Bench Boss: Ranking the NHL's 30 Head Coaches

Benjamin BenyaCorrespondent IIOctober 11, 2010

Bench Boss: Ranking the NHL's 30 Head Coaches

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    Throughout NHL history, coaches have played almost as important a role as the players they coach in regards to success. With each victory, and each loss, a bench boss takes as much of the blame as the skaters they deploy.

    The 2010-11 NHL Season is underway, and each of the 30 coaches face new and different challenges for the teams they head.

    Some are NHL elite and the mark of consistency, finding a way to get wins regardless of the talent on the ice. Others have never coached a single game in history, and it will likely show. Here now, in reverse order, is the ranking of the 30 NHL head coaches starting this season.

30. Scott Arniel, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    No NHL head coaching experience? Check. A fledgling, fly-by-night team? Check. Lots of upside? Check.

    Scott Arniel has his work cut out for him with the Blue Jackets this season. After spending time as an assistant in the Buffalo system, Arniel has seen what it takes to be consistent at the very least. As head coach of the Manitoba Moose over the past four seasons, Arniel won 181 games in four seasons with one appearance in the AHL’s Calder Cup Finals.

    But the questions surrounding the talent in Columbus could prove to be Arniel’s biggest test, as he’s being thrown into the fire for a team that only appeared in the playoffs once, and was swept when they did.

29. Guy Boucher, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Sure, Guy Boucher is walking into a position with a team that has been constantly turbulent for the past few years, but Steve Yzerman expects Boucher to be ready to command the budding Tampa Bay Lightning back to relevance this season.

    Boucher cut his teeth coaching in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) before taking the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL to a 52-win season last year. He’s also got several ties to international play with the Canada U-18 and U-20 teams.

    In Tampa Bay, Boucher is expected to at least fight for the playoffs, an expectation held in higher regard than several other coaches with scrub teams.

28. Davis Payne, St. Louis Blues

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    The youngest coach in the NHL, Davis Payne took over in St. Louis midway through last season. Payne was stellar in the ECHL and decent at the AHL level, but he’s yet to be truly proven in the National Hockey League.

    Payne’s coaching turned the corner for a mediocre Blues team last year, taking a 17-17-6 start and turning it into a 40-32-10 record. After serving as interim head coach in place of Andy Murray, his performance earned him the full-time gig. So while Payne has been good in the early going, only time will tell if he’s truly capable at the top level to coach.

27. Craig Ramsay, Atlanta Thrashers

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    As a head coach, the career of Craig Ramsay is quite puzzling. Ramsay has served twice as the bench boss in the NHL, once for the Buffalo Sabres in 1986-87 and then again in 2000-01 for the Philadelphia Flyers. Ramsay has been an assistant during the huge gaps, yet he wasn’t exactly impressive in all of those outings.

    The league has changed dramatically since the last time Ramsay was the main guy, giving us more than a few doubts about his credentials with a completely revamped Atlanta team. While he probably isn’t expected to produce immediate results, a complete derailing will cost him his job once again.

26. Scott Gordon, New York Islanders

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    He knew it wouldn’t be easy, but Scott Gordon has certainly made the most of his time as head coach of the lowly New York Islanders. The Isles, who struggle to make a playoff team each year, are improving with each passing season under Gordon.

    He increased his win total by eight last year and had 19 more points than his rookie campaign. Gordon has been nothing if not consistent throughout his coaching career, winning 40 or more games for his last four AHL seasons before jumping to the big leagues.

    With a slowly climbing franchise in his pocket, Gordon will quietly improve again this year, though it may not show up statistically.

25. Todd Richards, Minnesota Wild

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    The Minnesota Wild had to make any number of adjustments at the start of last season, losing not just one but two figureheads of the franchise (Jacques Lemaire and Marian Gaborik).

    When the Wild brought in Todd Richards, they knew they were getting a coach who could steer the ship in a long-term fashion rather than an immediate explosion.

