The Maple Leafs hired Greg Moore to coach the Marlies in early December after a nearly silent search for a replacement for the AHL job vacated by Sheldon Keefe’s promotion on November 20. There had been one or two mentions from “the insiders” that several people were interested, but that was all.
Never formally stated, but obvious to watchers: A.J. MacLean, the offensive assistant coach who has been handling the press, and his co-interim coach, defensive assistant Rob Davison, were not going to be promoted. They’re going to remain as the assistants, and they’ve done a good job running the team alone since they lost their boss, although the team has sputtered lately and ended their run with three straight losses. They’ve been alone all this time because Moore has been with the Leafs since his hiring, learning the system, per reports.
That’s not a very usual thing to do with a minor league coaching hire, but mid-season hires aren’t all that usual.
Moore is not a very usual hire as an AHL coach, period. Unusual is not necessarily better, for all we seem to have entered an age of valourizing the outsider. You don’t have to be very “outside” the hockey mainstream to count as new blood either. A hockey lifer like Sheldon Keefe is seen as an innovative choice for NHL head coach. As some wit said when Moore was hired, “Oh look, a white US or Canadian male hockey player who played in the 2010s not the 1990s.”
At 35, Moore is not the youngest head coach in the AHL. There’s one younger, the coach of the Calder Cup champion Charlotte Checkers is only 32. He didn’t coach them to their championship, however; Mike Vellucci did.
Vellucci left the Carolina Hurricanes organization of his own volition after taking a very strong team to the championship. He’d only been head coach for two years in Charlotte, but he also served for a decade as the Hurricanes Director of Hockey Operations and Assistant General Manager. In addition to doing three jobs, it is believed the pay you get there is significantly lower than from most NHL teams. Vellucci is now the coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and GM of the team.
Meanwhile, his young replacement, Ryan Warsofsky, was Vellucci’s assistant for two years and coached and ran the Stingrays of the ECHL for two years following three years as their assistant coach. He did a little coaching in the NCAA at the school he finished up at as a player. Unsurprisingly, Warsofsky is a North American hockey player, remarkable only for the decade in which he played. His path to AHL head coaching is a fairly typical one, however.
This is the roster of head coaches in the AHL as of Moore’s hiring:
AHL head coaches as of November 20, 2019
|Team||Coach||Age||Head Coaching AHL||Other|
|Bakersfield Condors||Jay Woodcroft||43||1||13 yrs NHL Asst. Coach|
|Belleville Senators||Troy Mann||50||9||5 yrs ECHL coach|
|Binghamton Devils||Mark Dennehy||52||1||20+ yrs NCAA coach|
|Bridgeport Sound Tigers||Brent Thompson||48||6||7 yrs ECHL/NHL/AHL head and asst coaching|
|Charlotte Checkers||Ryan Warsofsky||32||0||9 yrs ECHL/NCAA/AHL head and asst coaching|
|Chicago Wolves||Rocky Thompson||42||2||10 yrs WHL/AHL/NHL/OHL head and asst coaching|
|Cleveland Monsters||Mike Eaves||63||2||20+ yrs NHL/NCAA/Liiga/ head and asst coaching|
|Colorado Eagles||Greg Cronin||56||3||20+ yrs NCAA/NHL head and asst coaching|
|Grand Rapids Griffins||Ben Simon||41||1||8 yrs AHL/ECHL assistant coaching|
|Hartford Wolf Pack||Kris Knoblauch||41||0||14 yrs WHL/OHL/NHL head and asst coaching|
|Hershey Bears||Spencer Carbery||38||1||8 yrs ECHL/OHL/AHL head and asst coaching|
|Iowa Wild||Tim Army||56||4||20+ yrs NCAA/NHL/AHL head and asst coaching|
|Laval Rocket||Joel Bouchard||45||1||10 yrs QMJHL GM, asst and head coaching, Francophone|
|Lehigh Valley Phantoms||Scott Gordon||56||13||20+ yrs IHL/ECHL/AHL/NHL asst and head coaching|
|Manitoba Moose||Pascal Vincent||48||3||20+ yrs QMJHL/NHL asst and head coaching|
|Milwaukee Admirals||Karl Taylor||48||1||15+ yrs CIAU/ACAC/CIS/ECHL/AHL/WHL asst and head coaching|
|Ontario Reign||Mike Stothers||57||5||20+ yrs AHL/NHL/OHL/WHL head and asst coaching|
|Providence Bruins||Jay Leach||40||2||1 yr asst in DEL, 2 yrs asst in AHL|
|Rochester Americans||Chris Taylor||47||2||6 yrs asst in AHL|
|Rockford IceHogs||Derek King||52||2||12 yrs asst in AHL|
|San Antonio Rampage||Drew Bannister||45||1||8 yrs EIHL/OHL head and asst coaching|
|San Diego Gulls||Kevin Dineen||56||6||8 yrs NHL head and asst coaching|
|San Jose Barracuda||Roy Sommer*||62||21||9 yrs in ECHL/NHL prior to AHL career|
|Springfield Thunderbirds||Geordie Kinnear||46||3||11 yrs AHL asst coaching|
|Stockton Heat||Cail MacLean||43||1||9 yrs ECHL/AHL head and asst coaching|
