Ranking the Coaches
(Yep, All 30
"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
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
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.
Michel Therrien, Pittsburgh Penguins. The good
news? The Penguins are staying in Pittsburgh. The
other news? Therrien wouldn't have been moving with
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 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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
"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.
Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is
a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com, 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
is now on sale.