The search is on for Bill Guerin and company, looking for the fifth Minnesota Wild head coach in franchise history (excluding interims). The search might lean towards a proven winner and one that has a relationship with Guerin.
No, I am not talking about his best friend, Doug Weight.
I am talking about Mike Vellucci.
Vellucci is the current head coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL. In a somewhat similar situation to Barry Trotz two years ago, Vellucci went from Champion to job search. Last season, Vellucci coached the Charlotte Checkers to a Calder Cup, yet he left the Carolina Hurricanes organization for another coaching opportunity.
Wild general manager Bill Guerin played a key role in the hiring of Vellucci and had this to say about the hire prior to joining the Wild organization:
“This just doesn’t happen all that often. I guess we saw it with Barry Trotz last year, but I can’t really remember too many times this happening. So we’re extremely excited to have an opportunity to get a guy like Mike.”
The Wilkes-Barre head coach’s journey in hockey has been a rollercoaster to say the least.
Vellucci’s relationship with hockey started from a young age when he started to skate at the age of 2. He played mostly house hockey until his bantam/midget age-15 season. He tried out for Detroit Compuware, one of the better and more well-know AAA hockey clubs in the United States, and made the team. The defensive core itself had three future NHLers in Kevin Hatcher, Al Iafrate and Vellucci. After playing a couple seasons in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) for the Bellville Bulls, he mostly bounced around the minor leagues and ended his career in Europe. Before crossing the pond, however, Vellucci was fortunate enough to play two games in the NHL for the Hartford Whalers during the 1987-88 season. His HockeyDB is wild, and a fun one to look at, playing for 12 different teams and seven different leagues from 1983 to 1995.
When his playing career came to an end, he settled down back in his hometown of Farmington, a suburb of Detroit. Or so he thought. Soon after hanging up the skates at 26, Jim Rutherford and Peter Karmanos came calling, asking if he would run the arena he once played at as a 15-year-old. Rutherford was in his early days of management and Karmanos was the owner of the team. A year later, Vellucci was named head coach and general manager of the Detroit Compuware Ambassadors of the NAHL. Vellucci and his team made it to the finals in each of his first four seasons coaching Compuware, winning the Robertson Cup Championship in his third and fourth seasons.
After losing in the second round of the NAHL playoffs in 2001, Karmanos, also an owner of an OHL team, picked him to be the next head coach and general manager of the Plymouth Whalers. Amazingly, Vellucci called Plymouth home for 14 years, winning the OHL Championship in 2006-07 and later being named OHL Coach of the Year. In 2013-14, Vellucci became the first person to win both the OHL’s Executive of the Year and Coach of the Year awards in the same season — the latter winning for the second time during his tenure in Plymouth.
Over 14 seasons as head coach and general manager of the Whalers, Vellucci drafted, found, scouted and coached a handful of talent. Some notable players he coached — Tyler Seguin, James Neal, James Wisniewski, Stephen Weiss, Chris Thorburn, Michal Neuvirth, Scott Wedgewood and former Wild goaltender Matt Hackett.
That’s not where the list ends either. Vellucci’s 2012-13 team was loaded with NHL talent. The team didn’t end up making the Memorial Cup, but lost in the third round of the OHL playoffs. The team was led by Tom Wilson, J.T. Miller, Vincent Trocheck, Rickard Rakell, Stefan Noesen and even Minnesota’s own Ryan Hartman.
After 14 years, the NHL finally came calling.
Vellucci was hired by the Carolina Hurricanes as the assistant general manager and director of hockey operations from 2014-15 to 2016-17. He became the head coach of AHL affiliate Charlotte Checkers the following season, as well as holding his previous titles of assistant GM and director of hockey operations. He kept this role until last summer, leaving for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to become their general manager and head coach. The Penguins are notably a team that hires from within, and his good friend going back now 26 years in the business Jim Rutherford is running things in Pittsburgh.
Vellucci went from Charlotte to a rival in hopes of ensuring himself an NHL coaching job in the future. Carolina head coach Rod Brind’amour likely isn't going anywhere and with a lot of players leaving Charlotte for NHL roles or to free agency in the summer, Vellucci leaped at the chance to join his old buddy in the Pittsburgh organization.
While coaching in Wilkes-Barre this season, the team has gone 25-20-3, ranking sixth in the Atlantic Division. The team is only four points out of a playoff spot and will likely be in a dog fight down the stretch as only six points separate the No. 3 seed and the No. 6 seed. The AHL schedule is mostly made up of division games. Under Vellucci this season, the Penguins have the second-ranked power play in the division, scoring at an 18.8%.
Back in September, Vellucci voiced his opinion on being behind Mike Sullivan in the organization’s head coaching depth chart:
“I mean, he’s won two Stanley Cups. I’m not naive enough to think that I’m going to come in here and do whatever. I just want to coach and one day get the opportunity to coach in the NHL. And Sully has been outstanding.”
Vellucci knows his time in Wilkes-Barre will likely not lead to a promotion in the near future and will likely be a stepping stone in his career behind the bench. So, here is where Guerin and Vellucci’s relationship comes into play. Guerin, who was previously Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s general manager, along with Rutherford, hired Vellucci. The connection is there. The real question is, will Guerin pursue Vellucci?
Wherever the 53-year-old has coached, he has found success. From two NAHL Championships in 1998 and 1999 all the way to a Calder Cup last season, Mike Vellucci wins championships. This is something the Wild have been dreading since the Twins last won a World Series.
Is Vellucci the guy to get the Wild over the hump?