|Syracuse Crunch||Benoit Groulx||51||5||15 yrs QMJHL head and asst coaching|
|Texas Stars||Derek Laxdal*||53||5||16 yrs ECHL/CHL/WHL head and asst coaching|
|Toronto Marlies||Greg Moore||35||0||4 yrs USHL asst and head coach|
|Tucson Roadrunners||Jay Varady||42||1||18 yrs NCAA/WHL/France/USHL/OHL head and asst coaching|
|Utica Comets||Trent Cull||46||2||13 yrs OHL/AHL head and asst coaching|
|Wilkes-Barre/Scranton||Mike Vellucci||53||2||20+ yrs NAHL/OHL/NHL head, asst coaching and management|
I was surprised a little by the number of relative rookies to the AHL head coaching ranks in this list. Teams don’t hire someone else’s former coach as often as they just promote their own assistants or the head coach of their ECHL affiliate. Canadian junior hockey and the NCAA are the other main feeders directly into the AHL coaching ranks. The history of the current coaches reveals a few common paths to the spot behind the AHL bench, including washing out of the NHL coaching ranks. On average, an AHL coach has spent 10 years in coaching somewhere else, usually pro hockey, often as an AHL assistant, before he becomes a head coach.
That’s what we should expect to see in any organization. That’s the standard way professions feed the elite performers to the top. On average an AHL head coach is 48 and has over three years experience behind an AHL bench as the head coach. Moore, 12 years younger than the average, the least experienced person in the entire list, is an outlier. The other big outliers are interesting guys, though.
Roy Sommer, at 62 and with a nearly unimaginable 21 years behind the bench in one AHL organization (he followed them around as they changed cities) has just been promoted to Associate Coach of the San Jose Sharks. He was last behind their NHL bench in 1998.
The next-longest-tenured AHL coach is Scott Gordon, fired by the Leafs a year before the Red Wedding, when Brendan Shanahan tried just swapping out the assistants instead of the whole rotten core. Gordon returned to the AHL in the Flyers’ organization, prospered there, and spent a short time last season behind the NHL bench after Dave Hakstol was fired. And then, of course, Hakstol ended up a Maple Leafs assistant.
These complex relationships in hockey where NHL and AHL teams trade the same set of coaches back and forth for decades makes European royalty seem genetically diverse in comparison. Busting open that closed loop seems like a wise course, and since the AHL is more an entry-point than the NHL itself, that seems like a good place to plant the dynamite.
One of the other bright young things modernizing the AHL is the new coach of the Providence Bruins. The P-Bruins are a team with some issues the Leafs are about to become familiar with. They don’t have a steady supply of highly-drafted prospects; they do rely on AHL veterans, and most of their job as a development arm of the NHL club is to produce the seemingly endless stream of no-name callups who are all exactly as good as the current Bruins depth. To run that franchise, the Bruins hired the 40-year-old Jay Leach, the only coach with less experience when he was brought in than Moore has.
Leach has a good reason for his lack of years behind the bench — he played until he was 34. He had one year as an assistant in Germany, and then two years in the AHL, the final year in Providence, before he was promoted. He looks like a rookie, and yet he was the ultimate inside man. The former captain of Providence College, he played a few years for the P-Bruins before finishing his career in the Devils organization, a team deeply linked to Providence College through Lou Lamoriello. Having Leach join the coaching staff in the Bruins organization was only remarkable in that he didn’t get hired by the Devils or the Islanders. He’s the granddaughter of Queen Victoria married off to a southern European prince, not a northern.
In looking for a man who is as much of an outsider to the NHL/AHL/ECHL hockey machine as Moore is, I found two from the same source: Both Joel Bouchard and Benoit Groulx were locked in the closed loop of the QMJHL before they jumped to the AHL. Bouchard is in Laval, in the Canadiens organization, where being a Francophone is a job requirement, and Groulx in the Tampa Bay organization, where being French is just tradition.
Mark Dennehy of the B-Devils spent his entire career in the NCAA, and Jay Varady of the Tucson Roadrunners (Arizona), spent a long time in the USHL, although his last job before he was hired in Tucson was in the OHL. Varady, by the way, was one of those coaches that the Leafs invited to their development camps, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine they would have considered him if he had been available.
