Kovacevic: Ulf, Penguins a perfect pairing
Jim Rutherford will choose the Penguins' new coach within the coming week. And he'll do so by culling from a now-disclosed list of candidates that's loaded with experience, energy, intelligence, innovation, character, charisma, toughness, more toughness and some Stanley Cup rings.
I'll take Ulf Samuelsson.
Yesterday, if possible.
Send a couple cheesy thank-you cards to the retreads on the list, Marc Crawford and Ron Wilson, but otherwise leave them be. Crawford's only Cup came in 1996 with a stacked Colorado roster, and all he did with a similar roster in Vancouver was fail spring after spring. Wilson's only Cup came in 19-oh-never, and his recent stint in Toronto was an unmitigated, defense-free disaster.
Offer best wishes to all of the other NHL assistants and minor league men on the list, but nix them, too. With all due respect, in particular to John Hynes in Wilkes-Barre, the new coach must command instant respect in a locker room that includes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. If not, he'll get spat out by the second week of training camp.
Because he's all of those things up there in the first paragraph, to some extent. And he'd be a breath of fresh air. And he'd have deep ties to Pittsburgh and its hockey history.
And because, for lack of a better way to word it, he's Ulf Samuelsson.
Yeah, I get that this might be the people's choice, and that's often the case for all the wrong reasons. The best quarterbacks don't make the best coaches. The best hitters don't make the best hitting instructors. Similarly, it's insane to imagine Samuelsson's hire would transform the Penguins' entire roster into rabid beasts in the mold of old No. 5.
But I also get that Samuelsson, even setting aside his 17-year NHL playing career, his plus-172 rating, his 2,453 penalty minutes, his two rings with the Penguins and his Cup-clinching goal in Minnesota, is absolutely the right choice off Rutherford's list.
Isolate on Samuelsson's coaching resume:
• He spent 2006-11 as associate coach in Phoenix, part of a staff that stressed grit and defense. The man who hired him: Wayne Gretzky.
• He spent 2011-13 as coach of the iconic MoDo franchise in his native Sweden, guiding that team to the playoffs both seasons by virtue of improved defense. The man who hired him: Markus Naslund.
• This past season, of course, he was Alain Vigneault's assistant for New York's run to the Stanley Cup final. That run, as the Penguins found out, was fueled from the Rangers' back line, as Ryan McDonough, Dan Girardi and others had career years. The penalty-killing, Samuelsson's other responsibility, soared from 15th in the league to third.
On top of that, he has become known around coaching circles more for his smarts, for his strategic knowledge, than any other trait.
Which doesn't surprise those who know him best.
“Ulfie's one of those guys who, when he played, he wanted you to think he was this big dummy just looking to punch people in the mouth. He was nothing of the kind,” Phil Bourque, his former mate on those championship teams, was telling me Wednesday. “He was a detail guy, a guy who broke down the game, a real student. You can see that even now with him. The gears are always turning. He sees the game in a way that not many do.”
“Ulfie's a very hard worker,” Rick Tocchet, another of those old champs, was saying about what stands out about Samuelsson. Tocchet's a candidate to be part of the staff, and his experience and toughness would be welcome here, too. “As a coach, Ulfie's a student of the game. He's not afraid to think outside the box. He'll be a good communicator with his players.”
Samuelsson's ready. He's 50 years old, he's done it all and he has more pedigree than most head coaches upon arrival.
Does sentiment count?
Well, why shouldn't it?
The Penguins know Ulf. Pittsburgh knows Ulf. They already know the competitor as well as the quality human being. Even during the heat of this recent playoff round, Mario Lemieux was seen chatting it up with his old friend during down time. It's a common sight anytime Ulf returns.
And yeah, by the way, he's Ulf. Enough of this Samuelsson formality.
What these Penguins need, in the most desperate way, is a heaping helping of Ulf. They need the Ulf who Bob Johnson once described as “a gamer” with no need for elaboration. They need the Ulf who stopped at nothing to win, whether it meant bending rules or bending opponents' knees backward. They need the Ulf who will need to widen the locker room doors at Consol to get all his fortitude through.
Think this guy will cower or cater to the Penguins' stars, much less fourth-liners, as Dan Bylsma did?
The time is now. And I mean now. Other teams are interested in Ulf, and one of them, not surprisingly, is Carolina, where Ron Francis, another great from those Cup teams, just succeeded Rutherford as GM. And be sure that the equally competitive Francis would love to trump his former team and former mentor with his first hire.
Get it done, Jim. Don't turn your back on Ulf. Longtime hockey fans in these parts will tell you that tends not to end well.