It’s been an interesting start to the NHL season. The top teams in the league have leaped over those who have been in consistent contention. Some surprising clubs are sinking to the bottom, but they are in familiar if unexpected, territory.
This dichotomy is not the only matter of interest in the league. The summer involved a high rate of coaching turnover, and a relatively large number of those vacated positions were filled by candidates taking their first crack at the big time.
Rookie coaches are nothing new in the NHL, but the recent wave was surprisingly deep, with many experienced coaches being passed over for fresh faces. Lindy Ruff, for example, was forced to take an assistant coaching position with the New York Rangers after being relieved of his head coaching job with the Dallas Stars.
It has been a big year for these inexperienced replacements. They’ve stepped into jobs where fan bases have become disenchanted with their underachieving teams, and have rekindled hope in the jaded masses.
One of the biggest surprises has been the measured success of the Vancouver Canucks. Through 16 games, the Canucks are two points over .500 with a plus-2 goal differential. Head coach Travis Green came to the team highly touted, despite an overall mediocre showing with the team’s AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets. Green’s main claim to fame before getting the call-up to the NHL was his historic run with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL.
“We weren’t a good hockey team tonight and I haven’t said that many times this year.” – Coach Green pic.twitter.com/OqM0lWCoPc
— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) November 10, 2017
Green has pulled Vancouver from second-to-last in the league to third in the Pacific – a playoff spot if the season were to end today. He’s done so with two backup goaltenders and an aging pair of Swedish twins, after Willie Desjardins failed to meet expectations the year before.
The Sedins are doing more with less, their ice time diminished to fewer than 14 minutes a night. It was a genius move from the green coach, but a necessary one as the brothers approach 38 years old. In their stead, Green has utilized Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat, who is carrying the team on their backs as they bolster the late careers of the Sedins, Thomas Vanek and Sam Gagner. Even defensemen Michael Del Zotto and Chris Tanev are in Vancouver’s top 10 in scoring, with Tanev striving to double his production from last season.
Former New York Islanders assistant coach Doug Weight got a jump on the competition, taking the reins from Jack Capuano on an interim basis in the 2016-17 season. He led the Islanders to a 24-12-4 record to finish the year and earned the full-time bench boss position.
In his time with the Isles, the team has improved and team leader John Tavares finally seems happy again. On top of that, Weight has turned rookie Matthew Barzal into one of the NHL’s brightest young stars; Barzal is second in scoring among first-year players.
If the season ended today, the Islanders would be the first wild-card team in the Eastern Conference – quite an improvement from missing the playoffs last season. The team has not been without its struggles, but there is no question the Islanders are on the upswing, and Weight has certainly made his mark.
Of course, there are rookie coaches who are struggling. Bob Boughner in Florida and Phil Housley in Buffalo, for example. This makes the accomplishments of Weight and Green even more impressive, especially with the roster Housley has in Buffalo.
It is difficult to predict that either Vancouver or New York will be in the hunt in March; however, almost 20 games into the year, they’ve set themselves up for success in their first seasons with new NHL head coaches.