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Gordo on the NHL: Interim coaches twist in the wind during shutdown

Gordo on the NHL: Interim coaches twist in the wind during shutdown

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Interim NHL coaching is a tough job. Interim coaching while your industry is shut down because of a global pandemic . . . well, that is a whole other level of uncertainty.

Every now and then an interim coach works magic, as Craig Berube did last season while leading the Blues on their unlikely run to the Stanley Cup.

Mostly, though, these loyal organization soldiers simply hold the fort until the general manager finds the next guy.

Here are the coaches currently in limbo:

Geoff Ward, Calgary Flames: He stepped in to replace head coach Bill Peters, who lost his job due to the disclosure of previous physical and verbal abuse of players. Ward has done an OK job, posting a 24-15-3 record, but the Flames sit right on top of the playoff bubble. They have ranked among the league’s disappointments this season after finishing with 107 points in 2018-19. Ward blasted the team during its February lull, saying this: “I thought we had it for a while. We’ve gotta find it again. We tried to be a scoring team last year. You saw what happened during playoff time. We’ve got to check in now and make sure we get back to our identity because we’re not there now. Collectively, we have to be better, we have to be more desperate, we have to compete harder, and we have to understand what our identity is and we have to start playing to it.” So it's debatable if he has the answers for this group.

Rick Bowness, Dallas Stars: Like Ward, Bowness replaced a coach who did not get fired for performance issues. Rather, Jim Montgomery got canned for off-ice indiscretions and later sought treatment for alcoholism. The Stars have gone 20-13-5 under Bowness, but they faded badly (0-4-2 winless streak) before the shutdown. Some pundits wonder if GM Jim Nill will hire former Florida Panthers and Vegas Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant to get the franchise back on track.

Bob Boughner, San Jose Sharks: General manager Doug Wilson hoped to jar his team back on track by firing Peter DeBoer and promoting Boughner. That move failed, despite Boughner’s efforts to wring more effort and better focus out of players like winger Evander Kane. The Sharks have gone 15-19-3 since the change while dealing with injuries to key players like Erik Karlsson and Logan Couture. Boughner said he expects to coach the team next season, but that self-assessment seems overly optimistic.

Alain Nasreddine, New Jersey Devils: This team flopped this season despite making a splashy trade for defenseman P.K. Subban and adding power forward Wayne Simmonds in free agency. So John Hynes and general manager Ray Shero paid the price. Nasreddine has posted a 19-16-8 mark — which included a recent 6-1-2 surge despite the team’s earlier fire sale. The team is undergoing a major rebuild and it remains unclear who will call the shots moving forward. Tom Fitzgerald is the interim GM and Blues executive Martin Brodeur moved from the business side to advise ownership on hockey issues.

Dean Evason, Minnesota Wild: First-year GM Bill Guerin waited most of the season before firing coach Bruce Boudreau and giving Evason a look. The Wild won eight of their first 12 games after the change while making a surprising late playoff push. But will Evason keep the job as the Wild continues its overdue rebuild?

AROUND THE RINKS

One aspect of team management is not on hold. Teams are negotiating with drafted players leaving college and collegiate free agents.

The Flames added two players in the latter category, Connor Mackey (Minnesota State) and Colton Poolman (North Dakota). Mackey, the son of former Blues winger Dave Mackey, was regarded as the top undrafted free agent on the market.

Mackey previously participated in the Flames’ development camp and saw an opportunity to play quickly, since the team has defensemen T.J. BrodieTravis HamonicDerek ForbortErik Gustafsson and Michael Stone all headed toward unrestricted free agent.

As for the rest of NHL management, everything is on hold. If the league holds out hope for summer playoffs, that would push back the free agency period — and perhaps the NHL Draft too, since that tends to be a trade mart as well.

If there could be playoffs in July or August, how could there be a draft in June and free agency July 1?

The league and the NHL Players Association will need to iron out economic issues before the marketplace can open. Will the salary cap go up, down or stay the same? Would the players agree to one-time compliance buyouts as teams adjust their payroll to the new circumstances?

The owners have much to consider as the health crisis endures. While commissioner Gary Bettman is taking a wait-and-see stance, he has sent two clear signals: If there are playoffs, they must be legitimate (no mini-tournament) and they must not push back the start of the 2020-21 season.

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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