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NHL: The 6 Smartest Head Coaches in Hockey

Steve SilvermanFeatured Columnist IVDecember 27, 2016

NHL: The 6 Smartest Head Coaches in Hockey

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    Having a great leader behind the bench can play massive dividends in hockey.

    A smart hockey coach who can figure out strategic edges for his team and then convince his players that he is correct in his assessment has a huge advantage over his opposing number.

    It's not enough for a coach to be a smart guy who figures out a fresher or more effective strategy. He must have the personality that sells that strategy to his players.

    All the coaches on this list have led teams to Stanley Cup championships. However, not all Stanley Cup-winning coaches are on this list. Take Darryl Sutter, who was hired last year when the Los Angeles Kings got off to a terrible start. He took over, straightened the Kings out and they won the first Stanley Cup in their history.

    That means Sutter did an excellent job, but it doesn't mean that he's the smartest guy in the room.

    In his past coaching positions, Sutter was known as a snarling, stubborn my-way-or-the-highway kind of coach. He may have relented a bit last year, but he did not author any great strategic moves worth of being labeled as one of the smartest coaches in the league.

    Lindy Ruff of the Buffalo Sabres, Barry Trotz of the Nashville Predators and Todd McLellan of the San Jose Sharks are near misses. All three are excellent and intelligent leaders deserving of honorable mention status.

    Don't look for Vancouver's Alain Vigneault.

    This piece is about the smartest head coaches, not the smuggest.

Mike Babcock, Detroit Red Wings

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    Mike Babcock took the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first season as an NHL head coach in 2002-03

    He lasted one more year with that franchise before moving on to the Detroit Red Wings. He won three straight division titles in his first three years with the Red Wings and led them to the Stanley Cup in that 2007-08 season.

    Babcock is regularly known as one of the best matchup coaches in the league and he is keen at picking out opponents' weaknesses and providing the strategy needed so his team can take advantage.

    Babcock can't work miracles and the Red Wings may be at a talent deficit when the season finally gets underway, but if there's an edge to be found, he will make sure his players understand it and know how to exploit it.

Claude Julien, Boston Bruins

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    Claude Julien excels at keeping his team focused on the task at hand.

    He is a forward-thinking coach who does not let past failures get in his team's way and prevent his players from playing their best.

    This is not easy. Since being named head coach of the Boston Bruins prior to the 2007-08 season, he has been leading a team with a demanding fan base and high expectations. Pressure to win in Boston is extremely high and it's easy to get crushed by the pressure.

    Especially when his first three seasons as head coach ended in a somewhat disappointing manner.

    He shook off the scars of losing a seven-game playoff series to Carolina at home in 2009 and then the shocking pain of building a 3-0 lead over the Philadelphia Flyers and then blowing it in 2010. Instead of falling apart after that defeat, the Bruins used it as motivation the following season.

    The Bruins owned that defeat and then used it as motivation.

    They beat Montreal in overtime of the seventh game, swept the Flyers, beat Tampa Bay in seven games and finally captured the Stanley Cup by beating the Vancouver Canucks in seven games.

    Strategically, few coaches can compare with Julien in terms of his line matchups and defense pairings. When they won the Stanley Cup in 2011, Julien paired defensemen Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg to give the Bruins the NHL's ultimate defensive shutdown duo.

    Will Julien make a Vince Lombardi inspirational speech to get his troops fired up? No.

    But he will say the right words and do the right things to get his team to play its best hockey.

Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis Blues

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    Ken Hitchcock had a brilliant comeback season last year with the St. Louis Blues.

    The Blues brought in Hitchcock to turn things around after head coach Davis Payne got them off to a sorry start.

    It was seen as a bit of a long shot because Hitchcock had been fired after coaching stints in Dallas, Philadelphia and Columbus. He had won a Stanley Cup with the Stars in 1998-99 and had taken them to the Stanley Cup Finals the following year, but then it was downhill for him.

    Hitchcock's reputation early on was as a tough disciplinarian, but he has eased off in that area as he has seen the game change.

    He's not going to give the players free reign, but he recognizes that the game is about speed and creativity. The game is so fast now,” Hitchcock told the Toronto Globe and Mail. “You never saw that before. It’s unbelievable how fast the game is, but it’s fast without puck possession, so it’s like fore-check, fore-check, fore-check, fore-check, fore-check, fore-check."

    Hitchcock's adjustments turned the Blues into a powerhouse last year.

    They challenged for the Presidents' Trophy before finishing second in the Western Conference behind the Vancouver Canucks. That performance earned him the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's coach of the year.

Joel Quenneville, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Joel Quenneville was a functional defenseman during his playing career, but he has proven to be one of the elite coaches in the NHL.

    Much of his philosophy was built as a player and he likes to push his players hard in practice.

    Perhaps that's because he needed the extra time on the ice in practice to play well in games, but Quenneville uses practice to get his philosophy across, correct mistakes and establish his leadership.

    Quenneville was rewarded with the Jack Adams Award as the coach of the St. Louis Blues 1999-2000 and he won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009-10.

    When the Blackhawks won the Cup with Antti Niemi in goal, Quenneville was credited because the Hawks were able to win the championship even though they did not have an elite goalie. It was the defensive system that Quenneville employed—and the talent of his players—that brought the team the Stanley Cup.

John Tortorella, New York Rangers

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    John Tortorella may be best known for his tempestuous press conferences and his less-than-friendly relationship with the media in general, but he is among the most prepared and intense head coaches in the NHL.

    Tortorella won the Stanley Cup as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning and his New York Rangers will likely be the Stanley Cup favorites when the season finally begins.

    But while the Rangers are a very talented team who may have landed the piece they needed when they acquired high-scoring Rick Nash from Columbus in the offseason, Tortorella never stops working to get his team to play its best hockey.

    He will glean all information he can from his intense film study of his opponents and pass it on to his players in the form of a nightly gameplan.

    He pushes hard at all times and gets every bit of ability out of his players. That's not easy and makes him one of the smartest and most effective coaches in the business.

Peter Laviolette, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Peter Laviolette has orchestrated two of the most memorable moments in hockey history from his position as head coach.

    During the 2005-06 Stanley Cup playoffs, he led the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup as they beat the Edmonton Oilers. The Hurricanes are not going to be mentioned in the same breath with the Montreal Canadiens dynasty of the late 1970s, yet they emerged with the championship.

    Four years later as head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, his team found itself down by three games to none against the Boston Bruins. Despite the deficit, Laviolette told his team he still believed they were better than the Bruins.

    That's just what most coaches would do.

    However, Laviolette's gift was that his players believed him and were able to raise their level of play. The Flyers won four straight to win the series, a feat that only two other NHL coaches had ever managed before.

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