Ranking the NHL's 10 Most Innovative Coaches

Isaac SmithAnalyst IAugust 12, 2013

Ranking the NHL's 10 Most Innovative Coaches

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    In the NHL, a good team be brought to greatness by an innovative head coach.

    While there may be 30 head coaches, only a few of them remain innovative enough to maintain their positions and status in the game as sought after coaches.

    Some of these coaches were recently let go from their respective teams, but that should have little standing on their status as innovative coaches.

    Here are the 10 most innovative coaches in the NHL.

    Innovative in this sense will be defined as the ability to produce wins through a creative coaching style and limited player depth.

Honorable Mention: Lindy Ruff, Dallas Stars

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    It feels weird to see Lindy Ruff coaching with an organization other than the Buffalo Sabres.

    But after Ruff was fired after a 6-10-1 start to the 2013 season, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he wouldn't be out of coaching for very long.

    Ruff's tenure in Buffalo includes one Stanley Cup Final appearance as well as one President's Trophy and a handful of Eastern Conference Finals appearances.

    In order to be tenured as an NHL bench boss for a long period of time, coaches have to be able to adjust to old players leaving and new players arriving. That's exactly what Ruff did over the better part of 15 years.

    Ruff's regular season results weren't spectacular and he never won a Stanley Cup, but when it came time for the playoffs, it seemed as though Buffalo could never be counted out of the running.

    Although his recent firing brings him down to honorable mention status, but he is still a premiere coach that has a proven track record of success at the NHL level.

    Ruff doesn't back down from other teams and coaches and though he usually possesses a calm demeanor, no hockey fan can forget part that Ruff had in the brawl that took place between Ottawa and Buffalo in 2007.

Honorable Mention: Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    In his first season with the Pittsburgh Penguins Dan Bylsma put up an 18-3-4 record as a midseason replacement for Michel Therrien. Bylsma then led the 2008-09 Penguins to their first Stanley Cup since 1992.

    Unfortunately, since then the Penguins have failed to produce in the playoffs, despite Bylsma becoming the fastest coach to reach 200 wins in the regular season.

    Bylsma will be coaching Team USA in Sochi in the 2014 Olympic games, but one has to wonder how the Penguins can get their playoff moxie back. If Bylsma could find out why his team cannot compete as well on defense as they do on offense, perhaps the Penguins would have won another Stanley Cup since 2009.

    For now, he just makes the "honorable mention" slide.

10. Alain Vigneault, New York Rangers

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    Alain Vigneault likely got the short end of the stick in Vancouver when he was fired after the Canucks were swept by the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the playoffs.

    Vigneault's Canucks did play in a weak Northwest division for most of his tenure in Vancouver. Even still, he brought home a division title in every year except for 2007-08, captured back-to-back President's Trophies in 2011 and 2012 and came within one win of a Stanley Cup in 2011.

    His innovation comes in his ability to let his team play a wide-open offensive game. This should resonate well in New York where there seems to be the talent level to play a more offensive game.

    Vigneault is going to have to be especially creative in New York to get the team used to playing a defense-first style of game back to a more offensively creative game.

    The Rangers have a similar layout as the Canucks though, with a couple of offensive superstars up front, stellar goaltending and a very solid blue line.

    Although he would be higher on this list, his lack of a Stanley Cup and recent firing bring him down on this list to the No. 10 spot.

9. Bruce Boudreau

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    Bruce Boudreau rings in at ninth on this list of most innovative coaches because of what he can (usually) get out of his players.

    Boudreau's coaching achievements are many, including becoming the fastest head coach to reach 200 regular season wins.

    That mark stood until Dan Bylsma broke it with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013.

    Although Boudreau has dominated the regular season in his head coaching days, his postseason success has been limited. He has never found a way to get past the second round of the playoffs, going 20-24 in 44 postseason contests.

    Boudreau is looking to take the next step with the Anaheim Ducks.

    Although he played with one of the NHL's most dynamic players in Alexander Ovechkin, Boudreau was never quite able to capture Ovechkin's ego enough to put him to good use as a player.

    With Anaheim, this should not be a problem. Boudreau will be able to put all of his options together and form a juggernaut in the Western Conference that will not be thwarted by the ego of one player.

