Rangers have a lot of coaches to choose from
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It is an eclectic menu of coaching choices for the Rangers: respected bench bosses in Vancouver and Buffalo who were axed last season, two iconic NHL stars, a conditioning guru with an impressive minor-league record and a current coach who might be wooed out of the desert.
The Rangers, who repeatedly have declined to discuss the search, could begin to interview candidates to replace John Tortorella as early as this week.
Two other clubs with openings, the Canucks and Stars, already have spoken with candidates for their openings. Yet there is a sense in NHL circles that the sudden entrance of the Rangers into the market has tilted the ice. After all, coaching them is a very appealing gig.
Ownership has been willing to spend to the salary-cap ceiling. President and general manager Glen Sather isn't going anywhere, and coaches are handsomely paid and allowed to focus on coaching, because Sather insulates them from most corporate issues. On the ice, there's a world-class goalie in Henrik Lundqvist, a solid defense and a core of offensive talent waiting to be unshackled, led by Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan, Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin.
There is, however, pressure on Sather, 70, to make the right choice behind the bench because the team is at another crossroads. Neither Tortorella, who reinstituted a work ethic, or his predecessor, Tom Renney, made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. The last time was in 1994, when the Rangers won it all.
Sather will have a difficult decision. He could stay in-house with the captain of that squad, Hall of Famer Mark Messier, his special assistant for four years. Messier knows the organization but has turned down coaching offers in the past. Or Sather could go outside to fill it.
Messier has declined to comment, but multiple reports have indicated he is interested. Messier could have a real shot at the job, but there are caveats.
His coaching experience is limited to two international tournaments in 2010. Sather would need to bring in one or two experienced assistants who would run the daily operations, plot the X's and O's and have the ability to voice opinions.
Messier also has several business projects, including the conversion of the Bronx Kingsbridge Armory into a multi-rink hockey/skating facility.
"I think he could do it, but he'd need the support, no question," said Ed Olczyk, who came in cold to the NHL coaching ranks with a rebuilding Penguins club in the season before the 2004-05 lockout. "It's a different scenario, but I had Joey Mullen, Randy Hillier and Lorne Molleken [a former Blackhawks head coach] to help. That was really important and I think it would be in this case, especially finding the right people. I wanted to have as much experience as possible.''
It is unclear whether either Messier or Wayne Gretzky, who coached the Phoenix Coyotes for four years, have approached Sather, with whom they have decades-long relationships. The idea of the two pals vying for the same post is intriguing.
Sather hopes to have a coach in place by June 30, the day of the NHL draft, although it's not vital for a coach to be heavily involved. Players drafted generally are three or four years away, and assistant general manager Jeff Gorton and player personnel director Gordie Clark have the reins. But free agency starts July 1, and a coach should have some say in that strategy.
Among the experienced candidates are Alain Vigneault, 52, a Quebec City native who took the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011 and the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's regular-season champion in two consecutive seasons. He would not be intimidated by the big-city media.
Dave Tippett, 51, often described as "a coach's coach," is under contract with Phoenix until June 30, although the Rangers are believed to have made inquiries. Don Maloney, GM of the Coyotes, is close to Sather. The Coyotes' financial situation remains unsettled, and Tippett, a former Kings and Stars coach, reportedly wants more stability.
Lindy Ruff, 53, a former teammate of assistant GM Jim Schoenfeld, coached the Sabres for 15-plus years and already has spoken to the Stars. But he is said to prefer the Rangers.
Then there is Dallas Eakins, 46, the head coach of the AHL's Toronto Marlies the past four seasons and a former assistant with the Maple Leafs. Eakins has a reputation for being hands-on. He stresses fitness and has shown the ability to motivate and develop young talent. Eakins is expected to speak with Sather, perhaps for an assistant's job.
If nothing else, Messier's leadership qualities and stature could spark a disenchanted locker room. But megastars often don't make great coaches.
"To me, it's Dave Tippett and then there's everybody else," said Olczyk, now an NBC broadcaster. "If I'm the Rangers, I'd do whatever I have to do to get him."
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