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March 16, 2007

Ranking the Coaches (Yep, All 30 of Them)
From "most likely to be fired" to the guy who will one day hoist the Stanley Cup, TFP's Greg Wyshynski counts down the head coaches of the National Hockey League.

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- There are three truths about head coaches in the National Hockey League:

1. They work harder and are more emotionally invested in their players than you can possibly imagine.

2. The amount of restraint they exhibit in remaining "on message" during public forums, like a post-game press conference, would make a White House press secretary blush with envy.

3. They were born to be fired.

OK, so some of them "resign" or "retire" or "step down." It's all the same — no one stays behind the bench for their entire career until death do they part. Unless you were William Rehnquist.

NHL head coaches come and go, and deservedly so. That old mantra about "players play the game" is valid to a point, and that point is where a coach can determine success or failure through strategy, psychology and his ability to deflect the considerable duress that comes with professional sports competition from his locker room.

Some guys are born with a whistle in their mouths, with the mettle and the mindset for this obstreperous occupation. Other guys are named Mario Tremblay, Dave Allison and Tony Granato.

Below is a ranking of the league's 30 current head coaches, determined by the last two seasons and other intangibles. Although, I polled and pestered some colleagues and assorted hockey folk, keep in mind this is one man's opinion and really just an excuse to take a few good Ken Hitchcock jokes out of moth balls:

30. John Stevens, Philadelphia Flyers. Has the imposing gravitas of a seat-filler at the People's Choice Awards. When people start whispering the name "Dale Hunter" as being an upgrade, it might be time to polish the 'ole rιsumι.


29. Michel Therrien, Pittsburgh Penguins. The good news? The Penguins are staying in Pittsburgh. The other news? Therrien wouldn't have been moving with them anyway.

28. Wayne Gretzky, Phoenix Coyotes. In his second year of a prolonged hobby, Gretzky has finally begun to understand that "Just pass it to Kurri" isn't an acceptable coaching philosophy in today's NHL.

27. Dave Lewis, Boston Bruins. One of the nicest guys you're every going to see coach a professional hockey team. And what is it they say about nice guys again?

26. Craig MacTavish, Edmonton Oilers. Unable to motivate frustrated young players, unable to patch gaping holes that management couldn't fill, and unable to ride the momentum from 2006. How quickly things change: Last post-season, MacTavish was being hailed as a "revelation" who resurrected a floundering coaching career. Funny... all I saw was a guy riding a hot goalie for three rounds.

25. Marc Crawford, Los Angeles Kings. How can a coach renowned for his intense demeanor produce a team completely devoid of a distinct personality?

Guy Carbonneau24. Guy Carbonneau, Montreal Canadiens. Poor communication, and even poorer management of his young talent. If he wasn't Bob Gainey's boy, and if the Habs weren't reluctant to continue changing coaches like most people change coffee filters, he'd be Carbonn-au-revoir by now.

23. Denis Savard, Chicago Blackhawks. Somehow gave the Blackhawks a pulse after taking over for Trent Yawney. Keep this up, and Savard will one day be known as something besides the guy who was traded for Chris Chelios or the guy with the wicked spin-o-rama on NHL '94 for the Sega Genesis.

22. Jacques Martin, Florida Panthers. Martin is a fantastic coach, but his general manager stinks.

21. Jim Playfair, Calgary Flames. Unfairly bashed this season for systemic problems that began on Darryl Sutter's watch. Wanna know when a coach becomes a scapegoat? When the fans start blaming him for things like a poor winning percentage on the road, a sentiment some Calgary faithful have expressed to me. Seriously, Playfair's like a new boyfriend who constantly has to hear about how much cooler his sweetheart's previous beau's car was... even though they drive the same make and model.

20. Bryan Murray, Ottawa Senators. You know you've been around the block a few times when your last Jack Adams Award came before the first "Back to the Future" film was released. A much better executive than a bench manager, Murray's coached 12 playoff teams during his career and has never gotten one of them past the second round. That's because a Bryan Murray playoff team is about as versatile as 50 Cent's acting career.

19. Ron Wilson, San Jose Sharks. I think he's in over his head right now, and not just because he's turned an embarrassment of goaltending riches into a Ken Hitchcockian clusterfrack. Wilson has arguably the most talented team in the NHL, and they've looked equal parts unmotivated and outright lazy all season. San Jose finishing as the No. 8 seed — still a possibility — would be the most shameful thing to happen to Sharks since "Jaws: The Revenge."

18. Glen Hanlon, Washington Capitals. Gets a whole lot out of a whole little. Tactically strong, and showed some backbone this season when Alexes Ovechkin and Semin tried to freelance away from his team's system. Like Nashville's Barry Trotz (more on him later), the kind of quality coach and individual you hope is still there when Washington's depth of talent increases and fortunes change.