Moore’s USHL coaching job put him in the top junior league in the United States. It’s broadly analogous to the OHL in the sense that the teams are in one geographic area, the age of the players is 16-21, and no one is getting paid to play for the teams that are (perhaps) trying to make a profit putting hockey on the ice. Most elite USHL graduates go onto the NCAA, but there are some players drafted directly out of that league every year, though nowhere near the mass of Canadian Junior players who are drafted. The ultra-elite American hockey players are off in the US National Team Development Program, and that’s where the straight to the NHL players are usually found.
Chicago Steel, the team Moore coached for, is owned by a hedge fund millionaire who played hockey in the Chicago area as a kid and has committed himself as a wealthy adult to education causes. If the Leafs had a junior team, it would be Chicago Steel, with deep pockets, a commitment to buying the best, and producing teams that end up stacked with talent. Four of the top-10 USHL players by points are Steel players this season. Last year, Leafs draft pick Nick Abruzzese led the USHL with 80 points in 62 games playing for Moore on the Steel.
The USHL is, therefore, a development league, which the AHL is in part. So there’s nothing remarkable about Moore’s career path when you compare him to Groulx, Bouchard and Varady other than the length of his tenure prior to his hire. Put the two together, though, and he is the most unusual AHL head coaching hire I can think of.
It’s a good thing to bring in new voices and new experiences to hockey. The Leafs wouldn’t be playing the way they are right now if Russians had never joined the NHL. They NHL’s changing attitudes about the roles of defencemen wouldn’t exist without Sweden getting there first and exporting their Puckbärare flatpack model via all those IKEA stores.
But for all Moore’s coaching experience is from an unusual source for the AHL, as a player, his background is nearly as typical as Jay Leach’s. He was a winger who parlayed a good NCAA career and two years on Team USA at the WJC into a long AHL career that hit .52 points per game on five different teams. He was never a big penalty taker, but he played the game hard. He was Mason Marchment, Darren Archibald or Nicholas Baptiste. He was never Jeremy Bracco or Adam Brooks. Dig deeper, and you see he’s not new blood so much as merely a third cousin twice removed from the old hockey families.
And yet, the book on Moore is that “skill will play” when he’s the coach. On the one hand, that kind of talk is simplistic and relies on a definition of skill that is overly reductive, but on the other hand, the Marlies play Marchment, Archibald and Baptiste in significant roles. They have to, and by my definition of skill, those players all have some, but my definition isn’t what you imagine when you hear that quote. The Marlies used to be a young speed team of small, zippy wingers. Now they’re a team with a very young defence and a forward corps of 23 and up players whose NHL upside isn’t inspiring.
Semyon Der Arguchintsev can join the Marlies next season. Nick Robertson the season after that. Riley Stotts, should the Leafs choose to sign him, could also join next year, but most of the rest of the prospects are years away. Rasmus Sandin is nearly ready to graduate off the team, possibly taking Timothy Liljegren with him. It seems as though the Marlies are ageing out of their years as a junior-plus development team and turning much more into the sorts of teams Moore used to play for.
It’s easy to decide that hiring a young, untested, but very highly regarded coach is smart just because it’s different and it upsets the natural order. The natural order, where you learn your job, demonstrate your ability and then move up the ranks, actually has its merits, however. One of them being the new coach can step right behind the bench without a training period. This move is a risk by Kyle Dubas. And I’m going to bet it’s alienated the rest of the NHL to some degree. It’s one of those if it works, you’re a genius, if it doesn’t, everyone says I told you so gambles that Dubas seems confident enough to make.
What do I think? I think, much like installing Sheldon Keefe in the Leafs, this was a move that should have happened in the summer. I also think that just because Keefe, washed out of pro hockey by an injury, stumbled into a successful coaching career he had no training for, as he tells the story himself, doesn’t make that process a good one. The good idea is recognizing talented people and putting them in a position to succeed.
In promoting elite talents, sometimes you jump them up a few levels because they are just that good. But ignoring the value of the training and development offered to coaches through Hockey Canada and USA Hockey, as well as the lessons experience teaches and assuming younger is better, seems like the kind of mistake teams make when they put players in the NHL when they could benefit from a couple of years in the AHL first.
In some ways, if hiring a coach with almost no coaching background at all is what you have to do to get a modern take on hockey, that’s an indictment of the narrowness of hockey, not a case for doing it. And if that modern take is a bit of an illusion, and the new boss is really just like the old boss to an overwhelming degree, we’ve again found the narrow world of hockey in this tale, not the hero. But I have to ask what the point of paying the cost of the lack of experience is, if the reward is one of the boys, just, you know, younger. There has to be more to Moore than just youth.
In terms of timing, this is a good move. Because after Sandin and Liljegren, Robertson is the next most important person who will go through the Marlies and Moore has time to get that team ready for him. He coached a team that floated Abruzzese up to the top of the USHL, so he’s got one piece of very relevant experience for the most important job to come.
Greg Moore should make his coaching debut on Saturday, December 21 in Belleville, before he stands behind the bench in the SBA for the Marlies Boxing Day Classic against the B-Sens.