    Minnesota finished the year with Richards going 38-36-8, yet it was nowhere near good enough to make the postseason. Considering that the Minnesota roster was under mass reconstruction last year as well as injury, that Richards could inspire such a performance is a testament to his patience.

    Don’t forget, Richards was once the coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, giving him ample experience with young, up and coming stars.

24. John MacLean, New Jersey Devils

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    His name is immediately recognized when mentioning the New Jersey Devils, but this will be the first time you’ll hear it from behind the bench. MacLean, who played 18-season in the NHL (two-thirds of which were in a Devils jersey),has been watching and learning from Devils brass since 2002.

    MacLean has been groomed to be the New Jersey head coach for the longest time, accepting his first head coaching position just a season ago in the AHL. He had time to learn from Brent Sutter, Jacques Lemaire, Claude Julien, Pat Burns, Larry Robinson and even GM Lou Lamoriello.

    So despite having no NHL head coaching experience, he looks like he has plenty. Weapons like Ilya Kovalchuk and Martin Brodeur should help to mask any shortcomings in his game.

23. Brent Sutter, Calgary Flames

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    Say what you will about the Sutter family lineage in the NHL, but Brent Sutter (and his brother Darryl) are both on the hot seat this season in Calgary. A disappointing playoff miss was the last in a string of upsets Brent has experienced behind the bench.

    Despite coaching the New Jersey Devils twice to excellent seasons, Sutter failed to get the team over their first round contests, being eliminated both times. Then, taking over in Calgary, Brent Sutter coached an unnaturally put together Flames team created by GM Darryl Sutter.

    Whatever Brent Sutter plans to do to improve his status in the hockey coaching community, he better do it quick, because time is running out for a franchise that has the pieces to be a contender once more.

22. Peter DeBoer, Florida Panthers

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    No coach has less pressure on him to perform than Peter DeBoer. After the ownership of the very team you coach announces that they’ll be completely rebuilding form the ground up, you have to assume you’re safe.

    That said, DeBoer has done well with the constantly changing pieces around him. During the season-long trade rumors of Jay Bouwmeester two years ago, DeBoer coached the Panthers to a 93-point finish, narrowly missing the postseason.

    While last year as a step backward, it wasn’t entirely his fault (no more Bouwmeester, losing David Booth). DeBoer was an excellent OHL coach and could prove to be the same at the pro level with a halfway decent team on the ice.

21. Joe Sacco, Colorado Avalanche

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    I admit it: Joe Sacco ended up being a very good coach in his first season. The former journeyman forward spent a few seasons coaching in the minors before getting the call-up to head the listless Avalanche.

    But then, something happened where Sacco clicked with his personnel almost instantly. He inspired young players to excel and gave veterans a reason to play their hardest. The end result was an unlikely playoff berth and a lot of promise for the upcoming season.

    The jury is still out on Sacco, who hopes to prove he isn’t a flash in the pan coach this year as the Avs have no one to sneak up on now that the secret is out.

20. Tom Renney, Edmonton Oilers

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    Underrated? You could easily say that about Tom Renney. Though his tenure light years ago in Vancouver was rough, he’s developed into a pretty decent coach who is good news for young players.

    Renney was able to corral a hectic New York Rangers locker room into a winner and now looks to do the same with the rebuilding Edmonton Oilers. Renney has a great sense of how to coach high profile players while encouraging younger stars to breakout.

    If there are any major criticisms of Renney, it is his lack of fire and passion in the game. Often time, his calm and cool demeanor could use an explosion or two, and they’re rare to see.

19. Cory Clouston, Ottawa Senators

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    At age 41, most people wouldn’t think that Cory Clouston has been in the coaching game nearly his entire life. With over 15 years of experience, Clouston has performed miracle work with a once turmoil-ridden Ottawa franchise.

