On August 5, the New Jersey Devils announced three major moves. I was able to get to two of them that day: the re-signing of forward Yegor Sharangovich to a great contract and the great signing of forward Tomas Tatar. Two transactions amid The Summer of Fitz. In between both announcements, the Devils made one regarding the Utica Comets: hiring Kevin Dineen as head coach. Despite not writing anything up about that at the time, it could stand to be as significant of a decision as the players acquired by New Jersey this Summer.
From the perspective of the Devils franchise, the primary purpose an affiliate team in the American Hockey League is to provide a place for prospects and fringe players to be able to play, develop, and prepare for a potential future in the NHL. Whether the AHL team is any good has been secondary. Since the Albany River Rats won the Calder Cup - the AHL’s championship - in 1995 with head coach Robbie Ftorek, here is a quick summary of their results from then on per HockeyDB:
- Albany River Rats (1996 to 2006): five straight playoff appearances from 1996 to 2000, six straight playoff misses from 2000 to 2006. Ftorek became an assistant in the 1996-97 season and John Cunniff took over from 1997 to 2001. Bobby Carpenter took the 2001-02 season, Red Genderon took the 2002-03 season and was replaced during the 2003-04 season by Ftorek. Ftorek oversaw the team’s final two seasons before going to Erie of the OHL.
- Lowell Devils (2006 to 2010): three straight playoff misses under Kurt Klienendorst before a playoff appearance in 2010 with head coach John MacLean. MacLean was called up to be New Jersey’s head coach for 2010-11.
- Albany Devils (2010 to 2017): Rick Kowalsky was the A-Devils one and only head coach for their existence. He replaced MacLean. They missed the playoffs in their first three seasons, made it in 2014, missed it in 2015, put together a really good team in 2016 (eliminated by a stacked Marlies team), and made it in what would be Albany’s final season.
- Binghamton Devils (2017 to 2021): Kowalsky followed the team down to Binghamton and the team returned to not making the playoffs. Kowalsky was called up as an assistant and the Devils brought in Mark Dennehy of Merrimack. The team missed under Dennehy’s first season. Once Dennehy got the OK to do things his way instead of copying New Jersey’s ways (thanks Fitzgerald!), the team got hot and was on pace to being a playoff team before COVID-19 ended the AHL season. Last season in “Binghamton” - they played all their games at the Devils’ practice rink - they won seven games and would not have made it.
Basically, the Devils’ minor league teams have lacked results. By my count, the team has made the playoffs just nine times since 1995. The 2015-16 season was the first time the Devils’ AHL team cracked 100 standing points since the 1998-99 season. It is also the only time they have done so. Is it any wonder why the Devils’ AHL teams have struggled with both attendance and attention? More often than not, they were getting bodied. And you cannot just point a finger at Lou having Chris Lamoriello do whatever he wanted or the current owners not caring enough. This continued under Ray Shero as well as multiple ownerships. Again, success at the AHL has been a secondary objective.
It is not like the Devils have received no development from their affiliates. The list of New Jersey alumni from the AHL team is not a bad one. It did not hurt the likes of Adam Henrique, David Clarkson, Blake Coleman, Mackenzie Blackwood, Miles Wood, the Gionta brothers, or Yegor Sharangovich among the many rookies from last season’s team.
However, one could question whether the players would have been better suited playing meaningful games all season along. Maybe more players could have been identified that could help New Jersey down the line. Maybe the call-ups would have been better. At the least, a more competitive team would allow the developing prospects and depth players outside New Jersey’s roster to have more experiences and get a taste of a playoff atmosphere in pro hockey. I can understand that New Jersey does not want to hand out a lot of precious NHL contract spots to AHL vets to make the team better. So what can they do? They can - and did on Thursday - look to the coaching position.
Among the many larger lessons I have learned over the years, the head coach can play a big role in how a team performs. I do not think it is a mere coincidence that the Devils’ lack of success in the AHL since 1996 coincides with a lack of AHL coaching experience among their head coaches. Robbie Ftorek certainly had it as he thrived in his first run in Albany. Here is another list of the post-Ftorek coaches with the help of HockeyDB:
- John Cunniff taking over for Ftorek in the 1996-97 season was his first season coaching since he was let go during the 1990-91 season. Cunnif was a head coach in the AHL back in part of the 1982-83 (he was called up to Hartford) and 1983-84 seasons with the Binghamton Whalers.
- Bobby Carpenter was an Albany assistant before being given his first and only chance as a head coach in North American pro hockey.
- Red Genderon took the head spot after a two-season gap since he was an Albany assistant; also his first and only head coaching job in North American pro hockey.
- Kurt Kleinendorst was a head coach in the ECHL in the 1990s, had an assistant position with New Jersey in 2001-02, had a four year break, and then took the head coaching job in Lowell for three seasons for his first AHL head coaching job. He has stayed in the AHL as a head coach and does have a Calder Cup ring with the Binghamton Senators in 2011.
- John MacLean was an assistant coach with New Jersey from 2002 to 2009 and the Lowell job was his first head coaching job anywhere. It was basically a test to see how he could do as a head coach before getting a shot in the NHL. It went poorly.
- Rick Kowalsky was the head coach of the ECHL Trenton Titans in 2006-07 and Trenton Devils from 2007 to 2010. He was “called up” to the AHL for the Albany Devils era.
- Mark Dennehy was the head coach of Merrimack for 13 seasons before the Devils brought him for the Binghamton job.
Out of this list of non-Ftorek coaches, only Cunniff, Kleinendorst, Kowalsky, and Dennehy were head coaches anywhere before they took over the bench with the Devils’ AHL affiliate at their time. Only Cunniff did so in the AHL in his past, and it was over a decade prior to his time with the River Rats. The ECHL and Hockey East leagues are not the same as the AHL and, well, it showed in the records to a point. The remainder were assistants getting a shot. The Devils have not hired anyone who has had recently relevant AHL coaching experience during the last two decades to be their head coach - until this past Thursday.
