Damien Cox: Joel Quenneville could help the Leafs, but how long does disgrace last in hockey?

As we reflect on the culture wars raging around us, the question is a good one: How long does disgrace last?

That’s certainly been a question in sports from time to time, whether it was Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong or Pete Rose. Some got back in the game, some never did.

When it comes to the modern National Hockey League, disgrace is usually only acknowledged when there is no other option. Star players exist in a stratosphere where very little is actually known about them beyond their marital status, contract and statistics. Evander Kane is one player who appeared to have fallen into disgrace and that lasted, what, a few months?

Coaches are a little different. In many cases, they are the face of the franchise, particularly for struggling teams that want to sell hope to their fan base. So they need to be squeaky clean. Also, with the supply of coaches always exceeding the demand, they’re more replaceable than a stud goalie or 100-point centre if there’s trouble.

In the last few years, two coaches with Hall of Fame credentials were banished from the NHL scene. Mike Babcock was fired by Toronto in November 2019, and his departure was followed by accusations that he had essentially bullied Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner and been an old-school hard-ass with other NHLers going back to his days in Detroit. He has not worked in the NHL since, partly because his massive contract doesn’t expire until June 2023.

Last October, meanwhile, Joel Quenneville resigned as head coach of the Florida Panthers, although most would say he was either pushed out by commissioner Gary Bettman or agreed to take the fall, along with Stan Bowman, for the Kyle Beach scandal in Chicago. At the time, the Panthers were out to a 7-0-0 start.

After Quenneville departed. Andrew Brunette came in as interim head coach and the Panthers have gone on to win their division and advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. They’ll take on the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Florida state championship, starting Tuesday night.

So, has the disgrace associated with Babcock and Quenneville worn off? Can two men who at one time were considered the best coaches in hockey come in from the cold? If they can — with 24 teams that either missed the playoffs entirely or were beaten in the first round examining their options moving forward — the veterans would join what could be the deepest and most talented coaching free-agent class in league history.

Remember, Barry Trotz is also out there. Peter DeBoer was fired by Las Vegas on Monday. Paul Maurice seems almost a certainly to get another head-coaching position after stepping down from that role with the Winnipeg Jets last season.

Three or four years ago, that group — Babcock, Quenneville, Trotz, DeBoer and Maurice — would have been considered the cream of the crop. Today? Well, Lou Lamoriello made his thoughts known on the available choices by promoting Lane Lambert to replace Trotz on Long Island next season.

Coach Joel Quenneville quit as coach of the Florida Panthers after revelations about his connection to the Blackhawks sexual assault scandal. He has to sit down with the NHL’s commissioner before any return to NHL duty, but that might have already happened.

But Lou is Lou and other jobs are open, including in Philadelphia, Detroit, Vegas and Winnipeg. There will almost certainly be others over the next few weeks.

Quenneville, because of his record and three Stanley Cup rings, would be the No. 1 choice for any team regardless of his connections to the Beach scandal. Under his arrangement with Bettman, he has to sit down with the commissioner if he wants to work in the league again, and the rumour mill suggests that may have already happened or will very soon.

Quenneville has been stone silent on his status since resigning in Florida, which would have been one of the things Bettman required of him in order to be eligible for another post. At 63, he needs 373 more wins to catch Scotty Bowman and become the winningest NHL coach of all time.

Remember, Quenneville was never suspended for being part of the Chicago leadership group that “mishandled” Beach’s sexual assault allegations.

Another club that could be looking at a change, of course, would be the Leafs. Sheldon Keefe has had one full season as head coach, and two abbreviated by the COVID-19 pandemic. He has been unable to get the team past the first round of the playoffs despite a bevy of talented, highly paid forwards at his disposal.

In two of his three first-round losses, the Leafs went in as the favourites. Last year, they blew a 3-1 lead to Montreal. In that series, and again against Tampa Bay this spring, Keefe’s team lost Game 7 on home ice. He’s got to be on thin ice.

Either Quenneville, who played for the Leafs and coached with the organization, or Trotz would be regarded as an immediate upgrade in Toronto. Both are Stanley Cup champions, and both would send the message to a restless fan base that the team is doing everything it can to win now, with superstar Auston Matthews moving into his prime and the last two years of his current contract.

Quenneville, in particular, would be a major coup for the Leafs if he could be convinced to work in Canada. The Leafs certainly have the resources to compensate him if he’s cleared to coach again.

That said, Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas are seemingly joined at the hip, going back to their junior days. Would Dubas have to be shown the door as well for Keefe to lose his job?

For the Leafs and 23 other NHL teams looking to get better right now, a coaching move is always the easiest to make. We’ll soon find out how long disgrace lasts in hockey, and what losing teams are willing to look past in order to win.

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin


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