This is Don Lever. He has gained a reputation for being a quality coach in the minor leagues and is rumored to be a candidate for the head job in Montreal. I’ve read a bit about Lever here and there, but mostly it’s “he’s a good man” or “he’s paid his dues.”
Many years ago (in his Abstracts) Bill James attempted to find information about baseball managers that made them unique. Subtle things, like does he use his bench a lot and does he prefer speed over power. That kind of thing.
I tried doing the same thing with regard to Craig MacTavish awhile ago and thought it might be an idea to attempt it with some of the possible candidates this spring. We can’t ask specific questions like “does he roll 4 lines” but there are some things we can know just by looking through the past math.
- What is his resume? Lever began his coaching career in the Buffalo Sabres organization back in 1987-88. After two seasons as an assistant to Sabres head coach Ted Sator, Lever was hired to coach the Sabres’ farm team in Rochester. In his first season as Head Coach of the Rochester Americans in 1990-91, Lever led his team to the Calder Cup final and was voted AHL Coach-of-the-Year with a regular-season record of 45 wins, 26 losses and 9 ties. The key ingredient to the championship appears to have been improved defense (Lever’s team knocked the GA down by 33 goals and reduced the PIMS by a bunch too). After a long period in the NHL as an assistant (92-04) he returned to the AHL and once again had success. Lever coached 305 games winning 154, losing 127 in regulation and 25 in overtime/shootout. In 2006-07, his second season as head coach of the Bulldogs, he led the Canadiens’ main affiliate to the Calder Cup.
- Any good references? Scotty Bowman. “Don Lever is very consistent. He always the same after a win or a loss. He’s a very honest person, and his players like him. He has a lot of experience and he’s very honest. You know, he has 37 years experience at the professional level. Everywhere he’s worked, he has done good. Joel Quenneville had him for his assistant in St. Louis (2002-04) and he’s always said that Don did a lot of good work with him. It’s true that he has been an assistant for a long time, but as you know, they prepare the practices and drills. He’s far from being a rookie. His success in Hamilton has been very important, because he won with a young team filled with players who are now in Montreal. He has a good record and the confidence that goes with it. He’s a guy who will do everything he can do to have success and remain in the NHL. He’s a family man who is very passionate about hockey.”
- What is his style? Lever has the ability to be a taskmaster and is very blunt. In January 2008 (while coaching in the AHL with Hamilton) he said “(Corey) Locke is nonexistent, D’Agostini is nonexistent, (Janne) Lahti is nonexistent, (Duncan) Milroy is nonexistent and (Eric) Manlow can’t play games back to back.” This is perhaps an easier thing to do while coaching in the minors (calling out prospects and minor league veterans) but does suggest Lever will use all means available to motivate.
- Any personal notes? Lever has a son who is handicapped. He’s mid-20′s and has cerebral palsy. It’s not the kind of thing I’d mention, save for the fact that the family lives in Buffalo and that may be a factor in his taking a position out west.
- Does he want to be a head coach? I would think so, various reports have him applying over the years. “I’ve been close a couple of times. I thought I was especially close in Columbus. But I’ve been very thankful to the Sabres and the Knox family for all they’ve done for me and my son over the years, with the time in Rochester as well. It’s been a terrific run.” Also, he was quoted recently in the Montreal Gazette as saying “obviously, that would be my dream, to be a head coach in the NHL some day. Right now, my situation is to come up here and be a support to (general manager/ head coach Bob Gainey) and Dougie (Jarvis) and Kirk (Muller). I’m trying to fit in and understand the system.”
- Any negatives? He doesn’t speak french, which incredibly might keep him from the Habs head job. Also, he’s 56 years-old, so there’s a generation gap (haven’t heard that phrase in awhile) between himself and someone like Sam Gagner. Don Lever is 12 years older than Dave Gagner.
- Did he have any good young players on the farm in Buffalo? On his first club, Darrin Shannon turned pro and eventually had a decent career but didn’t cover his draft number (he had already been traded once before arriving in the AHL). Bob Corkum and Ken Sutton played well for Lever that season and ended up having careers. Kevin Haller was a high draft pick who turned out nicely and he had Donald Audette for a few games but he was on the way already. The only player who shot lights out that season was Bill Houlder who finished 10th in the AHL for assists. This was the season the club got all the way to the Calder Cup finals. In his second AHL season, Lever had rookie pro Sean O’Donnell who would go on to play 1014 regular season NHL games (and counting) as well as Keith Carney (1018 NHL games). Lots of very defensemen here, and not many were high picks.
- Did he have any good players on the farm in Montreal? A ton. His first Hamilton team (05-06) was the shared club (Mont-Edm) and the true NHLers from that club were Andrei Kostitsyn, Marc Pouliot, Maxim Lapierre, Ron Hainsey, Raitis Ivanans, Jaroslav Halak, Yann Danis. The following season (the team that won it all) he had several of the above Habs plus Mikhail Gabovski, Matt D’Agostini, Kyle Chipchura, Zack Stortini and for the playoffs Carey Price. This past season, the club used a D named Yannick Weber a lot and he looks good and MaxPacioretty spent some time in the minors. That’s a lot of talent over 4 years.
- Any high picks fail on his watch? Yes. Darrin Shannon and Joel Savage from the first Buffalo team didn’t work out as well as planned, and from the Hamilton Bulldogs we can probably safely list Kyle Chipchura and Cory Urquhart.
- Anything else? Based on Tambellini’s requirements (coach with some NHL experience and his team still in the playoffs) Lever fits the bill although age and family concerns may be factors. Lever is also given full credit for putting Price in the net for the AHL playoffs a couple of springs ago. He had a more veteran option, but gave the job to the kid. That may indicate a willingness to elevate talent as soon as it’s ready, but as always with these things we don’t have a lot of supporting evidence. He certainly has confidence in himself and is not a stranger to bold decisions.