The Philadelphia Flyers need a coach.
It’s been roughly a week since the Flyers gave Alain Vigneault his walking papers amidst an eight-game losing streak that followed four years of abject mediocrity.
Former Wild and Blues coach Mike Yeo is installed as the interim boss for what seems to be the rest of the regular season. Which is fine, I guess. But given how Yeo’s track record features the same mediocrity that plagued the Flyers during the Vigneault Era, it’s likely the organization looks elsewhere for their long-term solution.
Who could that be? Let’s take a look at five potential candidates who might fit the bill.
5. Jim Montgomery
The reasons why Jim Montgomery isn’t a head coach at the moment are not success-related.
The 51-year-old stepped behind the Dallas Stars’ bench in 2018-19 and guided the team to a 93-point season that included a second-round playoff appearance. A number of Stars enjoyed breakout seasons in that first year under Montgomery, as well, with Tyler Seguin reaching the 80-point mark for the first time in a half-decade, Alexander Radulov notching a career-best 29 goals and 72 points, and Miro Heiskanen emerging as a dominant rookie defender.
Montgomery demonstrated the makings of an effective big-league coach, one capable of getting the best out of his star players while developing young talent at the same time.
Then came Dec. 10, 2019.
The Stars fired Montgomery in a shocking move for “unprofessional conduct”. As Montgomery later revealed, his dismissal was due to an alcohol addiction that he had allowed to dictate his life, and that losing his job served as the wake-up call he needed to conquer his dependency.
And, from what public information is out there, that’s exactly what he’s done.
Montgomery currently serves as an assistant coach for the St. Louis Blues, earning the position nearly 10 months to the day that he was let go by the Stars. In his brief tenure in the NHL, as well as his time at the helm of the University of Denver Men’s Hockey Team, which featured an NCAA National Championship and a Frozen Four appearance, Montgomery has shown himself to be a skilled strategist who achieves success wherever he goes.
If Montgomery feels that he is ready, personally, to take on the responsibility of a head coach once again, the Flyers should come calling.
4. Claude Julien
Look, there’s always going to be one re-hash on a list like this. The NHL’s coaching club is far too incestuous, and with such a limited pool of talent to choose from, repeats are inevitable.
At least with Julien, this re-hash is a good one.
Julien is a Cup-winner, has earned himself a Jack Adams Award, and has overseen teams at the height of their recent success. This is the same guy who guided the Boston Bruins throughout their peak as an NHL contender, laying the groundwork for the so-called “Boston Model” that nearly every team in the league tried to emulate for the next half-decade.
The Flyers, on the other hand, lack any sort of identity. They are far too easy to play against, a mess in the neutral zone, and can’t defend worth a lick. Julien has a resume that suggests him to be capable of curbing that behavior.
The league might not be the same as it was when Julien’s Big Bad Bruins bullied their way a Cup a decade ago. But he’s shown the willingness to evolve. And for a Flyers team that could use a little bit of that bygone Bruins magic, he’s the best option to give it to them.
3. Lane Lambert
Lambert is a Barry Trotz disciple, having followed the veteran bench boss from Nashville to Washington, and, now, Long Island.
Lambert is a coach known for his unique ability to get the best out of his star players. While with the Capitals during their Cup-winning season, Lambert is largely credited as the architect behind both Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov’s offensive breakout seasons, with both players obliterating their previous career-highs before capturing Stanley Cup glory a few months later.
Every single team that Lambert has spent time with behind the bench has achieved consistent success under his watch, with the Capitals, in particular, struggling to return to contender status almost immediately after Lambert and Trotz jumped ship to the Island.
If the Flyers are looking for someone with a strong resume, a host of supporters, and a Stanley Cup ring to boot, there are far worse options than Lambert.
2. Nate Leaman
NCAA imports have not had a sterling track record behind NHL benches as of late. .
Dave Hakstol, David Quinn, and Jim Montgomery (albeit for non-hockey reasons we discussed earlier) are the lone names to jump from the collegiate ranks over to the pro game and all failed to last more than five seasons with their respective clubs, leading many organizations to shy away from dipping into that talent pool. Hakstol, in particular, was hired (and fired) by the Flyers, likely meaning that they’d be even more hesitant to place their hopes on another college coach’s shoulders.
Nate Leaman, however, is the best bet to change that.
The 49-year-old has transformed the Providence College Men’s Hockey Team into a powerhouse since taking over as coach in 2011, guiding the program from seventh to third in the Hockey East Division in his first two seasons before capturing a National Championship, a Conference Regular Season Championship, and two Tim Taylor Awards for NCAA Men’s Coach of the Year, among other accolades, in the years to come.
Prior to the 2019-20 COVID-shortened season, Providence never finished lower than third in their division under Leaman, with a sparkling 209–125–49 record and .610 winning percentage in his 11 years at the helm.
Later this month, Leaman will lead Team USA at the World Junior Championship, allowing fans and executives everywhere to see his talents on a global stage.
A strong showing by the Americans could make Leaman’s name an even hotter commodity than it already is.
1. Rikard Gronborg
Rikard Gronborg should already be gainfully employed by an NHL franchise. The fact that he isn’t, however, will just make the Flyers look even smarter for being the ones to finally snatch him up.
If you’re looking to breathe new life into an achingly stale NHL coaching club, Gronborg is your guy. The 51-year-old has a sparkling resume, having led Sweden’s national team to two World Championship gold medals as an assistant and one as a head coach, along with another gold at the World Junior Championship in 2012, and an Olympic gold as an assistant a the 2014 Winter games.
Gronborg took over the Zurich Lions of the Swiss League in 2019-20, improving them from a .550 winning percentage the year before his arrival to that of a .680 in the pandemic-shortened season, which he then followed up with a .635 in 2020-21, his first full season at the helm.
Not too shabby.
What perhaps makes Gronborg the most attractive name on this list is his philosophical alignment with where the game is going.
Gronberg holds a Master’s degree in management and a bachelor’s degree in communication, providing him the tools to reach players on a deeper level in order to coax out their best. This background has helped Gronberg immensely throughout his coaching career, making vehement supporters out of practically every big-name Swedish star — including the Sedin twins, Mats Sundin, Niklas Lidstrom, among others.
The real question here is a simple one: Are NHL teams willing to go outside of their comfort zone to hire a European head coach?
No one likes to be the first one through the wall, even if Gronborg does seem like such a slam dunk option. But all it takes is one team with the bravery to simply hire the best option available.
It’s a lot to ask, I know.