8. John Tortorella, Vancouver Canucks

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    Often regarded negatively for his short, snappy answers to media members, John Tortorella might have just had the best move of his career in moving to Vancouver.

    Yes the team is still just as good and yes it is a Canadian market so there will be a substantial amount of pressure. But Tortorella will have a fresh start for the most part and he has the capability to impose a solid defensive hockey mindset on a team.

    "Torts" has won in the postseason as well as the regular season. He turned the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning into a somewhat unexpected Stanley Cup champion.

    The former Rangers' bench boss had a solid goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist in New York and will look to make amends with Roberto Luongo in Vancouver as he was cast aside on multiple occasions this year.

    The innovations that Tortorella will bring to the Canucks will be exactly how he succeeded with the Rangersfrom the net outwards. Some coaches don't put as much emphasis on defense, but Tortorella stresses it indefinitely.

    Although some might argue that not enough emphasis was placed on offense in his time in New York, Tortorella's Rangers were seventh in the NHL in shots on goal last season, despite not placing in the top 10 in the two previous seasons.

    Tortorella's innovation as a coach often comes in his ability to use his coaching outbreaks as sideshows to distract the media from his team's play. His failure to change his system in New York makes him lower on the "innovation" side of things that would have otherwise helped him climb the rankings on this slide show.

7. Dave Tippett, Phoenix Coyotes

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    The Phoenix Coyotes have had some trouble putting up points as a team over the past five years and that is putting it lightly. The 'Yotes have had just five players over the last five years who have had more than 60 points.

    When a team is that starved for offense, it takes a truly brilliant and innovative coach to get that team back on track. Dave Tippett has been that coach for the Coyotes, helping them to qualify for the playoffs in every season he has been coach, save for the most recent lockout-shortened one.

    Tippett's coaching style has been simple. Take care of defense and help out goaltender Mike Smith, and everything else will work itself out.

    The Coyotes went to the Western Conference Final last year after winning the franchise's first ever playoff series and then advancing to the Final before losing to eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles.

    Tippett has had success with teams in non-traditional markets, as he has coached the Dallas Stars as well. He has proven that he can be innovative enough to create wins despite not getting goals as often as other teams.

6. Barry Trotz Nashville Predators

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    When a hockey team seems to be in the bottom of the NHL in goals for every season, the head coach must be innovative to keep the team in playoff contention.

    Barry Trotz may not fit the bill of "most exciting" coaches in the NHL. He does, however, coach very well considering what he is given in the way of limited offensive talent amongst his player personnel.

    Trotz is now the longest-tenured coach in the NHL, as he has been with the Nashville Predators since "Day One" of their franchise.

    In the regular season his Preds have won 53.2 percent of games in franchise history.

    As such, Trotz rightfully owns the sixth overall spot on this list. He could have been a little bit higher if he had more postseason success to his name.

5. Todd McLellan San Jose Sharks

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    Todd McLellan faces an aging roster on the San Jose Sharks. But that doesn't seem to stop the Sharks from qualifying for the playoffs in every season since he has been coach.

    McLellan was a prodigy under Mike Babcock in Detroit and left following the Red Wings' Stanley Cup win. McLellan's creativity and innovation led Detroit to power play prowess while he was there. That power play was a key part of the Red Wings' success in the regular season over the mid 2000s.

    After the Stanley Cup win, McLellan took the job in San Jose. Unlike some assistant coaches who fail under pressure when given the head coaching keys, he rose to the challenge.

    In fact, the Sharks' bench boss has exceeded expectations, but he delivered a President's Trophy for best regular season record in his first season as a head coach.

    He has also advanced to the Conference Finals twice with the Sharks, but has yet to advance to a Stanley Cup Final.

    This is why he only makes the No. 5 spot on this list.

4. Ken Hitchcock

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    Ken Hitchcock might be the best defense-first coach in the game of hockey today. Although he has been fired three times in his career, "Hitch" has a Stanley Cup to his name and has a gold medal as an assistant coach on Canada's 2010 men's hockey team.

