The top rising candidates for NHL coach, GM jobs

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If there's anything we know about NHL hiring practices, it's that they can be predictable. Since 2005-06, there have been 171 head-coaching changes in the NHL -- more than the NFL, NBA or MLB. However, 101 of the 171 new hires had previous head-coaching experience, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. That 59.1% rate of "retreads" is also the highest among the other three major men's professional sports leagues in North America.

So with three coaching vacancies already open this cycle -- the Arizona Coyotes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Seattle Kraken -- it's easy to guess who will get first looks. John Tortorella (who recently parted with Columbus after six years), Rick Tocchet (done in Arizona after four years) and Gerard Gallant (who took the NHL season off after being dismissed by Vegas in 2020) are going to be hot names. But other than them, who is next? And how about in management?

ESPN polled 22 people in and around the NHL -- agents, front-office executives, league officials -- and asked these very questions: Who is next up? Who is an up-and-comer? And who would you like to see considered for these roles? Here are the results.

Note: Candidates are presented alphabetically within each tier.

Jump ahead:
The next wave of coaches
Up-and-coming coaches
Out-of-the-box coach picks
The next wave of GMs
Up-and-coming GMs
Out-of-the-box GM picks

The next wave of coaches

Rikard Gronborg, ZCS Lions head coach

Though he is coaching in Switzerland now, the 52-year-old Gronborg is best known as being the longtime head coach of the Swedish national team. A few years ago, Gronborg's agent, Neil Glasberg, brought the coach to North America to introduce him to NHL teams. Gronborg got great feedback, but ultimately NHL teams just haven't been willing to step out of their comfort zone and hire non-North American born coaches, despite the fact that European players now comprise 30% of NHL rosters.

Though he is Swedish, Gronborg played college hockey at St. Cloud State in Minnesota, and he is married to an American.

"Gronberg has coached almost every big-time Swedish player in the league right now and he has some big-time supporters," Glasberg told ESPN last year. "Nicklas Lidstrom in Detroit, Mats Sundin, Daniel Alfredsson. The Sedins. They're all Gronborg supporters."

Lane Lambert, New York Islanders assistant coach

Lambert, 56, has been on Barry Trotz's staff in Nashville, Washington and now New York. He is known for getting the most out of his players, and was credited with the offensive breakouts of Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson before the Caps' Stanley Cup run. Lambert has been on NHL teams' radar for a while. He was a candidate for the Colorado Avalanche job in 2016 (which went to Jared Bednar) and the Anaheim Ducks' head-coaching vacancy in 2019 (Dallas Eakins).

Trotz has said Lambert is "long overdue" for a NHL head-coaching role. Detroit could be a landing spot for the former Red Wings player.

Nate Leaman, Providence College head coach

Leaman, 48, has been on the NHL radar ever since he led the Friars to an NCAA title in 2015 (beating out now-New York Rangers head coach David Quinn and Boston University in the title game).

"There's only one NCAA head coach I hear about that's being considered for NHL head coaching jobs right now, and that is Nate Leaman of Providence," one respondent said. "Obviously, USA Hockey thinks very highly of him, he's now coaching their World Juniors team. He's been linked to the Buffalo Sabres. I'm not sure if that's going to happen, especially if they stick with Don Granato. Either way, I think he could get a look somewhere in the next couple of years."

Kirk Muller, free agent

When the Canadiens fired Claude Julien in February, they also dismissed assistant Kirk Muller and promoted Dominique Ducharme to the head gig instead. It was surprising because Muller was seemingly next in line, as he served as interim coach during the 2020 playoffs after Julien was hospitalized with chest pains and underwent a heart procedure.

It was also not surprising.

"Kirk could never get the job in Montreal because he doesn't speak French," one respondent said. "It's a truth that everybody knows, but nobody can talk about. He's a very good coach, though. Well thought of through the league. I think someone will give him a chance again, eventually."

Patrick Roy, Quebec Remparts head coach/GM

Roy has already been an NHL coach, but stepped down from his role with the Avalanche in 2016, citing a lack of input on personnel decisions. But the Hockey Hall of Famer and four-time Stanley Cup champion recently announced that he was interested in pursuing NHL opportunities once again. He's been coaching in juniors, so he's very adapted to working with and getting the most out of younger players.

"Anyone looking for name-brand recognition will probably call Roy," one respondent said. "Goalies, by nature, are analytical and methodical. Many in the league assumed Marty [Martin Brodeur] would be next up, but it really depends on if he wants it and what he wants to do. ... I'd be interested to see Roy in a second chance."

