The Toronto Maple Leafs announced today that John Gruden has been hired as head coach of the Toronto Marlies. Gruden becomes the eighth head coach in the club’s history.

His hiring is somewhat of a departure from Greg Moore, who had no previous experience coaching in the professional game before replacing Sheldon Keefe in 2019.

“We’re very pleased to name John as the Head Coach of the Toronto Marlies,” said Ryan Hardy, Maple Leafs Assistant General Manager, Minor League Operations. “John has supported the development and performance of his players throughout his coaching career while delivering team success at every level. His resume from the U.S. National Team Development Program to the OHL and eventually the NHL has armed him with a wealth of knowledge and experience that will be invaluable to both players and staff.”

Gruden has five years of NHL coaching experience under his belt.

After four seasons with the New York Islanders as an assistant coach, the 53-year-old spent the most recent campaign with the Boston Bruins, holding the same position. 

Gruden took on defensive (as well as power play) responsibilities in Boston, and I have to think this was a factor in his hiring for Toronto. The Marlies were a tire fire defensively during Greg Moore’s tenure and did nothing for the development or confidence of the organization’s young blue-line prospects. 

Gruden began his coaching career as an assistant coach with the US NTDP Juniors (USHL) from 2011-15, helping lead Team USA to gold medals at both the 2012 and 2014 U18 World Championships.

The Flint Firebirds hired the Minnesota native in 2015 for the team’s inaugural season. It was an eventful first campaign in the Ontario Hockey League for the American head coach. He was fired a month into the season, with reports claiming the firing was due to refusing to increase the playing time of defenseman Håkon Nilsen, the team owner’s son. Team president Costa Papista denied the allegations, but following a successful player walkout, Gruden was reinstated as the Firebirds head coach and given a three-year contract extension.

It proved only a temporary reprieve as Gruden was fired for a second time in February 2016.

A switch to the Hamilton Bulldogs in the summer was a productive one. As head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs (OHL), Gruden led the club to the 2018 OHL Championship and compiled a record of 76-45-8-7 through two seasons (2016-18). 

In his playing days, Gruden was a defenseman who always attempted to generate offense from the blue line. He’s taken that philosophy into his coaching career, and it’s a point that is extremely relevant to the current Maple Leafs team. 

My immediate thoughts turn to how the new Marlies head coach can help Topi Niemelä and William Villeneuve to strike the balance between defense and offense. He could also assist a more defensively-oriented Marshall Rifai to broaden his offensive instincts.

By all accounts, Gruden has never been shy of holding players responsible for performances while also providing the kind of care and attention that prospects require. That would certainly be a positive move away from the Moore era in which it appeared as if there were favourites in the camp and some curious lineup and deployment decisions. 

This hiring is considerably less of a gamble than that of Greg Moore and Gruden’s experience coaching some of the very best players in the NHL will hold him in good stead. That, allied with the knowledge of coaching and winning in junior, should lead to productive prospect development.

There has been a large amount of turnover on the Marlies roster through the free-agency period thus far. I see this as a positive for a new head coach, with the opportunity to stamp his authority and make a positive mark with a clean slate to work with. 

When researching this appointment, you may have stumbled upon Gruden’s son. Jonathan Gruden played three games for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season but spent the majority of the campaign with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.  If re-signed by Pittsburgh (currently a free agent) or another NHL team not based out west, we may see the Grudens in opposition next season.