AHL a critical step in Love’s journey to Washington

Photo: Candice Ward

Patrick Williams, TheAHL.com Features Writer

Mitch Love had a major decision to make this summer.

Love went into the offseason fresh off winning the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as the AHL’s outstanding coach for the second consecutive season. He led the Calgary Wranglers to a league-best 51-17-3-1 mark last season and his second consecutive Pacific Division title. In two seasons guiding the Calgary Flames’ AHL affiliate, Love went 96-33-8-3.

What next? And where?

In Calgary, change arrived after the Flames did not qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2023. Craig Conroy took over as general manager. Head coach Darryl Sutter departed. Love’s AHL success stirred considerable speculation as to whether he might fit in as a candidate to replace Sutter. Ultimately the Flames elected to go with Ryan Huska, promoting him from assistant coach; Huska had spent four seasons in the AHL leading Calgary affiliates with Adirondack and Stockton.

With new head coach Spencer Carbery taking over in Washington, the Capitals had their own coaching staff to assemble and they made a call to Calgary, requesting permission to speak with Love.

The courting process began – and moved quickly, as the Capitals named Love an assistant coach June 22. Love, who worked his way through five AHL seasons and 278 games as a hard-nosed player, plus 12 more seasons behind benches in the Western Hockey League and AHL, was on his way to the National Hockey League.

“It was an interesting month, in terms of going through the process with the Flames and then coming to Washington,” Love said. “It’s interesting. It was kind of my first time really going through that interviewing for an NHL position. I really leaned on some resources that I know in the NHL, coaches who have gone through the same process at some point in their careers, and so that was very helpful in what to be prepared for.

“You kind of get in your bubble no matter what level you’re at. So for me to get a chance to meet other head coaches or general managers, it was a really good experience.”

Love and Carbery, who was the AHL’s outstanding head coach in 2020-21 with the Hershey Bears, had crossed paths sporadically in the past to discuss players when Love was coaching in juniors and Carbery was in the ECHL with South Carolina. Later they reconnected at coaching conferences after Carbery had moved on to the Ontario Hockey League.

Getting reacquainted, they quickly hit it off as the get-to-know-you process intensified. The Capitals have two other former AHL head coaches, Scott Allen and Kirk Muller, on Carbery’s staff as well. Love will be managing the club’s defense corps; last season the Wranglers allowed only 2.42 goals per game, tops in the AHL, and also led the AHL on the penalty kill at 85.1 percent.

“He’s very organized, detailed,” Love said of Carbery. “He’s got a plan. It’s well executed. He’s very good at giving us our roles, our responsibilities, and really us taking ownership in those areas. I’ve been really fortunate. It’s an opportunity for me to come to the rink each and every day and learn from the staff because of their experiences. We’ve got a very collaborative group of coaches here.”

Love cites the AHL as a critical step in preparing him for this move to Washington. He points to former Colorado Eagles head coach Greg Cronin, who went to the Anaheim Ducks this summer for his first NHL head-coaching job. And much like Carbery, Love has built a reputation as a strong communicator capable of reaching today’s players.

“It just shows you that the AHL’s a very good league,” Love said, “and I think more and more teams are starting to go that way a little bit. Especially as the NHL gets younger and younger, they’re really leaning on their AHL teams’ head coaches or assistants to come to the National Hockey League and be that connection from your American League feeder system to the NHL.”