Pascal Vincent, Manitoba Moose head coach

The 49-year-old Vincent is a Laval, Quebec, native -- which makes him an obvious inevitable candidate for the Montreal Canadiens gig; but, he's earned a spot in that conversation. He's been successful at every level, including being named the QMJHL Coach of the Year in 2008 and the AHL's most outstanding coach in 2018. What he's done in the Winnipeg Jets organization recently has not gone unnoticed.

"The Manitoba Moose were in first place at the same time as the Winnipeg Jets; do you understand how rare that is? It's usually one team performing and the other not," a respondent said. "The Jets have some guys really developing nicely for them, and overperforming this season, like Logan Stanley and that [Jansen] Harkins kid. They developed on the Moose, under Vincent."

Up-and-coming coaches

Spencer Carbery, Hershey Bears head coach

Carbery, 39, just earned a three-year extension with the Hershey Bears, the Washington Capitals' AHL affiliate, which he negotiated himself. Carbery is a rising star in hockey, as his teams have finished below .500 just once in eight seasons at the pro level. His best work yet was engineering a 17-game point streak in 2018-19 that took Hershey from last place to the playoffs.

"He's definitely on the NHL head-coaching track," one respondent said. "Bright guy. Passionate."

Kris Knoblauch, Hartford Wolfpack head coach

While Rangers owner James Dolan recently dismissed his general manager, Jeff Gorton, and well-liked president John Davidson, many around the league actually look at the Rangers as a model for engineering a swift rebuild, especially with so many young players making strides this season.

"One person to credit for that is Kris Knoblauch," a respondent said. "He's done a great job with the Rangers' farm team. He was the guy responsible for making sure those guys were ready."

Knoblauch, 42, filled in for David Quinn when the coaching staff was knocked out with COVID and led the Rangers to a 3-2 record -- including a 9-0 win over the Flyers in his first game behind the bench.

Jay Leach, Providence Bruins head coach

The former NHL player already has five years of head-coaching experience in the AHL. But he's also experienced as an assistant on NHL benches and has worked under coaches like Mike Sullivan and Geoff Ward. Leach would have supporters among GMs with ties to USA Hockey.

"Jay wants to learn, he's not in a rush," one respondent said. "He'll be a sought-after head coach one day."

Troy Mann, Belleville Senators head coach

The 51-year-old Mann is a former coach of the Hershey Bears. When the Bears released Mann in 2018 after a season of missing the playoffs, he was quickly scooped up by the Ottawa organization.

"Ottawa is a team that's done a really great job of developing young guys," one respondent said. "They had the most call-ups in the NHL last year. Josh Norris, Drake Batherson just had great seasons; they both came up through Belleville."

Louis Robitaille, Gatineau Olympiques head coach/GM

Robitaille (no relation to Luc) is what one respondent calls "the real deal." He's the coach for Canada's under-17 team and is in the mix to be the under-20 coach next year.

"He's amazing and loved by Hockey Canada," the respondent said. "Did an amazing job in Gatineau as the head coach and GM for his first year there. He will be in the NHL soon."

Rocky Thompson, San Jose Sharks associate coach

Thompson, 43, was known as a tough guy and agitator during his playing career, but is rebranding himself as a coach. His breakthrough came at the 2015 NHL Coaches Association Global Coaches' Clinic in Florida. Thompson was unemployed at the time, but gave a speech about offense in hockey that "was incredibly motivating and impressive," said one respondent to our polling.

After leading the OHL's Windsor Spitfires to the 2017 Memorial Cup, the Vegas Golden Knights hired Thompson to be the first coach of their AHL farm team in Chicago. He led the Chicago Wolves to the 2019 Calder Cup Final.

"He's been a steadily rising, hot name," one respondent said. "He's going to keep getting interviews and I imagine he'll be behind an NHL bench sooner rather than later."

Andre Tourigny, Team Canada/Ottawa 67s head coach

The head coach of the OHL's Ottawa 67s has become a go-to guy for Hockey Canada. He served as head coach at 2021 World Juniors, and will be an assistant coach for the senior men's World Championships, as well as on the staff for the 2022 Canadian men's Olympic team. Tourigny is under contract to return as head coach for 2022 World Juniors, and transition into the primary path of head coach for the 2022 World Championships in Finland.

