There’s a fair bit of buzz being generated around the name Jim Playfair again – and this time, it doesn’t involve swearing, stick-smashing and tie-shredding.
Playfair, the former Calgary head coach who this season was behind the bench for the Flames’ AHL affiliate the Abbotsford Heat, has apparently popped up on the short list to fill the head-coach vacancy with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Jackets, who turfed Ken Hitchcock in February, have plowed through six head coaches in their 10 seasons of existence and are now in search of victim No. 7. BJs’ GM Scott Howson has said he wants a guy with a record of success as a head coach at some level, and NHL playing and/or coaching experience.
Scott Arniel, the former NHLer with the Winnipeg Jets (among other teams) and current head coach for Vancouver’s AHL affiliate in Winnipeg, is thought to be the front-runner – he’s already been interviewed for the job, in fact, and both sides came out of the meeting saying all the right things. Kevin Dineen (coach of Portland in the AHL) and longtime Detroit assistant Paul Maclean (another former Jet, with a great throwback-1970s moustache to boot) are also considered leading contenders.
So how did Playfair’s name get in there? This is a guy whose claim to fame in recent times has been the YouTube video of his apeshit flip-out over a bad call in a Heat game earlier this season (more than 1 million satisfied viewers, and counting). He’s more an Internet punchline than a respected coach, right?
Well, turns out a guy can be both. And Playfair has earned his way back into the NHL coaching discussion by quietly (YouTube tirades excluded) performing wonders with the Abbotsford Heat.
The Heat – stocked with the Flames’ notoriously thin cluster of possible-to-marginal prospects and a lot of guys who have no hope in hell of ever having NHL careers – cobbled together a 39-29-12 regular season (90 points), good for seventh spot in the AHL’s Northern Conference and a playoff spot – despite a rash of injuries to many of its top players and the call-up to the big squad of Mikael Backlund, easily the best NHL prospect in the bunch. Then the Heat scratched and clawed its way to the conference semi-finals, where it pushed the heavily favoured Hamilton Bulldogs, who topped the AHL’s regular-season standings, to six games before finally bowing out.
The fact Playfair got this bunch to the playoffs at all was considered a minor miracle. The fact that he won a series and then put a serious scare into the best team in the league opened a lot of NHL eyes.
It really shouldn’t come a a huge surprise to anyone, though. Jim Playfair knows how to coach. He’s had success everywhere he’s done it. He already has a Calder Cup (AHL championship) under his belt, having coached the Flames’ previous affiliate in Saint John, NB to the title in 2001. In his lone season as the Calgary Flames’ head coach before being demoted in favour of Mike Keenan (another brilliant move by Darryl Sutter), Playfair posted 96 points and a .585 wining percentage; in the history of the franchise (16 coaches over 38 seasons, including the Atlanta years), only Terry Crisp (Stanley Cup champion, 1989) has a better winning percentage.
Playfair lost the head coaching job in Calgary because he couldn’t get the team past the first round of the playoffs. But the two guys who followed him haven’t been able to solve that riddle, either, and they both got more than one kick at the dog (that is, assuming Brent Sutter’s job is safe for another season despite missing the playoffs entirely this year).
With Abbotsford this year, Playfair showed he knows how to get the best out of a mess of a roster with little scoring talent. Looking at the current Flames roster, that sounds like exactly the kind of coach the Flames could use.
Could he get another shot in Calgary? Seems unlikely in the near term, unless the Flames stumble out of the gate next season and the Sutter brothers are both shown the door. Could he end up in Columbus? He looks like a dark horse in that race, but the Jackets could do worse.
Regardless, Jim Playfair has certainly earned another shot at the big stage – whether it be in Calgary, Columbus or somewhere else. As long as that “somewhere else” doesn’t include YouTube; he’s already had his 15 minutes there.