The 8 Smartest Coaches in the NHL

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2012

The 8 Smartest Coaches in the NHL

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    A top-level coach can make a huge difference in the NHL.

    At the very least, the coach will set the tone for his team by the drills he runs in practice and the insights he gains on an opponent through videotape sessions prior to games.

    A smart coach is always working to give his team the best chance to win. Preparation is one of the top keys to being a successful NHL coach. After studying the strengths, weaknesses and tendencies of his team's upcoming opponent, he can provide a road map to victory.

    Understanding the opponent is just one aspect. A coach has to know his own players' strengths and weaknesses and the outside factors that may impact their game.

    He has to use all of those factors when setting his lineup on a nightly basis. Here's a look at the seven smartest coaches in the league.

Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis Blues

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    Ken Hitchcock is a veteran head coach who won the Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in the 1998-99 season and picked up the Jack Adams Award as the coach of the St. Louis Blues last season.

    Hitchcock was hired early in the season after the Blues got off to a tough start and turned their season around, as they finished as the No. 2 team in the Western Conference.

    Hitchcock excels at simplifying assignments and making sure his players understand what they have to do in order to play well. He communicates well and lets his players know what is expected of them.

    That intelligent approach allows him to take the guesswork out of coaching. St. Louis general manager Doug Armstrong told CBS.com that Hitchcock has the "passion and drive" to lead the Blues to the next level and possibly bring home a championship.

Joel Quenneville, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Joel Quenneville is among the most skilled and smartest head coaches in the NHL.

    When the Blackhawks fired Denis Savard early in the 2008-09 season, the move was not a popular one. Savard had been one of the most beloved players in team history and his players were responding to him. However, mistakes were being made and the Blackhawks brought in Quenneville to sharpen the team's performance.

    He did just that. By the end of the 2009-10 season, Quenneville was getting the most out of his team on an every-night basis and the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.

    Quenneville excels at the matchup game. He puts his players in an advantageous position on a consistent basis and that allows them to score clutch goals in key situations.

Barry Trotz, Nashville Predators

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    Barry Trotz could have a career in Hollywood if he were not one of the smartest coaches in the NHL.

    Could there be a more perfect evil scientist than Trotz? His look, his intensity and his powers of concentration would allow him to fill the bill as the genius who plans on world domination.

    Trotz has been the only head coach in the history of the Nashville Predators. Throughout their early years, they did not have much talent, but he often found a way to keep them competitive. As they have upgraded their talent, he has helped transform the Preds into one of the best teams in the Western Conference.

    Trotz has led the Predators to the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons. While they lost Ryan Suter in the offseason, they should be ready to climb past the second round this season.

Peter Laviolette, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Peter Laviolette has the full package as head coach.

    He can challenge his players' manhood. He can inspire them. He can work the referees, and he can get under the skin of the opponents.

    He can also find the best matchups for his team and put his players in a position to succeed when the game is on the line.

    Laviolette won a Stanley Cup as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2005-06 season. That's something of a minor miracle, since the Hurricanes have never had anything close to such a season before or since.

    Laviolette was head coach of the Flyers when they rebounded from an 0-3 deficit against the Boston Bruins in the 2010 playoffs and came back to record four straight wins. It was only the third time that happened in NHL history.

    It's one thing for a coach to tell his players they still have a chance in that kind of situation. It's quite another for them to actually believe him and raise their level of play.

    That's the kind of ability Laviolette has behind the bench.

Mike Babcock, Detroit Red Wings

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    Mike Babcock may be the best head coach in the National Hockey League.

    He is smart, prepared and understands the game like few others in the business. He won the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings and also brought them to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals the following year, which they lost in heartbreaking fashion. He also brought the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first season behind the bench in 2002-03.

    That's one of the outstanding coaching jobs in NHL history.

    Babcock is incredibly well-prepared on an every-night basis. While he has had some of the most talented players in the league in Nick Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, he puts them in a position where they can take advantage of matchups.

    Now he'll have to get by without the retired Lidstrom, but that's another challenge for Babcock that he will take on without an issue.

Claude Julien, Boston Bruins

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    Claude Julien has proven to be one of the best coaches in Boston Bruins history. He has taken a team that had become one of the most mediocre franchises in the league and turned it into a perennial contender.

    Julien has led his team to the playoffs in each of his five seasons behind the bench. He led the Bruins to the Stanley Cups in 2011, the team's first since Bobby Orr brought home the Cup in 1972.

    Julien is not going to remind anyone of Vince Lombardi with fiery locker-room speeches. However, he always has his team extremely well-prepared and is one of the game's best teachers. He also finds the proper matchups.

    During the Bruins' Stanley Cup run, Julien decided to pair Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg to form a shutdown defensive duo. That allowed the Bruins to close down opponents because it became impossible to do anything offensively when those two were on the ice together.

    Julien says he is still learning and trying to improve. "You evolve every year as a coach," he told the Boston Globe. "Most of the guys who know it all are retired.''

John Tortorella, New York Rangers

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    Many fans know John Tortorella from his angry postgame press conferences.

    He may be arguing with the media, criticizing the officials or taking on his own players.

    However, there's a lot more to Tortorella than his "last angry man routine."

    He excels at instilling a win-at-all-costs attitude in his team and getting his players to buy in.

    He also knows how to draw up plays that result in game-tying goals late in the third period. He knows his personnel and he knows his opponents' personnel. He puts his players in a position to succeed.

    He won one Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning and should be in a position to win another with the Rangers very shortly.