"He's extremely hard-working, strong with in-game adjustments, well-prepared," one respondent said. "He's getting into the spotlight now and I think it's just a matter of time before he's presented with NHL opportunities."

Mike Vellucci, Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach

Vellucci has led teams to championships in the OHL and AHL. He won the Calder Trophy with one of the lowest-budget teams in the AHL. When the Charlotte Checkers beat the Marlies, they were operating at a fraction of Toronto's budget.

"The NHL is skewing younger, and as this next generation of players takes more agency, they want to know why or how something happened," one respondent said. "I think Mike Vellucci could be successful. He's worked with young players throughout his career, he's really a players' coach, someone they seem to respond to."

Ryan Warsofsky, Chicago Wolves head coach

When Warsofsky was hired by the Charlotte Checkers in 2019, he was 31 years old, making him the youngest head coach hired in the AHL since 2000. Warsofsky counts Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, a fellow Massachusetts native, as one of his closest mentors. He came up through the Washington Capitals system (around the same time as Carbery) and was the ECHL South Carolina StingRays coach and director of hockey ops before moving to the AHL. Now he's with the Chicago Wolves and has them in first place this season.

"He's a real up-and-comer," one respondent said. "He's had a ton of success so far. He's just killing it."

Jay Woodcroft, Bakersfield Condors head coach

The No. 1 theme of the Edmonton Oilers' 2021 season is Connor McDavid (and Leon Draisaitl) once again dazzling while shouldering the burden to carry this team to the playoffs. The secondary theme? Young players are starting to develop, hopefully easing that burden for the star players in coming years.

"Look at Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones, Ryan McLeod, Kailer Yamamoto," one respondent said. "They're all coming along nicely and contributing to the Oilers. Woodcroft did a good job in Bakersfield making sure all of those guys were developing and ready to go."

Coaches our panel would like to see in the NHL

Duante' Abercrombie, Stevenson University assistant coach

The 34-year-old Abercrombie came up through the historic Washington, D.C., Fort Dupont Hockey Club and was mentored by Neal Henderson, the first Black man inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. "Duante has built a reputation of his own, though, as someone who is completely dedicated to the sport, a hard worker who is always well-prepared," one respondent said. "He cares about his players and has all of those 'special' attributes you're looking for in a head coach."

Kori Cheverie, Ryerson University men's hockey assistant coach/Team Canada

The 33-year-old Cheverie is a name to watch for a forward-thinking general manager. She will be an assistant coach for Team Canada at the women's World Championships, after helping the junior programs to success. Cheverie is best known for breaking barriers; when she was named assistant coach of the men's team at Ryerson, she became the first woman full-time coach of a men's hockey program in U Sports.

"I think she has a unique way of relating to players," one respondent said. "She's approachable. She can connect with them on a different level than a lot of coaches. Bright, motivated. I'd love to see her get a shot at the next level."

Jukka Jalonen, Finland head coach

"Jalonen definitely caught my eye after Finland won the World Championship in 2019," one respondent said. "If an NHL team is looking to think outside the box, he'd be a really interesting hire."

Considering the rise of Finnish talent in the NHL, Jalonen would make a lot of sense. Antti Makinen, who broadcasts NHL games in Finland, wrote an e-book called "Finnish NHL Stars with Antti Makinen." There's an entire chapter featuring an interview with Jalonen, where he explains how difficult it is for European coaches -- even the most talented ones -- to get serious interest in the NHL. The 52-year-old Jalonen has said multiple times that coaching in the NHL is his dream. But he also said that the best place for him to begin in an NHL organization would be as an assistant coach.

David Nemirovsky, Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod head coach

The Canadian-born Nemirovsky put together a nearly 20-year playing career, including 91 games in the NHL and 124 in the KHL. At 44, he's now been a head coach in Russia, and could come to the NHL with a unique résumé.

"He's bright, super skilled, open-minded," one respondent said. "Fluent in Russian, Jewish heritage, has experience coaching in Russia. He's the type of person that NHL teams should be looking to consider. He also has experience in management, and I also could see him as an NHL general manager one day."

Jason Payne, Cincinnati Cyclones assistant coach

Payne has been part of the NHL Coaches Association BIPOC Coaches Program, with one respondent calling him "completely underrated." The Cyclones went 89-30-16 over Payne's first two seasons; the 46-year-old has experience at all levels of hockey -- from peewee to working with professional players.

"He was a hardworking, tough player who scrapped his way to a 14-year playing career," the respondent said. "He overcame every barrier, just to get a sniff. He has experience running power skating and skill development programs. Matt Thomas hired him three years ago, and since then, they've been the best team in the Sabres organization."

