4 AHL Coaches in Line for NHL Jobs

Kris Knoblauch has been one of the biggest success stories in the NHL this season. The Edmonton Oilers hired him on Nov. 12 and since they’ve looked unbeatable, going 26-6 with a 16-game winning streak to catapult to the top of the Western Conference. It’s not an exaggeration to think that he could win the Jack Adams award at the end of the season as the coach of the year based on the transformation of the Oilers and how they’ve looked since he’s taken over.

Related: Knoblauch Makes First Major Line Changes as Oilers Coach

The New York Islanders recently made headlines by hiring Patrick Roy, a legendary goaltender in his playing days whose fire helped turn him into an NHL-caliber head coach. The jury is still out on whether he’ll succeed in the NHL. Still, his accolades in the Quebec Maritime Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) make him an intriguing hire and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he turns the Islanders into a contender.

Patrick Roy Quebec Remparts
Patrick Roy, Head Coach of the Quebec Remparts (Candice Ward/CHL)

The 2023-24 season will be remembered as the one where many head coaches were replaced. Six teams have fired their coaches before the All-Star Break with the Columbus Blue Jackets making a change just days before the season began while the Islanders became the most recent with the Roy move.

The dust looks like it has settled on all the coaching change, at least until the offseason, but it’s still interesting to think about who could get hired next, especially from the development-level leagues. There are plenty of qualified head coaches in the American Hockey League (AHL) who could become great coaches at the NHL level and become the next Knoblauch.

Todd Nelson – Hershey Bears

Todd Nelson has helped turn the Hershey Bears into a juggernaut. Since being hired in the 2022 offseason, he led them to a 44-19-5-4 record in the 2022-23 season with the Calder Cup title and a 34-7-0-2 record this season which is the best in the Atlantic Division.

Record aside, Nelson’s teams have played well across the board. The Bears forecheck, play with structure and discipline, and the skaters are often in the right position on every shift. The effect Nelson has had on the team has given the Washington Capitals, their AHL affiliate, a lot to look forward to in their farm system.

Todd Nelson Griffins
Todd Nelson, Grand Rapids Griffins (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Nelson’s background in particular makes him an ideal candidate to become a head coach at the NHL level. He coached the Oklahoma City Barons from 2010-15 and the Grand Rapids Griffins from 2015-18, helping the Griffins win the Calder Cup in 2017. Those two AHL stops gave him experience, and his time with the Dallas Stars from 2018-22 helped form the system he implemented with the Bears.

Rick Bowness is one of the best coaches in the NHL and the structure his teams play with on the defensive end of the ice stands out. It’s one of the many reasons the Stars reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2020 and the Winnipeg Jets boast one of the league’s best defenses, allowing only 2.30 goals per game. Nelson was an assistant under Bowness for four seasons and learned how to win with defense without compromising the offense.

Rick Bowness Winnipeg Jets
Rick Bowness, Head Coach of the Winnipeg Jets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Bears are in the driver’s seat to win the Calder Cup for the second season in a row and if they do, all eyes will be on Nelson to not only take a job at the NHL level but possibly become one of the next great coaches. The 54-year-old coach has teams that mirror Bowness’s Jets, Rod Brind’Amour’s Carolina Hurricanes, and Jim Montgomery’s Boston Bruins, as teams that can run up the score but play suffocating defense. It’s only a matter of time before Nelson is hired by an NHL team.

Steve Smith – Hartford Wolf Pack

It seems almost impossible to follow in the footsteps of Knoblauch who was one of the best coaches in the AHL and leading one of the best in the NHL with the Oilers surging. Yet, the Hartford Wolf Pack might be grooming another NHL-caliber coach (that or something might be in the water in Hartford that turns good coaches into great ones).

Steve Smith was promoted behind the bench on Nov. 12 and has picked up where Knoblauch left off. The Wolf Pack have gone 27-19-10-5 since he was hired and have looked like one of the best teams in the AHL despite battling a surplus of injuries. Smith has plenty of experience under his belt as an assistant at the NHL level for 12 seasons and has been a part of the New York Rangers farm system since 2021 and it’s showing in his first season as a head coach. Not only does he bring out the best in the Wolf Pack, he’s helped keep them a balanced team throughout his first season behind the bench.

Steve Smith Buffalo Sabres
Steve Smith, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The experience is a great strength but at the same time, one of his biggest setbacks and arguably the issue that will prevent him from leaping to the NHL. He’s 60 years old and by the time he starts interviewing for head coaching positions, he’ll be on the older side of things. Smith’s been around the game for nearly 40 years and arguably knows it better than most coaches in the NHL but a team will have to take a chance on a long-time assistant with no NHL head coaching experience.

Steve Potvin – Tucson Roadrunners

The Tucson Roadrunners are off and (well) running this season with a 25-13-1-1 record which is the second-best in the Pacific Divison. As the Arizona Coyotes AHL affiliate, they have a surplus of prospects on the roster who look poised to make a difference in the NHL in a few seasons. Along with the youth on the roster is an intriguing young head coach behind the bench.

Steve Potvin has been part of the Roadrunners staff since the start of the 2017-18 season and was hired as the head coach in the 2022 offseason. At 47, he’s one of the younger coaches in the AHL and has notably helped develop a lot of the prospects on the roster. For a team looking to rebuild and start from scratch, Potvin’s the type of head coach to hire. He’ll help turn a young roster into a contender down the road, something he’s doing in his second year behind the bench with the Roadrunners.

Jean-Francois Houle – Laval Rocket

Another younger name to look out for is Jean-Francois Houle who is 48 but has plenty of experience to eventually become an NHL head coach. He was hired in the summer of 2021 by the Laval Rocket and helped them make a deep Calder Cup Playoff run in his first season as head coach, losing to the Springfield Thunderbirds in the Eastern Conference Final in seven games. Houle has been an essential part of the Montreal Canadiens rebuild as he’s helped mold some of the young skaters into NHL starters and more importantly, has kept a younger squad competitive. A bonus is that he’s a native of Quebec and made his mark as a coach in the QMJHL so if the Canadiens want to promote him to the NHL, even as an assistant, he’d fit right in.

Other Coaches To Keep An Eye On

The Pittsburgh Penguins have one of the worst prospect pools in the league. Yet, the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins head coach J.D. Forrest has brought out the best in the roster. They have a 23-15-5 record and are led by a strong defense that allows only 2.74 goals per game. Forrest has coached the team since the start of the 2020-21 season and the 42-year-old head coach is slowly developing into one of the better coaches in the AHL, making him a young name to monitor moving forward.

While not an AHL coach, Gardiner MacDougall has turned the University of New Brunswick Reds into a machine as they are 26-0 this season. MacDougall was the coach who filled in as interim head coach in 2022 for the Saint Johns Sea Dogs in the QMJHL and helped them win the Memorial Cup. The question is if he wants to take another job or not as he’s been the Reds coach for 24 years.

Benoit Groulx isn’t coaching in the AHL these days but he’s still capable of not only getting back into coaching but taking the next step. He interviewed for the Coyotes head coaching job in 2021 and has an established track record coaching the Rochester Americans in 2008-09 and 2009-10 while leading a competitive Syracuse Crunch team for the last seven seasons. His most successful seasons were in the QMJHL as he led the Gatineau Olympiques to Memorial Cup titles in 2004 and 2008 but it’s only a matter of time before he’s back in the AHL and on a handful of NHL team’s radars.

Who do you think can become an NHL head coach someday? Let us know in the comments section below.

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