but he was passed over in favour of Mike Johnston. With Hynes confirmed as staying with WBS for 2014/15 it’ll be interesting to see the direction the team takes but I find it hard to believe there won’t be an NHL gig for him soon.
Jeff Blashill – Grand Rapids Griffins
Former NCAA goaltender Jeff Blashill has 15 years of coaching experience at just 40 years of age.
Nine years of being an Assistant coach in the NCAA for Ferris State and then Miami University’s, was followed by his first Head coaching job in the USHL with Indiana Ice. A first season in charge would see his team crowned Clark Cup Champions and they would come close to regaining their championship the following year.
Blashill’s success would result in an NCAA head coaching job with Western Michigan.
He would lead the team to a top-four finish in the CCHA, the CCHA Championship game, and the 2011 NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament, the best season for Western Michigan in 15 years.
Blashill would be lauded with personal plaudits after that season as he was named USCHO Coach of the Year, Inside College Hockey Coach of the Year, and College Hockey News Coach of the Year.
The Detroit Red Wings came calling and an Assistant coaching job under Mike Babcock for the 2011/12 season. With Curt Fraser leaving the Grand Rapids Griffins for the Dallas Stars, Blashill was installed as the Griffins Head coach for the 12/13 season. The rest is history as Blashill enjoyed more first year success as he guided the Griffins to their first ever Calder Cup Championship.
With a lot of the top talent Blashill had help mould during that championship win now gone, the Griffins weren’t quite as dominant in 2013/14 but still made it to the second round of the playoffs before falling to eventual Calder Cup Champions, Texas Stars.
There would be more personal achievement however as the young coach was awarded the Louis A. R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s most outstanding coach .
His record as head coach of the Griffins stands at a combined 88-49-15 during the regular season.
The Detroit Red Wings obviously think of a lot of his work as they tied Blashill up to a three contract contra which will see him through until the 2016-17 season, but I would not be surprised if an NHL GM comes calling before then.
Todd Nelson – Oklahoma City Barons
A fourth round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nelson’s career hits no heights higher than three NHL games. His varied playing days took him to Germany and Finland before returning for one last season on the ice as player -assistant coach for Muskegon Fury of the UHL.
The following 2002/03 season saw him back at his old stomping ground in Michigan as an Assistant-coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins before returning as Head coach of the Muskegon Fury the next year.
Three seasons in charge would bring two championships and a second round loss in the post-season.
His success would see him back in the AHL as Assistant coach for the Chicago Wolves for two seasons before taking the step up to the NHL, holding the same position with the Atlanta Thrashers for the same term.
Nelson was then offered a job as Head coach the Edmonton Oilers newly formed affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons.
It was never going to be an easy job as the previous affiliation (three years) with Springfield had been a total disaster, including one campaign which saw the team lose 17 straight games and finish rock bottom of the standings.
It was nothing short of a miracle then when Nelson turned things around in his first season as OKC recorded 40 wins and made the playoffs.
A first round exit was perhaps inevitable but topping the Western Conference the following season certainly wasn’t. A 45-22-0-9 record (76 game season) meant they dominated during the regular season and they would continue to do so in the playoffs as they dropped just two games through the first two rounds. The Toronto Marlies would prove their stumbling block in the Conference Finals.
The 2012/13 campaign saw another 40 wins during the regular season and once more they would fall in the Conference Final, this time to eventual Calder Cup Champions Grand Rapids Griffins.
The past season was a topsy-turvy one for OKC with injuries and call-ups a plenty, but they still managed a fourth straight winning season and another shot at the playoffs. They would encounter the Calder Cup Champions once more, this time in the form of the Texas Stars, and despite the 3-0 series loss they pushed Texas hard with the opening two games only decided in overtime.
Nelson is a coach who really get’s the most out of his players and his success/changing the fortunes of Edmonton’s affiliate, brought his name to the attention of Carolina Hurricanes this summer.
Willie Desjardins – Texas Stars
The Vancouver Canucks beat me to the punch as they made Desjardins their new Head coach
The 57 year old had a varied coaching career before making it into the establishment of the professional game. Nine seasons split being an Assistant and Head coach at the University of Calgary, was ended in 1994 as he headed to Japan to coach Seibu Bears Tokyo. He would win consecutive championships before coming back to North America to coach Saskatoon Blades midway through the 1997/98 season and named Assistant coach of Team Canada the year after.
Desjardins wouldn’t return to hockey until 2002 and nine successful years followed as Head coach of the Medicine Hat Tigers. In his first season in charge he led the team to their first playoff appearance in five seasons and would bring two championships in total.
His reward would be getting hired by the Dallas Stars as an Assistant coach where he held that position for two seasons before taking up the reigns of the Texas Stars who had finished 29th in the AHL the season before. Desjardins turned the teams fortunes around immediately as the Stars accumulated 43 victories in winning the Western Conference. A shock second round loss to Oklahoma City Barons only seemed to spur efforts for this year as Texas dominated the Western Conference once again, this time surpassing the 100 point barrier. This time they carried on their dominance as they won the Calder Cup for the first time in the team’s five year history and Desjardins deservedly took much of the credit and earned his first shot at a Head coaching job in the NHL.