Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Head Coach Candidate: Tony Granato

Photo: University of Wisconsin

Third in a series taking uninformed, uneducated guesses at the candidates to become the first head coach of Penn State's NCAA men's team. The first was on current Icers coach Scott Balboni, the second on Denver coach George Gwozdecky.

A couple months back, Joe Battista raised eyebrows (well mine, anyway) when he suggested that NHL coaches were part of the coaching search. Armed with that knowledge, it seems only natural that given Battista's background and connections, the NHL coaches in question are currently employed by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Today, we look at one of those coaches, Penguins assistant Tony Granato, perhaps best known as the only player in NHL history to be overshadowed in the hockey world by his sister.

Granato does have a college hockey background, as the Chicago-area native spent four years at Wisconsin, scoring an even 100 goals in four years for the Badgers - his exploits in Madison from 1983 through 1987 earned him induction into the school's hall of fame.

It's probably worth pointing out that Granato wasn't a one-and-done type of guy who had only a token college career. He was captain of the Badgers his senior year. He was a Hobey Baker finalist. He was WCHA student-athlete of the year. Sports Illustrated named him one of the top ten athletes in Wisconsin history. A background like that means that he truly understands all that college hockey has to offer. It also means that he might be open to the idea of returning to NCAA hockey despite coaching solely in the NHL to this point.

Following college, he embarked on a 15-year professional career with the Rangers, Kings and Sharks. His best season was 1992-1993, where his 82 regular season and 17 playoff points helped Los Angeles to its only-ever Stanley Cup finals appearance. However, the upward trajectory of his career was quickly halted by a series of injuries, the most notable of these coming in February, 1996 when a blood clot was discovered in his brain. Granato defied those who thought his career might be over as a result, returning for the 1996-1997 season and winning the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy (which is awarded annually to a player exemplifying the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey) in the process.

Shortly after retirement in 2001, Granato began his coaching career with the Avalanche. His time in Denver can best be described as bizarre. In the middle of the 2002-2003 season - his first as a coach, and just two removed from his playing days - Colorado head man Bob Hartley was fired, and Granato assumed his job. The Avs went 32-11-8 over the rest of the season, winning the Northwest Division title. Then, after a reasonably successful (100 points, second round of the playoffs) 2003-2004, Granato was relieved of his duties after just a season and a half - but retained as an assistant on new coach Joel Quenneville's staff. He remained in that position until Quenneville left, then was one again named head coach of the team for the 2008-2009 season. Granato's second run in that job was even shorter than the first, as he was fired after one season, despite the team being destroyed by injuries that year.

After leaving Colorado, Granato joined Dan Bylsma's staff in Pittsburgh. Now in his second season with the Penguins, his primary responsibilities are the forwards and the penalty kill. The Pens had the league's ninth best penalty kill last season, and so far this season, they rank a close second to the Habs.

Why he'd be a good hire: A guy with the letters "NHL" on his resume would give instant credibility to Penn State hockey, as well as serve as a recruit magnet. He's been through the battles with a successful college program and succeeded at the highest levels, and he played for a great, national championship-winning coach at Wisconsin in Jeff Sauer. As a player, he was heart and guts personified, and as a coach, he's been successful, winning a division championship and carrying a lifetime record of 104-78-33 in his total of 2.5 seasons.

Why he wouldn't: The "pro" thing is a double-edged sword, as in a lot of ways coaching in college is an entirely different job. You have to recruit. You have to be a front man for the program in a way not even familiar to NHL head coaches - Joe Sakic was the face of the Avalanche during Granato's time there, Granato would be the face of Penn State hockey. Part of that is schmoozing the big-money donors, something for which not everyone is cut out. You have to be committed to player development in addition to game strategy and management. You have to keep players on track academically. And while he was a highly-decorated player at Wisconsin, who knows whether he really has any desire to step behind an NCAA bench. Some also question his coaching ability - being fired twice in 2.5 total seasons has never happened to Jerry York.

In fact, the same guy who opened the door to a possible Granato candidacy, Battista, seemed to close it at least halfway (but not entirely) for some of those reasons on December 3rd, in an interview with Steve Penstone.
"I know personally, the way college hockey is right now in the NCAA, an understanding of the rules of...recruiting, the game, eligibility, etc., that's critical. Because you much as it'd be nice to bring in a big-name former NHL player...if they don't have college coaching experience, we're taking a big chance. So they'd have to really show us something before we'd be willing to take that kind of a chance."
It sounds to me like Battista originally liked the idea a lot better than he did after thinking about it for a month. While there's always the possibility of "something being shown" (to borrow from the quote), Granato should probably be relegated to longshot status on the back of that interview.

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