Kevin Dineen is a hockey lifer. Older fans know him quite well as he played 1,188 games, mostly with the Hartford franchise and as a member of Philadelphia during some their “golden” years in the mid-1990s. Dineen transitioned to coaching after three seasons as a scout and assistant general manager with Columbus as a head coach of the Portland Pirates. The Pirates were quite good under Dineen as they put up a 53-win season in his first one in 2005-06 and made the playoffs in five out of the six seasons he was with Portland. His performances were good enough to warrant a NHL head coaching job with Florida with the 2011-12 season - a team that was a goal (e.g. rebound try by John Madden) away from eliminating the Devils in the first round. (Thank you, Henrique.) While Florida sagged in following seasons, he was picked up as an assistant for Joel Quenneville’s Chicago Blackhawks. He lasted four seasons, got a Cup ring, and was fired along with Quenneville in November 2018. Dineen returned to the AHL with the San Diego Gulls as the one to replace Dallas Eakins, who had the job for four straight seasons. The Gulls were a playoff contender as the 2019-20 season ended early (they were tied for third in their division and sixth in their conference) and they did partake in a truncated playoff last season. It took one off season in 2006-07 in Portland and a global pandemic for Dineen’s AHL teams to miss a postseason. At the very least, Dineen has been in charge of competitive teams at the AHL level.
He has also been involved recently, which is a big plus. The AHL presents its own challenges for a head coach to manage. The parent club may not provide the players you may think you need to succeed. They may instruct that certain players play in roles they envision for them that you may not necessarily agree with. The AHL schedule is tough with lots of three-game weekends where load management is important for skaters and goaltenders alike. There are surely others. Dineen would know, understand, and be familiar with these challenges. He literally has dealt with them for the last two seasons. I see this as a big positive. Not having a head coach who has to learn on the job and just deal with the situations presented could mean a head coach who can focus more on the actual coaching and preparation of the team. As much as it seems like a soundbite, I do think that having someone in charge that knows what it takes to at least compete in the AHL can only help the Utica Comets get off the ground.
I can also appreciate that the Devils have maintained consistency with the rest of Dineen’s staff. The only change is Dineen himself. Per the Devils’ release, Sergei Brylin, Ryan Parent, Brian Eklund, and Adam Perner are all back. While the players will need to learn with Dineen and his style and tendencies, the players will not need to learn that with a whole new staff too. The team’s announcement confirmed that they will still have the same Assistant Equipment Manager and Head Strength & Conditioning Coach too. Should Utica falter or underachieve, there could be other staff changes in the future. But going out and bringing in an experienced coach is a direction I support in hoping the Comets do not fall flat on their faces like Lowell, the Albany Devils, and Binghamton ultimately did.
What about Mark Dennehy? In a sense, you could say he got a raw deal. Binghamton was performing much better in 2019-20 under him before COVID-19 ended the AHL’s season. The constantly changing schedule and roster in 2021 led to a poor season that never even happened in Binghamton. It could be argued he deserved at least one more full season to see if he could replicate what happened in 2019-20. I am happy to write that the Devils did not just dump Dennehy in bringing in Dineen. They have re-assigned him to the scouting department. The team has “promoted” him - their word, not mine - to the position of Chief Scout of Amateur Scouting. Dennehy remains in the organization.
That is a big position; it is listed ahead of Paul Castron on the team’s staff directory. It is not that offbeat of an idea either. As Dennehy was a head coach in college for so many years, he has had to spend countless hours recruiting players to come to Merrimack. College hockey recruiting tends to begin for players at ages 14 and 15 as they are competing with major junior hockey, which is are leagues for 16-20 year olds (with rare exceptions granted to 15 year olds). If a player plays in the OHL, WHL, or QMJHL, then they cannot play in the NCAA. And that recruiting continues all the way up until they are 18 or 19 as committed players can and do change their commitments. Throw in the fact that Merrimack is not a traditional hockey power like, say, Michigan or Boston College, and that added another challenge for Dennehy and his staff. Which already is tough since it involved trying to project out a teenager’s talent as a player while also convincing them to go to college - and their college - over major junior hockey. I would think a lot of time was spent looking into players in the USHL, NAHL, high schools, and junior A leagues. At the least, I would think Dennehy would understand scouting; how to look at a player today and conclude what they could do in the future. Is it enough to warrant this role? Is it overriding Castron? Both remain to be seen.
However, the bigger news to me is that New Jersey either sought out or gave their blessing to go and get an experienced coach for their AHL team. It is a notable change from how the Devils have dealt with their AHL affiliate. Dineen’s past successes are a reason to feel at least a little more hopeful that the Utica Comets will not have their first season effectively be over by the Spring as with past affiliates of New Jersey in their first seasons. It would give the local fans a reason to care. More relevant to the Devils, it would give the players more reason to keep grinding, keep improving, and keep developing. This is not to say that a short playoff appearance will make a marginal player into a great one. But since the primary objective of the Devils’ AHL affiliate has been for the players to get experience, having more opportunities for experiences is in line with that objective.
This is all to say that, despite being late in writing to the news, I am very happy that Dineen will be in charge behind the bench in Utica. I welcome Kevin Dineen to the Devils organization and wish him the best.
What do you think of the Devils hiring Dineen to be in charge of Utica? Do you think this will mean the Utica Comets will be a more competitive team compared to how the Lowell, Albany, and Binghamton Devils started? Do you think the Devils made the right move to re-assign Dennehy to a seemingly major role in the scouting department? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Dineen hire in the comments. Apologies for being late to write about this hire; thank you for reading.