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Offseason could bring dramatic coaching changes

The offseason could turn into a game of musical chairs for head coaches with Todd McLellan, Mike Babcock and Paul MacLean possibly getting hired by new teams. Dave Reginek/Getty Images

The July 1 unrestricted free agent player pool this year leaves you quite cold, but luckily there should be action behind the bench that livens up the NHL offseason like rarely before.

This has the potential to be, quite frankly, one of the most intriguing and dramatic offseasons in the NHL coaching world in quite some time.

Let’s take a tour, shall we?

The San Jose Sharks will very likely miss the postseason for the first time since 2002-03. Todd McLellan has been head coach for seven seasons and the question is whether he pays the price for the team’s decline, even though the club is undergoing a very public, rebuild-on-the-fly transition. He’s got one more season left on his deal.

If McLellan is fired, he’d be a hot commodity on the open market. My sense is the Toronto Maple Leafs are among the teams that like him a lot. But the list would not be short in that regard. This guy is one of the very best coaches in the league. He’s a great hire if he indeed becomes free.

McLellan went to San Jose from Detroit in June 2008 after helping Mike Babcock coach the Red Wings to a Stanley Cup that spring. Babcock’s future, of course, looms large over the entire off-season coaching carousel. The game’s biggest pending UFA coach plans to decide after the season what he’s going to do -- re-sign with the Detroit Red Wings or hit the market for a bigger payday.

The question is whether Babcock has seen enough of the impressive next-generation core of the Red Wings this season to convince him to stay, albeit for less money than what he could make in a place like Toronto. Or Philadelphia? Or Buffalo? Or elsewhere?

The Wings will make a very good offer. His decision, either way, will have a domino effect.

The Boston Bruins are sitting out of a playoff spot as I write this and that can’t be good for head coach Claude Julien, at least if you go by the veiled hints made this season by the owner’s son Charlie Jacobs and team president Cam Neely. It seems crazy to me that Julien, one of the game’s most respected coaches and the guy who guided the Bruins to 2011 glory, could be fired. But that’s the feeling you get from the vibes coming out of Boston. And if he hits the market, holy moly, that’s another huge fish.

Media in Philadelphia over the past few days have deliberated over Craig Berube’s future as coach of the Philadelphia Flyers and have speculated that he might be in danger of being fired. General manager Ron Hextall, after all, hasn’t had the chance to hire his own coach yet. The Flyers’ job would be a plum opening for sure, the kind of big-market job most coaches salivate over.

Which brings us to Toronto, of course, where the Maple Leafs will need a new head coach. Whether it’s Babcock or McLellan or whomever, it’s doubtful it won’t be a marquee name. But the next Leafs coach also will know when he signs on the dotted line that there’s a long-term rebuild that he’s going to have to weather.

Does Dave Tippett stay with the Arizona Coyotes? He’s under contract for three more seasons and loves the Phoenix area where he’s built a home, but I don’t think he’s interested in a long, long rebuild. He needs to know that the plan is to win sooner rather than later. At least that’s my sense. If he somehow became free, he’d be in high demand. But perhaps he stays put.

It’s long been rumored that Ted Nolan could be fired at season’s end by the rebuilding Buffalo Sabres as GM Tim Murray gets to hire his first coach. There have been rumors about whether Murray likes Luke Richardson as his next guy given his former ties to the Ottawa Senators organization. But who knows if Richardson even wants to leave his AHL gig. He's said to be very happy there.

But you also have to ask yourself after seeing Sabres owner Terry Pegula shell out big bucks to lure Rex Ryan to coach his football team whether the Sabres wouldn’t want to take a similar approach with the hockey team’s coaching position -- Babcock, for example. Keep in mind that Murray had a hand in giving Babcock his first NHL coaching job in Anaheim way back.

Will the Edmonton Oilers keep interim coach Todd Nelson on board? The team has responded well to him, the players seem to like him, the power play is better and heck, Nail Yakupov is better under him. Rival scouts say the Oilers have better structure under Nelson. But can the Oilers really afford to name a first-time head coach for the third time in a row after Dallas Eakins and Ralph Krueger?

Mind you, they should have never fired Krueger. Krueger is a good coach and he was on to something with that young Oilers team.

Devils GM Lou Lamoriello has to figure out his bench, too, as in not standing behind it next season and deciding either between co-coaches Adam Oates and Scott Stevens or looking elsewhere. Reached Wednesday, Lamoriello simply told ESPN.com he would make a coaching decision after the season.

First-round playoff exits could also prove costly, as they often do. I can’t imagine Bruce Boudreau can afford to lose early with the Anaheim Ducks and there are some who wonder what happens if Ken Hitchcock doesn’t get the St. Louis Blues out of the first round. (As an aside, how good a fit would Hitchcock be in his native Edmonton to teach the Oilers?)

Boudreau and Hitchcock would potentially be two other big names on the market, although I hope they have long playoff runs and they stay in place instead.

Let’s not forget that there are free agents already out there, the likes of Peter DeBoer, Dan Bylsma, Randy Carlyle, Paul MacLean, Ron Wilson, John Tortorella et al.

And another wild-card to all this: Who gets Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel? The draft lottery in April could have a big impact on how certain coaching jobs look to candidates. So in many ways, perhaps the draft lottery is the biggest domino factor of all.

Buckle up, this is shaping up to be the summer of the coach.