The next wave of GMs

John Ferguson Jr., Boston Bruins assistant general manager

The 53-year-old Ferguson has been an NHL player, scout and has worked a variety of positions in NHL front offices, including serving as the Toronto Maple Leafs' GM from 2003-08.

"He got his first GM job in his 30s, when he probably wasn't ready, to be honest," one respondent said. "After things didn't work out in Toronto, he just put his head down and got back to work. I know some people roll their eyes at retreads, but this is someone who has earned a second opportunity."

Chris MacFarland, Colorado Avalanche assistant general manager

Over the past two years, Chris Drury was the assistant general manager who garnered the most interest any time there was a GM opening. However, Drury kept declining interest, knowing he had a good situation with the Rangers.

Now, MacFarland inherits Drury's role as the "next man up" for every opening -- but likely will have to go outside the organization for a bigger opportunity, as it doesn't seem like Joe Sakic is going anywhere anytime soon. The Bronx-born MacFarland spent 16 years with the Blue Jackets organization before moving over to Colorado, where he has worked for six years. He's already interviewed in New Jersey and had interest from several other clubs recently, including Pittsburgh.

"Sakic really trusts him," one respondent said. "MacFarland has been the guy behind the scenes on a lot of their big moves. Experienced, ready-to-go day one type of candidate."

Scott Mellanby, Montreal Canadiens assistant general manager

The former Panthers and Thrashers captain has been with the Canadiens since 2012, and has a strong reputation throughout the league. The 54-year-old has been a candidate for a few recent openings, including Florida this past year, and should continue to get calls in the future.

"I think teams would look at Scott Mellanby and know what they're going to get," one respondent said. "A super solid, sound hockey guy. He's paid his dues."

Kevin Weekes, NHL Network analyst

The first Black general manager in the NHL will be Kevin Weekes -- at least, he should be. The 46-year-old former NHL goalie is well connected, with a strong reputation around the league as bright, analytical and forward-thinking. He's generated interest for some general manager openings so far, most recently with the Penguins.

However, Weekes is at the stage of his career where he's waiting for the right opportunity, looking for an organization that is ready to put full trust in him and let him execute his vision.

"Kevin Weekes is the type of person we should want representing this league, making decisions, shaping a franchise," one respondent said. "He interviews well and has conviction. It's just a matter of finding the right fit."

Up-and-coming GMs

Derek Clancey, free agent

For 14 years, Clancey worked for the Penguins organization, working his way up the ranks from scout to become the team's director of player personnel. Clancey was integral in player evaluations, as well as scouting and chasing free agents in Europe (a recent example is Radim Zohorna). Clancey's name is engraved on the Stanley Cup, having won three times with Pittsburgh. However, he was pushed out with the recent GM change.

"He was initially hired and promoted by [former GM Ray] Shero and then became a trusted guy for [former GM] Jim Rutherford," one respondent said. "He knows what it takes to be part of a winning organization."

Mathieu Darche, Tampa Bay Lightning director of hockey operations

Darche, 44, is a former NHL player. He also has experience in broadcasting, in sales and marketing and served five years on the board of the Ronald McDonald House. During the 2012-13 NHL lockout, he was appointed to the NHLPA's negotiating team and was an integral voice for the players working toward a new CBA.

In Tampa Bay, he's had a key role in player contract negotiations, budgeting and the salary cap.

"His experience make him perfectly primed to be an NHL GM one day," one respondent said. "Highly motivated, and a quick study, presents himself well. He'd be a great asset to any team."

Rob DiMaio, St. Louis Blues director of player personnel

The Blues have had sustained success over the past decade, including winning the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 2019. There are plenty of people behind the scenes who don't get public credit.

"A guy I'd consider is Rob DiMaio," said one respondent. "He's a trusted advisor of [GM] Doug Armstrong. A really good hockey guy, well respected. He's had a strong influence in that organization."

DiMaio, 53, a former NHL player, has been a key voice in a lot of the Blues' recent moves, including acquiring Ryan O'Reilly, Justin Faulk, Carl Gunnarsson and Marco Scandella.

Trevor Georgie, Saint John Sea Dogs GM and president

When Georgie joined the Sea Dogs in 2016, he was 28, the youngest club president in the CHL. He also holds the title of general manager, and in the CHL, it's rare to have someone oversee both the business and hockey operations side. But Georgie has previous experience in agency work, taking the job after a stint with Wasserman as a senior manager of consulting out of their Toronto office. Though he's still young, Georgie is polished -- and someone to keep an eye on.

