After a grand total of zero head coaches fired during the 2017-18 season, the 2018-19 season has seen 4 coaches fired by the 20-game mark. John Stevens of the LA Kings, Mike Yeo of the St. Louis Blues, Todd McLellan of the Edmonton Oilers, and of course Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks have all been let go by their respective teams. Quenneville has been the target of most Flyers fans the minute he was relieved of his duties in Chicago, for reasons I don’t think I need to explain. And we’re all seemingly waiting to be enraged by another team taking the highly decorated bench boss off the open market while we continue to toil in mediocrity under our current head coach.
But is Quenneville the only option out there, either now or in the near future? Could there even be, dare I say, better options potentially available? I’m here to argue that there may very well be, and two names in particular come to mind.
Sheldon Keefe was drafted in the 2nd round of the 1999 NHL Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning. He had a cup of coffee in the NHL, playing 125 games over 3 separate seasons. He played just 5 professional seasons between the NHL, IHL and AHL before hanging up the skates and joining the coaching ranks. Keefe worked his way up from the bottom, starting with a Junior A club, the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the CCHL, in 2006 (he actually purchased the team in 2003). He brought the club its first league championship in his first year as coach and GM and went on to win three more during his tenure. In 2012, Keefe would go on to coach in the OHL where he would take the then struggling Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and turn them into a juggernaut, eventually winning OHL and CHL Coach of the Year in 2014-15. He did not win a league championship in the CHL, though running into Connor McDavid’s Erie Otter teams in his two runs to the playoffs likely had something to do with that. In 2015, Keefe would move on to his current position as head coach of the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, who have gone 147-63-15 over his 3 full seasons as coach and won last year’s Calder Cup.
Background aside, Keefe is known as a more modern and progressive coach. An article by Adam Herman of Blueshirt Banter talks about Keefe being a believer in analytics and applying them to his coaching style. What really caught my eye, though, was this tidbit in particular:
I was told a story recently where Keefe had to spend time in training camp with new players and force them to unlearn cliche concepts of getting pucks deep and making safe plays. Keefe wants a team that values possession of the puck. His teams execute breakouts so well, and do not punt the puck when under pressure in the neutral zone.
I think it really highlights Keefe’s modern approach to the game and is something many of us Flyers fans have been hoping to see this team progress towards. He’s worked with talented young players over the past three years such as Travis Dermott, Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Hyman and William Nylander. Keefe is a young coach on the rise and with Babcock in place in Toronto, it’s unlikely he has a job in the NHL waiting for him with the Leafs any time soon. Keefe is certainly a name I would be on the watch for should the Flyers find themselves looking for a new coach.
Of the two coaches in this article, Nelson would be my 1 to Keefe’s 1a. The 79th overall pick in the 1989 Draft, Nelson would go on to play just 3 NHL games throughout his professional career. His coaching career would begin in the UHL in 2001 where he was a player coach/assistant coach for the Muskegon Fury. The next season he became an assistant coach for the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL (Red Wings’ affiliate) but returned the following year to be the head coach in Muskegon where he would win back-to-back league championships in his first 2 seasons. He had a few more assistant coaching gigs with the Chicago Wolves (2006-2008) and Oklahoma City Barons (2010-2014) of the AHL, winning the Calder Cup in 2007. Nelson had a few jobs in the NHL sprinkled in between 2008 and 2014 – assistant coach with the Thrashers in 2008, interim head coach of the Oilers in the 2014-15 season. After the Oilers hired Todd McLellan in 2015, Nelson would return to Grand Rapids as head coach, winning the Calder Cup in 2017. Nelson is currently an assistant coach with the Dallas Stars.
Todd Nelson, like Keefe, has won on multiple levels as a coach, but what really stands out to me when reading about him is his coaching philosophy. Craig Custance of The Athletic had a Q&A with Nelson in July of last year after he had interviewed with the Coyotes for their head coaching position. It was a fantastic read and I highly recommend it. What stood out most was this quote in which Custance asked Nelson about his aggressive coaching philosophy:
Craig Custance: I heard your aggressive philosophy was one of the things that impressed the Coyotes most during your interview. How would you describe your philosophy as a coach?
Todd Nelson: “I think in this day and age, if you wait for something bad to happen it’s going to happen. Why not try to dictate play? That goes along with my system work, that goes along with my philosophy. I hate the term, ‘Let’s weather the storm.’ I hate that because you’re in a defensive mode versus ‘We fight fire with fire’ and we’re going to jam it down their throat. Over the course of a game or series you have to adjust tactics; I get that. Those are the adjustments you have to make. I want to force them to beat us. If I get beat, I don’t want to do it in a defensive mode. I want to go after them. If they beat us, I tip my hat to them.”
His emphasis on aggressiveness, creating turnovers, a “jam it down their throat” mentality would be a breath of fresh air in Philadelphia. He’s a believer in analytics and a progressive style, even using a five-forward power play unit in Grand Rapids during the 2016-17 season (which by the way, lead the AHL in efficiency that year and scored 43.8% of their power play goals, according to this article from Winging It in Motown). That said, he’s not a robot. In the Custance article he also talks about being highly invested in his players off the ice and wanting to create a family atmosphere within the team. The Q&A ends with Custance saying, “The game needs more creativity”, to which Nelson responds, “I agree. I just want the opportunity to show it”. Tell me, does that not excite you as a fan? Would you not want that man coaching your team? I know I would.
Resumé is obviously important, particularly a winning one. You’d like to know the coach you are hiring has had success in the past, maybe even won one or multiple championships as Keefe and Nelson have in their respective careers. But maybe just as important if not more so is their coaching style. Their scheme, their tactics with players both during and between games, their philosophy and their ability to adjust it all to the roster they have in place. Neither of these coaches have really done it at the NHL level and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Hextall would choose to go with more experience should he decide to move on from a coach in Dave Hakstol who was certainly a risky hire.
But like many of us, I want to see the Flyers move forward as an organization. I want to see this team step into the modern era of hockey, maybe even rise to the forefront and break down walls themselves. With either Keefe or Nelson, Hextall would be taking a risk, but in my opinion, it would be a risk well worth taking.