Mike Vellucci was named the new head coach of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Friday after Clark Donatelli stepped down due to personal reasons.
Vellucci is coming off a Calder Cup championship season with the AHL's Charlotte Checkers, a season that also saw him win the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL's most outstanding coach after the Checkers put together a league-leading 51-17-7-1 record during the regular season.
Vellucci spent five years in the Hurricanes organization, and also served as the Hurricanes' assistant general manager and director of hockey operations. Prior to joining the Hurricanes organization, Vellucci was the head coach and general manager of the OHL's Plymouth Whalers for 13 seasons.
It's uncommon to see such a qualified head coach become available to other teams immediately after a historic season, especially for a seemingly lateral move to another AHL team like this one.
Vellucci doesn't see this as a lateral move, though. When he announced that he was leaving the Hurricanes, he called the Penguins job "an exciting opportunity that makes sense for my future.”
On Vellucci's introductory conference call on Saturday, he elaborated on what made this opportunity so appealing to him.
"Working with Jim Rutherford again, working with Billy Guerin, the organization, how Wilkes-Barre has been a great organization for a long time, really good teams," he said. "I enjoyed it when I went there when we played them. The Pittsburgh organization, there's just so many good things about it and it was a great opportunity for me to try to get better as a coach and work with great people who are winners."
Wilkes-Barre's track record with head coaches didn't hurt either. Seven of their past 10 head coaches went on to work in the NHL, whether it be in Pittsburgh, as with Dan Bylsma and Mike Sullivan, or another organization as with John Hynes in New Jersey.
"That's everybody's goal, to get to the highest league ever," Vellucci said. "Someday I'd like to be an NHL coach and do that, but my job now is to develop the young guys in Wilkes-Barre and I'm really excited to start that process. You play it one day at a time, and if things come, you take a look at it. I'm excited to start here and try to win a championship again."
Vellucci said that as his contract was running out in Carolina, management allowed him to speak to other organizations about potential openings. The Penguins knew he was available. When Donatelli stepped down on Friday, it was only a matter of hours before Vellucci took the Wilkes-Barre job.
"I had a couple of other opportunities, and at the last minute I got a call from Jim Rutherford and Billy Guerin and asked if I was interested in Wilkes-Barre," he said. "We had some conversations and it closed pretty quickly."
The quick turnaround comes in part from Vellucci's strong relationship with Rutherford, which has existed for nearly three decades. Rutherford began working as the director of hockey operations for Peter Karmanos' Compuware Sports Corporation in the 1980s, an organization that operated hockey teams at various levels. Rutherford gave Vellucci his first coaching job when Vellucci was hired as head coach of the Compuware NAHL junior team in 1994. Rutherford was also on the Plymouth Whalers' management team when Vellucci was the team's head coach and general manager.
"I've known Jim for a long time," Vellucci said. "When I was brought to Carolina, it was when he decided to move to Pittsburgh and we've stayed in contact over the years. It's a good relationship. Obviously he's a Hall of Famer now, it's a big week for him. He's won three Stanley Cups. Anytime I can be around a guy like Jim and Billy Guerin, winners, that's exactly what I want to do."
Guerin serves as Wilkes-Barre's general manager, so Guerin and Vellucci will have a close relationship as well.
"I'm excited to work with Billy," Vellucci said. "I've seen the job that he's done for the last couple of years, and I've had a good relationship with him for the last couple of years of my role as a GM too. We're very familiar with each other, and I look forward to working with him."
Vellucci has worked with young players and prospects his entire career. During his time in Plymouth, he helped develop future NHL All-Stars such as James Neal, Rickard Rakell, Tyler Seguin and Vincent Trocheck. Last season alone in Charlotte, he saw 11 of his players called up to the NHL.
Vellucci said that he's "familiar with that age group. ... They want structure, they want communication, and they want to be on the same page as their coach."
"I wouldn't say I'm a player's coach per se," Vellucci said. "But I listen to the guys, I take their input, and we work together for one common goal. As far as coaching, I like aggressive style. I like guys that compete. ... It's going to be up to Sully on what kind of system we play. In Carolina we mimicked the NHL team, so that when guys got called up they were able to just come right in and understand the system."
Wilkes-Barre has been a competitive team for nearly its entire existence, since its inception in 1999. The team has only failed to qualify for the playoffs three times -- the inaugural 1999-00 season, 2001-02, and last season, 2018-19. The Penguins are still searching for their first Calder Cup championship after previously reaching the Final in 2001, 2004, and 2008.
Vellucci knows that the expectations are high for the person in his role, and he's looking forward to it.
"I'm really excited," he said. "I know the players quite a bit, and I know Billy's working hard to surround the younger guys with some older players. It's exciting. I've always known coming into Wilkes-Barre that I would have to be at my best, because it is a really good team. I wouldn't say a veteran team, but an experienced team. They expect, and the crowd and the fans expect, to have a winner there. I'm just going to have to make sure that I keep the guys focused and ready to play every night."
To continue reading, log into your account: