Don’t look now, but the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have turned into one of hockey’s greatest coaching factories. With John Hynes being announced as the New Jersey Devils head coach today, five former WBS coaches now man benches in the NHL.
Michel Therrien (Montreal Canadiens), Mike Yeo (Minnesota Wild), Todd Richards (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Dan Bylsma (Buffalo Sabres) are all head coaches while Todd Reirden (Washington Capitals) is an NHL assistant and was also rumored to be in the running for the New Jersey Job.
With the path from Northeastern PA to the NHL paved with past successes, the Penguins should have no shortage of potential candidates to replace Hynes.
Internally, the Penguins have a trio of intriguing options.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton assistant coach and former Penguins defenseman Alain Nasreddine spent the last five years learning from Hynes as his only assistant coach.
Nasreddine stepped right into coaching after a 15-year playing career in which he played 56 of his 74 NHL games with Pittsburgh and spent parts of five seasons in Wilkes-Barre.
A defensive defenseman by trade, Nasreddine’s defenses have taken on the personality of their coach, leading the AHL with the fewest goals-against in four of his five seasons.
In addition to team success, Nasreddine has mentored a host of the Penguins top defensive prospects as they made their way through the team’s system. Robert Bortuzzo, Brian Strait, Simon Despres and Derrick Pouliot have all emerged from Nasreddine’s tutelage to go on to NHL success.
The knock against Nasreddine is his relative lack of experience. Despite his five years as Wilkes-Barre’s assistant coach, he has never been a head coach at any level and is only 39. He may also be a candidate to follow Hynes as part of his staff in New Jersey after their success together in the AHL.
Wheeling Nailers head coach Clark Donatelli is also an attractive option. Donatelli, 47, has a few more coaching miles on him, as the Rhode Island native has bounced around since retiring from his playing career in 1996.
He’s spent the last four seasons with the Penguins Double-A affiliate, and the last three of those as head coach, compiling a 96-76-27 record and making the playoffs two of his three seasons. Donatelli has proven to be an excellent recruiter of talent, turning Wheeling from a place where few wanted to play to one of the premier destinations in the ECHL.
He, like Nasreddine, was hired by the Shero regime, but unlike Nasreddine, who was hired because of his tenure as Wilkes-Barre’s captain, Donatelli was part of the Team USA-to-Penguins connection that included Americans Shero, Richards, Bylsma, Reirden and Hynes. With those five all now having moved on, it’s unclear how the current regime values Donatelli.
Looking slightly more outside the box, Penguins development coach Mark Recchi could also be an option. Recchi, also 47, just finished his first season working with the Penguins prospects in the minors, juniors and college hockey.
As a player, Recchi’s credentials are unmatched. His 22-year career saw him hoist the Stanley Cup three times and he was a seven-time NHL All-Star. As a coach, however, he would be a completely unknown, having only gotten his feet wet behind the bench with Wilkes-Barre in the 2015 postseason.
Outside the organization, the Penguins could turn toward a pair of former players.
Jeff Daniels, who played for the Penguins organization from 1988 to 1994 and coached under Rutherford in Carolina’s organization was recently relieved of his duties as the Hurricanes top minor-league coach after seven seasons. He was previously an assistant coach in Carolina and was a part of their Stanley Cup win in 2006.
Former Penguins defenseman Phillipe Boucher, meanwhile, is fresh off a Memorial Cup run as head coach of the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL. Boucher has just finished his second season with the junior team with a 79-42-15 record over two years.
Another prominent junior coach that the Penguins could tap is Oshawa Generals bench boss D.J. Smith. The former Maple Leafs farmhand has been the head coach for the OHL Generals for three seasons, racking up 135 wins against just 53 losses, and is fresh off an OHL title win over Conor McDavid’s Erie Otters and a dramatic Memorial Cup win.
Whoever takes the reigns in Wilkes-Barre next season will have their work cut out for them. With the Penguins looking to go young on defense, the long-time strength of the team could be stretched thin.
There won’t be a total leadership void, however. 17-year pro Tom Kostopolous has signed on for another season as Wilkes-Barre’s captain. The 36-year old right-winger wasn’t just a strong voice in the locker room in 2014-15. His 16 goals and 28 assists were fifth and second on the team respectively and he was one of two players to skate in all 72 games.
Photo credit: WBS Penguins