"Extremely driven, extremely well-spoken," one respondent said.

Ryan Hardy, Chicago Steel GM

The 35-year-old Hardy has been GM of the USHL's Chicago Steel for only three seasons, but he's already gaining traction in NHL circles.

"If you want to know a real up-and-comer, I'd consider Ryan Hardy with the Chicago Steel, he's got his s--- together," one respondent said. "He's a great recruiter, well organized and runs a great organization. Running a USHL team is a tough gig."

Hardy was previously an amateur scout for the Bruins, and was also instrumental in helping introduce Noelle Needham to the Toronto Maple Leafs, where she became the NHL's first female full-time amateur scout.

Ryan Johnson, Utica Comets GM/Vancouver Canucks senior director of player development

Johnson built a 701-game NHL career as a checking center. He was then hired by the Canucks organization, where he keeps adding more responsibilities to his job description.

"He's a hardworking guy, who really cares about his players," one respondent said. "He's also been instrumental in the development for a lot of their young guys. There's nothing pretentious about him. Ryan has a lot of fans in this league."

Scott Nichol, Nashville Predators director of player development

Early on in Nichol's tenure with Nashville, he handled the player development role by himself. The Predators eventually added more to the staff, and also began promoting Nichol -- yet another example of an ex-player rising in the front office ranks. Nichol has also served as GM of the Predators' AHL affiliate in Milwaukee.

"You'll have a hard time finding anyone to say anything bad about Scott Nichol," one respondent said. "He's done a real good job. Positive attitude, works hard."

People our panel would like to see on the NHL GM track

Hnat Domenichelli, Lugano GM

The 45-year-old, Canadian-born Domenichelli played nearly 300 games in the NHL, but finished his career in Switzerland. After he retired from playing, he was an agent in Europe, then worked on the front office side. Along the way he married a Swiss woman, gaining a Swiss passport in 2009 to play for Switzerland in the 2010 Olympics.

"Really smart guy," one respondent said. "I think he wants to come back to North America, and given his NHL and international experience, I think he could be a great hire."

Cammi Granato, Seattle Kraken scout

Another Hockey Hall of Famer, Granato is one of the best women's hockey players in United States history. Granato has had job opportunities come up over the past decade, but often turned them down for family reasons. Her husband is TSN analyst Ray Ferraro, who travels Monday through Friday for work. Granato said that "it just wasn't feasible to leave" when her sons were younger.

When Granato was hired by the Kraken in 2019, becoming the NHL's first full-time female pro scout, I asked her why women traditionally have not gone into scouting. "I think we could probably ask that question about so many things in sports. Maybe even more than sports," Granato said. "Why? There isn't really an answer besides they weren't considered. Right now, I feel there is this energy and momentum and you're seeing women in different positions getting jobs they are qualified for, but never got the opportunity for."

Angela James, Hockey Hall of Famer

Most hockey fans know James for being the Wayne Gretzky of women's hockey. She is the first superstar on the woman's side. Since retiring, James has been active in coaching and officiating in Canada, but one respondent wants to see her managing in the NHL.

"She'd bring a terrific hockey IQ, but a lot of jam too," the respondent said. "All it takes is one person to give her a shot, and I don't think they'd be disappointed."

Florence Schelling, free agent

Last year, Schelling became the first female GM in top level men's professional hockey. She was just 31 at the time of the appointment. In announcing the hiring, Bern CEO Marc Luthi noted that Schelling got the job because "she's young, [will] bring new perspective and break up existing structures."

It wasn't the easiest first season on the job, and she was let go in April. But the experience was crucial for the longtime Swiss national team goaltender, also a legend at her alma mater, Northeastern. One respondent said he believes Schelling "wouldn't just be a groundbreaking hire, she'd be a smart one."

Eric Tulsky, Carolina Hurricanes assistant general manager

The Canes don't spend as much money as other NHL clubs, but they have found success by exploring other areas. The most significant: Carolina leaned into analytics. Tulsky, who is in his seventh year with the organization, is a Harvard graduate who also holds a Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley. He began in hockey by blogging about the sport in 2011.

"Eric is always at the forefront of everything; cutting edge, super bright," one respondent said. 'It's clear the Hurricanes value him because they keep promoting him, but I'd like to see what he could do running his own team one day."