GARRIOCH: The Senators next head coach should be ‘firm, but fair’

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Eight is enough and it feels like the finish line to this year can’t come soon enough for the Ottawa Senators.

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The rest of the season is just details for the Senators as they prepare to host Matthew Tkachuk and the Florida Panthers on Thursday night at the Canadian Tire Centre to begin a two-game home stand.

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Only eight games remain and though the Senators haven’t officially been eliminated from the NHL’s playoffs yet, the reality is that’s just a formality — and then the real work will begin to try to make improvements to this club for next year.

Steve Staios, the club’s president of hockey operations and general manager, has a lot on his to do list, but the top priority is to find the right head coach that’s going to help the young core make the next step after seven straight years of missing the playoffs.

The clock is ticking on the core led by captain Brady Tkachuk along with Tim Stutzle, Thomas Chabot, Drake Batherson, Jake Sanderson, Shane Pinto and the injured Josh Norris to start having success in their careers.

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Instead of preparing for a first-round opponent or pushing for a playoff spot, the Senators are making off-season plans to head their separate ways when the season comes to an end April 16 in Boston.

Once the final buzzer sounds, the onus is on Staios to roll up his sleeves with senior vice-president Dave Poulin and associate general manager Ryan Bowness to find the right head coach.

So, what do the Senators need behind the bench?

“Someone who is firm, but fair,” a league executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Postmedia on Wednesday.

That describes interim head coach Jacques Martin to a tee, but he already has stated that he’s here for a good time but not a long time and will assist the organization in its search for a new bench boss with the expectation he’ll return to a senior advisory role next season.

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While former coach D.J. Smith did a good job helping to develop this group during his nearly five seasons behind the bench, the Senators need a voice that can help them play as well defensively as they do offensively while also improving the club’s staggeringly bad special teams.

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“So many of the players have bad habits,” another league executive said. “No matter what happens, you’re going to have to have strong assistants.”

Staios has stated he’ll cast a wide net when it comes to trying to finding the right coach for this team. Postmedia has reported the list of candidates will include John Gruden of the Toronto Marlies along with Craig Berube, Dean Evason, Todd McLellan and Philly associate Brad Shaw.

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You can likely add Claude Julien to this list, not only because of history with Ottawa owner Michael Andlauer, but also because the former Boston Bruins coach deserves consideration.

Do they want someone with NHL head coach experience and, if so, how much are the Senators willing to pay?

McLellan has two years left on a deal that’s in the $5-million US range and Berube has time left with the Blues that’s around $4 million. Naturally, the Kings and St. Louis would both be willing to eat part of those salaries, but they’re not going to swallow 50%.

Gruden, 53, a former Senators defenceman, is considered the top candidate for the post because he won a championship with the Hamilton Bulldogs while working for Andlauer and Staios. The sense is if Gruden isn’t the head coach of the club next year, he’ll have a spot on the Ottawa staff.

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An intriguing name to watch is Evason. Fired by the Wild earlier this season, his club made the playoffs four straight years but never got by the first round. Sure, you can shake your head at that, but beggars can’t be choosers and at least Minny made it to the NHL’s big dance.

The Senators need to book a ticket first and then they can worry about the details once the music begins in late-April.

The 59-year-old Evason has one year left on his deal with the Wild at a little less than $2 million. His players like him because he’s a hard-nosed coach that isn’t afraid to show some emotion. The key is he treats every one the same way and that’s why he’ll get consideration.

He was 147-77-27 in 251 games with the Wild.

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The Senators would like to have a coach in place by the NHL draft in June, but it would make sense for Staios, Poulin and Bowness to make their choice sooner rather than later while also casting a wide net.

That’s because they won’t be alone in their search.

The New Jersey Devils (Travis Green), Blues (Drew Bannister) and Los Angeles Kings (Jim Hiller) all have interim coaches behind the bench. If Hiller gets to the playoffs, he’ll be fine, but there are zero guarantees for Bannister or Green.

Plus, there could be more coaching changes at the end of the season or after a team makes an unexpected first-round exit.

Finding the right coach for the Senators is paramount and “firm, but fair” feels like a good fit.

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