    Hitchcock led Dallas to five consecutive division titles in the late 1990s, including a Stanley Cup ring in 1999.

    More recently, Hitchcock's innovative style of defense-first hockey has strangled opponents in the regular season. In 2011-12, Blues' goaltending led the NHL with a 1.89 GAA.

    Hitchcock's Blues won the Central division title that year, a feat that the Blues hadn't accomplished since winning the President's Trophy in 1999-00.

    Hitchcock may not be with one team for very long, but he has proven that if players buy into his system of play, the team will be the end beneficiaries in the win-loss columns.

    He ranks fourth on this list due to his regular season and postseason success, as well as his prowess in his defense-first style of hockey.

3. Paul MacLean, Ottawa Senators

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    Paul MacLean is another former Mike Babcock understudy. But MacLean has already surpassed Babcock in some areasMacLean has a Jack Adams Trophy and Mike Babcock has only been a finalist for one.

    While Babcock has spent the majority of his career coaching the talent-laden Detroit Red Wings, Paul MacLean took over a non-playoff team in the Ottawa Senators and shaped them into a playoff squad.

    MacLean's coaching strategy depends on his goalie making a lot of saves, but his team scoring a lot of goals.

    His hard-nosed, "in-your-face" style of coaching has left many with nothing but a bad taste in their mouths and harsh words for the Senators' coach.

    MacLean's success with the Senators, despite an ongoing, on-the-fly rebuild makes him the third leading candidate for innovative coaches, despite a lack of postseason success in just two years at the NHL level.

2. Mike Babcock, Detroit Red Wings

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    Mike Babcock has had a long and winding road to the NHL.

    But Babcock is all about accepting and taking on challenges. His 2003 Anaheim Ducks went 15-6 in the Stanley Cup playoffs, falling one win short of a Stanley Cup in a seven-game series defeat in the Cup Final.

    Babcock has showed an uncanny ability to be successful at multiple levels of hockey, including Canadian university level hockey, major juniors, AHL, NHL and even Olympic and international hockey.

    Although the Ontario native is fortunate to have coached a highly skilled team since taking over the Red Wings in 2005, Babcock's ability to keep a fire under his team is a key to his success as a coach.

    Mike Babcock tries to instill a good start for his teams. His "start on time" ideology allows his team to get the early jump on the opposition (via Fox Sports Detroit).

    Detroit was hit or miss with winning games in which they scored first last season (winning just 64 percent of games in which they scored first), but it evened out, as they won almost 35 percent of games in which they failed to score first.

    Babcock has always seemed to keep an even keel, laying out the basics of why his team won or didn't win. He doesn't blame others and makes changes as necessary.

    Dan Rice of The Hockey Writers writes that Babcock is "the best coach" in the NHL, but he notes that Babcock's work in Detroit "speaks for itself" due to Detroit's ability to remain "a constant and consistent threat to win on any given night and in any given series."

1. Joel Quenneville, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Joel Quenneville has coached in 1211 NHL regular season games and won 660 of them. But despite his two recent Stanley Cups, one thing had escaped Quenneville until the 2013 playoffs.

    Quenneville had never beaten the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs. This wasn't just a one-time or a two-time affair.

    The Red Wings had defeated Quenneville's team in five consecutive playoff meetings dating back to 1996-97. Not only had Quenneville's team lost to the Red Wings, but every year that he lost to them, they either won the Cup (1997, 1998, 2002, 2008) or went on to the Stanley Cup Final (2009).

    This year was different.

    Quenneville's Chicago Blackhawks went down 3-1 to the Red Wings and things were looking bleak for their coach to ever beat the Red Wings in the playoffs.

    But Chicago came back to win the series, giving their coach his first ever series win over the Red Wings. Things rolled from there as the Blackhawks won their second Cup in four years.

    Quenneville obviously benefits from some extreme talent on his roster, but all of that talent had to come together this year and pull in the right direction for a Stanley Cup to be won. The Blackhawks went 21-0-3 to start the season, a record for a team to start the season.

    The 54-year-old Quenneville might not have to do much to get the talent out of his team, but he now owns two Cup rings and a series win over the Red Wings.


    All statistics via NHL.com.

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