Ted Nolan17. Ted Nolan, New York Islanders. Let's start with his performance this season, which has been commendable. He has cemented his reputation as a coach who can squeeze out everything a team can give him. Nolan has nearly single-handedly repaired what seemed like irreparable damage during the off-season: The DiPietro contract, the "Wang's World" comedy routine in the front office... heck, if Nolan doesn't have the Islanders contending for the post-season, then Garth Snow isn't making the Ryan Smyth trade. And if Garth Snow isn't making the Ryan Smyth trade, then he's still "that back-up goalie who got a GM job."

But until proven otherwise, Ted Nolan: NHL Head Coach remains a ticking time bomb. Perhaps his personality clashes in Buffalo were unique to that situation. Or perhaps his recent defense of friend and aspiring baseball slugger Chris Simon proves he still can carefully place his foot in his own mouth on occasion.

16. Tom Renney, New York Rangers. Renney is a good coach who will eventually be sacrificed by the typical Rangers incubation epoch — rebuild for about 10 minutes, sign a bunch of big-name talent and then dump your hard-working-though-slightly-anonymous coach for someone a bit more recognizable (and who, most likely, used to sleep with Madonna).

15. Andy Murray, St. Louis Blues. You could have hired Punch Imlach's corpse and it would have motivated the Blues better than Mike Kitchen did. But the great thing about Murray, besides getting players to buy into his program, is his commitment to growing a winning team through every age bracket and every level of the franchise. John Davidson now has his coach; it'll be interesting to see what this team looks like come September if some the recently-traded vets decide to return to the Arch.

14. Joel Quenneville, Colorado Avalanche. One of those guys whom every former teammate you talk to claims they knew would be an outstanding coach one day. The Avalanche have seen a massive defection of talent and some questionable personnel decisions that have turned a juggernaut into an also-ran; it's hilarious to me that some fans can't see firing Quenneville as just another gaffe within that trend. Dump him, and he'll be gobbled up faster than a Thanksgiving turkey at Ken Hitchcock's house. Speaking of which...

13. Ken Hitchcock, Columbus Blue Jackets. Gets a mulligan this season, and will have a chance to bring in some "Hitch guys" in the summer to support his time-tested system. By far one of the best architects of successful teams in the business today. Big question: When a trade is completed in the off-season, will Hitchcock or Doug McLean send the FAX to the league office? Bigger question: What comes first: The Blue Jackets win a playoff round, or the day when it becomes painfully apparent that Hitchcock has lost his third NHL locker room? Biggest question: Will the terms "a Ken Hitchcock team" and "goaltending controversy" ever become mutually exclusive?

John Tortorella12. John Tortorella, Tampa Bay Lightning. Hot-headed, out-spoken, a serial contrarian — and a damn good coach. He'll eventually be a victim of economics, as Tampa Bay basically needs to win the division, the conference, the Stanley Cup and then defeat Man. U in an international friendly in order to justify its payroll. That's not going to happen.

11. Peter Laviolette, Carolina Hurricanes. Besides being Exhibit A as for why coaches should be allowed to wear hats behind the bench, Laviolette was one of the only coaches last season who immediately understood what effect the rules changes had on the game and what the Hurricanes needed to do to take advantage of them. He loses some ground here because that ability to adapt on the fly is nowhere to be found after winning the Stanley Cup — Carolina has looked unfocused, unmotivated and frankly unconscious to the fact that the rest of the league wanted to kick their tails in a big way this season.

10. Alain Vigneault, Vancouver Canucks. Some may consider Vigneault luckier than Scarlett Johansson's brassiere, but the reality is that he's more than just the beneficiary of the hottest Swedish twins not found in the pages of Penthouse and the first goalie since Kirk McLean that might not get run out of Vancouver.

Vigneault's merit-based line configurations have everyone from the journeymen to the stars singing for their supper. If the Canucks are "hockey's biggest surprise!" then Vigneault's the one flipping the lights on while everyone shouts.

9. Claude Julien, New Jersey Devils. There's two ways to look at Julien's performance this season, his first behind the Devils' bench. On the one hand, he's a genuine Jack Adams candidate whose patience and unwavering commitment to a disciplined system — in the face of injuries and to the detriment of offensive output — have the Devils challenging for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. On the other hand, there's always a chance that Lou Lamoriello is still actually coaching the team, orchestrating line changes through a microprocessor he implanted in Julien's cerebral cortex before the season. (In "Battlestar Galactica" terms, think of Claude as the Gaius Baltar to Lou's Chip-Six — only less sexy and slightly more robotic.)

8. Dave Tippett, Dallas Stars. In 1991, as a winger for the Washington Capitals, Tippett was scratched from Game 1 of a Patrick Division (God, typing those words made my fingers tingle) semifinals series against the Rangers. He was stunned, ticked-off; yet, according to the Washington Post, Tippett remained focused and positive, telling Coach Terry Murray, "Whether you know it or not, I'm going to help you in this series." Tippett played in Game 2, setting up the game-tying goal and then breaking that tie with a goal of his own.

