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SIMMONS: Joel Quenneville should be next Maple Leafs coach

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The Maple Leafs’ first phone call should be to Joel Quenneville. The second call should be to Gary Bettman, asking the commissioner what it would take to bring Quenneville back to the National Hockey League.

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The Leafs need a coach to replace the fired Sheldon Keefe. They need the best coach available. And unfortunately, Scotty Bowman is 90 years old and not available.

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Which brings us to Quenneville, who is second to Bowman in career NHL coaching wins, tied for first in his time alongside Bowman with three Stanley Cup wins since he first entered the league as a coach.

He’s won four Cups overall — three as head coach in Chicago, one as an assistant in Colorado — and has been close in other years. Three times he made it to the Cup final with Chicago, three times the Blackhawks won in six games.

Jon Cooper has won twice in Tampa. Mike Sullivan has won twice in Pittsburgh. Darryl Sutter won twice in Los Angeles. Were either Cooper or Sullivan available today, they would also be fine choices for the Leafs.

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Craig Berube, one of the strongly rumoured candidates to be the Leafs next coach — which may be a done deal — won once in St. Louis in a very strange season. But comparing the coaching career of Quenneville to that of Berube is like comparing Brendan Shanahan’s Hall of Fame playing career to what he has been able to do in management with the Maple Leafs.
The two are not the same.

It will take a certain finessing to bring Quenneville back to the NHL. He was unofficially suspended by the league three years ago for his part in the Kyle Beach sexual assault story. He was, by no means, a central figure in the Beach circumstance but he was a figure of significance nonetheless. He has been out three years. Bringing him back will be greeted with some screaming — but everything these days is greeted with some kind of screaming.

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He’s been out long enough. But in order to bring him back to the NHL, he would need the blessing of Bettman and his first lieutenant Bill Daly.

Word from some of Quenneville’s hockey friends in Florida, where he lives, is that he would welcome a return to coaching, and more than welcome a return to the Maple Leafs, the team that drafted him into the NHL.

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There has long been a connection between Quenneville and the Leafs. He grew up in Windsor, was selected in the second round by the Leafs in 1978. He later became a throw-in of sorts in the controversial trade that sent Lanny McDonald to Colorado. Against his better judgment, he was convinced to become a coach by former Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher. In his first coaching job in hockey, he worked for the Leafs’ AHL farm team in St. John’s as a playing assistant for Marc Crawford.

At the time, Fletcher sort of joked that “our best prospects in St. John’s were the coaches” both of whom would later win Stanley Cups for other franchises. Quenneville would win his first Cup as an assistant with Crawford the year after the Quebec franchise moved to Colorado.

Quenneville is a strong, more proven candidate than any of the names that will be thrown around in the next few days. He’s a better candidate than Berube, than Bruce Boudreau, Gerald Gallant, Claude Julien, Todd McLellan, Jay Woodcroft, Guy Boucher (a longtime Shanahan favourite), and Dean Evason.

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If, somehow, Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour becomes a free agent, then that changes everything.

But if Brind’Amour stays where he is, the Leafs need to hire the best to replace Keefe.

The best used to be something Shanahan talked a lot about when he first started with the Leafs. He talked about the economic advantage of being the Leafs. Hiring the best coaches, the best support staff, the elite people for elite roles.
That’s when he overpaid and outbid Buffalo for Mike Babcock, who served his purpose until he didn’t anymore. That’s when he brought in Lou Lamoriello, to bring a sense of professionalism and stability to the front office. Those hirings were necessary, but over time the club has seemingly lost its way. And success has been defined more by franchise value and individual player value rather than by anything accomplished on the ice as a team.

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A head coach is central to everything that happens with a hockey club. Shanahan knows that well from his time in Detroit playing for Bowman. He played for about 10 other coaches, many of whom are indistinguishable. But the great ones, those you remember forever.

That’s why this hiring matters so much. Whether it’s Shanahan or not who makes the call, they can’t afford to be wrong this time, to make the incorrect choice.

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Keefe had excellent numbers as the Leafs head coach. He ranks third in career regular-season winning percentage.

Better than Pat Burns. Better than Pat Quinn. Better than the greatest of Leafs coaches after Punch Imlach. Just not when it mattered most.

And this matters now with Leafs Nation in distress, with belief in the club eroding to an all-time low: The Leafs can’t hire the wrong person to coach at this time. They just can’t.

Which is why they need to start with Joel Quenneville at the top of their wish list. No one else in the game comes with his credentials.

No one else is even close.

ssimmons@postmedia.com

twitter.com/simmonssteve

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