In hindsight, it was the only move they could have made.
On May 16, the Vegas Golden Knights officially fired head coach Peter DeBoer after a disappointing 2021-22 campaign that saw the NHL’s 31st franchise miss the playoffs for the first time in their history.
While injuries certainly were part of the issue plaguing the team, there were a few reasons that pointed to DeBoer’s downfall. The post-All Star break saw the team struggle and fall from first in the Pacific Division to out of the postseason entirely, including a crucial stretch that saw the team win only once in their final six games. There were also thinly-veiled jabs thrown at starting goaltender Robin Lehner in this stretch, despite Lehner playing injured and even considering season-ending surgery. After the team missed the playoffs, GM Kelly McCrimmon pointed out that management would meet with DeBoer to discuss the future of the team. While details on such a meeting are minimal at the time of this article, DeBoer’s firing is likely an indication that the team sought a new direction.
While the ultimate reason behind DeBoer’s firing is unclear, something that may have played a role in the decision was the glut of candidates that the Knights now have available.
While the Knights will be looking for their third coach in just five seasons, this will be their first real coaching search; the team announced DeBoer’s hiring at the same time as the firing of inaugural coach Gerard Gallant. They will also be competing with the Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, and the Winnipeg Jets for their candidates, and that list doesn’t include any other team who may seek a change in direction after a disappointing postseason run. While Vegas faces a serious cap crunch for next season, most of their current core is still locked up for the foreseeable future, so any roster reconfiguration might not damage the chance of a potential Stanley Cup run too badly. This is a team and ownership group that clearly want to win now, which should attract some attention.
In no particular order, these are the six candidates who I would vouch for to take the job:
Barry Trotz, former New York Islanders head coach: Let’s get the obvious name out of the way first, shall we?
Trotz was a name no one was anticipating to lose his job, even after this season ended. The Islanders had injury issues like Vegas did, but also had to contend with a staggering 13-game road trip to start the year while preparing to open the new UBS Arena. Despite all of these issues, the Islanders still finished the season with a top-10 defense, a threshold that the team has crossed in all four years of Trotz’s tenure. This includes a top-ranked defense in the 2018-19 season, which is relevant because of the team’s Jennings Trophy-winning starting goaltender that year: Robin Lehner.
Outside of Lehner potentially vouching for the coach that oversaw his career year, there are other reasons the Knights should be circling Trotz. He has the championship pedigree from winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 which, ironically enough, came against Vegas. He will install a defense-first system that should assist a team like Vegas that doesn’t have a de facto starting goaltender. While he won’t be able to bring top assistant Lane Lambert, who took Trotz’s place as coach of the Islanders, there should be plenty of potential assistant coaches that can help fix what’s been an inconsistent offense and special teams unit.
With how aggressive Vegas has been in the past with their personnel decisions, it would make sense for McCrimmon and owner Bill Foley to send their best possible offer to the top coaching candidate on the market.
Claude Julien, Team Canada and former Boston Bruins head coach: I’m not typically a fan of hiring retreads, but Julien’s mentality and credentials would make him worth a look.
Julien’s NHL career has seen him serve as a head coach to the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens, two prestigious franchises in high-profile hockey markets. While his tenure in Montreal was hit-or-miss, his time in Boston was a success. The Bruins made it out of the First Round five of seven times the team made it to the postseason, including being Stanley Cup Champions in 2011 and Eastern Conference Champions in 2013. He would also win the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach in the 2008-09 season.
Julien, much like Trotz, would implement a defensive-minded system that has allowed his teams to succeed in both the regular season and the playoffs. More importantly, however, is his current connection to Team Canada. In Canada’s current run at the World Championships, Vegas is represented by Logan Thompson, Nic Roy, and Zach Whitecloud, so they will have experience playing in Julien’s system. If Team Canada is successful and the Vegas contingent enjoy playing under Julien, that could go a long way towards putting him in good position to land the Knights job.
There will be plenty of former NHL head coaches that will be seeking a return behind the bench. If Vegas can’t land Trotz, Julien would be an excellent backup plan.
Jim Montgomery, St. Louis Blues assistant coach: Even among coaches with NHL experience, Montgomery’s addition here may come across as a bit unorthodox.
Since beginning his head coaching career in 2010, Montgomery has had major success at every level he’s been in. He won championships with the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2010 and 2012, as well as with the University of Denver Pioneers in 2017. That success would see the Dallas Stars select him as their head coach for the 2018-19 season. That year, the Stars would make it to the playoffs with the second-best defense in the league, advancing to the Second Round before being bounced by eventual champion St. Louis in a double-overtime Game 7. Midway through the next season, however, Montgomery was fired for “unprofessional conduct” that was later revealed to be alcohol abuse. Despite being coached in the interim by Rick Bowness, the Stars would once again have the second-best defense in the league and make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, indicating that Montgomery’s style of play has a track record of postseason success.