Fifteen years later, Tippett massages veteran egos on the Stars with that same basic philosophy: learn from setbacks, remain positive and contribute when called upon. Entering this season, Tippett was third in the NHL for winning percentage with his current team. As underrated a coach as you'll find in the league.

Mike Babcock7. Mike Babcock, Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings have this Krzyzewski-esque aura, where you only seem to notice them when they're not dominating the conference. Babcock never gets enough credit for keeping that winged wheel spinning — at least in the regular season — during two years of tremendous transition in Detroit. Even Dave Lewis never lost back-to-back one vs. eight conference quarterfinals; will Babcock?

6. Paul Maurice, Toronto Maple Leafs. Going from Pat Quinn to Paul Maurice is like going from Don Vito Corleone to Tony Soprano. From his offensive aggression to his charismatic accessibility, Maurice has given an NHL 2.0 upgrade to an outdated model of a franchise. (Can't take the Sopranos comparison too far, though: Big Tone wouldn't have wasted an opportunity to "send a message" to the Devils after that Cam Janssen hit. Then again, Quinn wouldn't have, either.)

5. Bob Hartley, Atlanta Thrashers. The Pat Riley of the hockey world: A coach who's at his best with a core group of superstars leading the way and a supporting cast of role players that give his team a blue-collar work ethic. Three conference finals appearances and a Stanley Cup with Colorado, he has Atlanta's big guns blazing this season. The only valid complaint against Hartley is that he can be a "changes for changes' sake" coach, and there's really nothing more frustrating for a fan than that. Well, other than the unbalanced schedule, the redesigned jerseys, the cable network no one can find, the shootout being worth as much as a regulation victory, the...

4. Randy Carlyle, Anaheim Ducks. Carlyle has commanded a talented Ducks team to the top of its division after guiding Anaheim to the conference finals in his first season behind the bench. And what was, you ask, his first NHL coaching gig? Assistant to Bruce Cassidy, a 37-year-old male model who somehow became head coach for the Washington Capitals. Sort of like how Helen Mirren debuted in "The Extravaganza of the Golgotha Smuts" 40 years before winning an Oscar for "The Queen."

3. Jacques Lemaire, Minnesota Wild. "Hello, and welcome to the annual meeting of the 'Your Boring Teams Are KILLING HOCKEY!!! Club', held jointly by our Minnesota and New Jersey chapters. Our guest speaker this evening is a Mr. Jacques Lemaire, who will be conducting a workshop called 'The Trappings of Success: How To Deal With Jealous Opponents Who Would Gladly Play Yawn-Inducing Hockey If It Meant Contending For The Stanley Cup Every Season... If Only They Could Figure Out How To Do It.' "

2. Lindy Ruff, Buffalo Sabres. In a league where so many coaches these days seem to have about as much primal masculinity as "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," Ruff is the testosteronial equivalent of Daniel Craig in "Casino Royale." Any coach who ignites a brawl like the one against Ottawa by telling his players "Go out and run'em!" should be either be given his own beer commercial or a statue on the grounds of Don Cherry's estate. Ruff's aggressive, he's honest and even a little self-deprecating; when asked in an ESPN interview if any player in the league reminded him of the way he played, Ruff replied: "I don't want to embarrass anyone by bringing up a name." Hell, he even gets away with playing the trap. What was that line from "The Usual Suspects" again? "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the hockey media that it's really just 'aggressive back-checking.' "

Barry Trotz1. Barry Trotz, Nashville Predators. Why is Barry Trotz the top coach in the National Hockey League? Because when ESPN asked Lindy Ruff who the best coach in the league was — and after 41 percent of the players surveyed by the network claimed it was Ruff himself — the Buffalo coach put Trotz over: "He has done a hell of a job in Nashville."

That he has, from the delicate chemistry experiment of blending veterans with noobies on the Predators to going beyond the call of duty to help grow the game in the most non-traditional of non-traditional markets. Everyone in the business you speak to about Trotz — from his days toiling in the Washington Capitals' minor league system to those whose respect he earned during Nashville's growing pains — laud him both as a hockey coach and as an individual away from the rink. Credit Dave Poile for sticking with Trotz when other general managers would have had him in the gallows years ago.

USA TODAY brought up that point to Trotz in an interview last year, and I think his response speaks volumes about his character:

"I appreciate the patience because not everything goes smooth in this business. We have worked well together as an organization developing players. We have had the same philosophy. Hopefully, (management) believes we have done a good job developing a little bit of a winning culture. As a coaching staff, we have grown and gone through the hard times together and now hopefully we can go through some good times together. When you do that, it creates a bond. That creates trust. It creates a lot of good things. I have a lot of pride in being a Nashville Predator. It's tattooed on my behind. But in the end, it is a business and we have to win."

And, in the end, this man will hoist the Stanley Cup one day.

Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for, and the Senior Editor and Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.



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