Since then, Montgomery has started to rebuild his reputation with the St. Louis Blues, working under one of the NHL’s best coaches in Craig Berube. While any team that wants Montgomery will have to ensure that his personal demons have been conquered, he also stands as one of the more interesting propositions amongst all of the coaching candidates. Despite his short track record at the NHL level, the results have shown a strong defensive-minded coach who earns the trust of his players. That’s the kind of mentality a team like Vegas could use to push them over the hump.
Montgomery would be a calculated risk, that much is certain. However, he could be the risk that pays huge dividends for the Knights.
Derek Lalonde, Tampa Bay Lightning assistant coach: Now, we get into the candidates who have never held an NHL head coaching job before. What better way to start than the top lieutenant of the two-time defending champions?
While Lalonde has never been an NHL head coach, he’s had success at nearly every level he’s been a coach in. In previous stops in the USHL and ECHL, he won the award for best coach in both leagues. After a short stint in the AHL, Lalonde was hired by Steve Yzerman to serve as an assistant to Jon Cooper for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning would win the President’s Trophy in his first season under Cooper and, more importantly, would win the Stanley Cup in the next two seasons. It bodes well for Lalonde’s chances to land a spot at the NHL level.
While Detroit would be an obvious landing spot due to his connection with Yzerman, there’s reason for Vegas to throw their hat in the ring. Lalonde’s experience in Tampa gives him experience with superstar-laden teams that are suffering from cap issues, which describes the Knights to a T right now. Bonus points would come if Lalonde could lure a potential assistant in Benoit Groulx, the current head coach of Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse who has overseen the development of many young players on the Lightning right now.
There’s nothing wrong with choosing to zig while the rest of the league zags. In a coaching world that favors those with experience, Vegas hiring Lalonde would be a breath of fresh air that the franchise needs right now.
Spencer Carbery, Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach: Well, the Knights are built like the NHL equivalent of the Los Angeles Rams. Why not try and find their Sean McVay?
Carbery, who will only be 40 years old by the time next season begins, is already establishing himself as a name on the rise. He hit the ground running with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays, building them up in his five years there and winning their coach of the year award in 2014. Even more impressive was his turnaround of the AHL’s Hershey Bears, taking them from one of the league’s bottom-feeders to one of its elite. It culminated in a coach of the year award in 2019 and a first-place finish for Hershey in 2021. This season, Toronto brought him up to breathe life into what was a middling power-play unit, and the results have been superb as Toronto put together the league’s best power play.
That last anecdote should be what draws Vegas’s attention over to Carbery. In DeBoer’s two full seasons as head coach in Vegas, the power play finished bottom-ten on both occasions. It looked far too predictable, the players seemed to lose confidence on the man advantage, and the team would go for long stretches without a power play goal. With the amount of offensive talent this team has, that should be considered unacceptable. Bringing in Carbery, who has experience working on the power play with some of the best offensive players in the league, should certainly see improvement in that area in order to not put so much pressure on defense and goaltending.
We’ve seen before in the sports world that hiring a young coach before his market value hits a premium pays off sometimes. Why shouldn’t Vegas embrace that mentality with Carbery?
Mike Vellucci, Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach: Want a veteran coach without wading through the endless supply of retreads? Vellucci is your candidate of choice.
Vellucci served thirteen years as the head coach of the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, most notably winning the league championship and Coach of the Year honors in 2007. After a stint as assistant GM in the Carolina Hurricanes organization, he would return behind the bench in 2017 for the Charlotte Checkers, Carolina’s AHL affiliate. He would eventually win the Calder Cup and the Coach of the Year award in the 2018-19 season against Vegas’s then-affiliate Chicago Wolves. Pittsburgh would call him up to serve on Mike Sullivan’s staff the following season, working with the forwards and penalty kill unit. This season saw a marked improvement on the latter, going from a bottom-five unit in 2020-21 to the third-best penalty kill this year. That kind of turnaround will get noticed by the league, especially with Vegas.
In 2020-21, Vegas had the league’s best penalty kill, but the team saw that statistic drop below the top twenty this year. While injuries to key penalty killers played a role in that drop, Vegas firing DeBoer likely indicates that management doesn’t plan to accept that as an excuse in any facet. Vellucci was also responsible for the development of current Knight Nic Roy, who might be an advocate for his former coach to take the role in Vegas.
Vellucci’s success at the AHL and NHL levels should appeal to plenty of teams who want an outside-of-the-box candidate. He’ll be on Vegas’s radar in some capacity.