    After the Senators lapsed following a Stanley Cup challenge, Clouston came in to make an impressive showing of himself at the professional level. He’s gotten big performances out of stragglers like Jason Spezza and continues to shuffle starting goalies without much difficulty.

    Entering the season with a career 63-43-10 record, Clouston could easily pack 40 more wins and another trip to the playoffs.

18. Paul Maurice, Carolina Hurricanes

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    A lot of people associate Paul Maurice with being a definitive coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, yet he wasn’t around when the Hurricanes won their only Stanley Cup. Instead, Maurice tends to be the guy who puts up the building blocks and makes them effective enough to be a winner. Now it may be his turn.

    Maurice has a lot of job security after last season’s dismal start was marred by injury after injury. But he’s also got to start producing better results, particularly in the playoffs. Carolina’s last two trips under Maurice yielded deep runs, yet he came away with nothing.

    While the Hurricanes won a Stanley Cup without him, they have something left to prove with Maurice. His career record of 412-413-99-53 leaves a lot to be desired.

17. Todd McLellan, San Jose Sharks

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    At this rate, Todd McLellan will win 500 NHL games before he turns 50. McLellan has proven that he can step up and take the reigns of a high profile franchise constantly on the verge of greatness, winning 50+ games in each of his first two seasons with the San Jose Sharks.

    McLellan’s style, adapted from what he learned as an assistant to Mike Babcock in Detroit, is strong enough to tear up the regular season. But once again, since we’re discussing the San Jose Sharks, it hasn’t yielded much playoff success.

    McLellan tasted Cup glory with the Red Wings, but the jury is still out on such praise from the steady Sharks.

16. Terry Murray, Los Angeles Kings

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    You’d have to go back a ways to find the start of Terry Murray’s coaching career, as he enters his third decade of head coaching this season. Starting in 1989 with the Washington Capitals, Murray is the kind of coach who can gradually build a team to make a Stanley Cup run.

    He’s also big on results and production from start to finish. Having coached Eric Lindros and John LeClair during their prime, Murray can inspire huge performances out of touted top line players.


    There is another layer to Murray, however, that suggests he’s more results-oriented than ever. He’s only ever missed the playoffs twice and kept his job. He was fired twice as well, for a poor performance by mid-season. Kings fans are hoping he’ll keep the progress flowing rather than revert to the latter.

15. Marc Crawford, Dallas Stars

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    Though he is one of the most successful coaches in recent memory, Marc Crawford remains a controversial figure in NHL circles thanks to his involvement in the 2004 Steve Moore-Todd Bertuzzi incident.

    Long story short, Crawford allegedly conspired with Bertuzzi and former Vancouver GM Brian Burke to injure Steve Moore as penance for an earlier concussion given to Markus Naslund.

    All that aside, Crawford’s numbers do the talking here. He was the springboard for a Colorado Avalanche stranglehold on the Northwest division and a Stanley Cup. While in Vancouver, he became the winnningest coach in team history. He had two unremarkable season in L.A. before he was shown the door.

    Though his time with the Kings could be seen as transitional, the Dallas Stars are hoping he can turn the ship much like he did with the Canucks. A last place finish in the division last year wasn’t a great start, so he’ll need to turn in better work if he wants to recapture the magic.

14. Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    When he appeared as the interim head coach during the 2008-09 regular season, many fans had doubts about the credentials of Dan Bylsma. They had grown tired of the same old, stagnant style coming from Michel Therrien and were looking for the coach that could get the Penguins a Stanley Cup.

    Bylsma responded, posting an 18-3-4 record for the remainder of the year followed by a victory in the Stanley Cup Finals. With an extra year of experience under his belt and some playoff heartache attached to it, Bylsma is on the up and up as far as coaches go.

    Bylsma has figured out the correct system to rotate Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in and is managing his wingers with great tenacity, masking the fact that Pittsburgh is without many huge stars outside of the center position.

13. John Tortorella, New York Rangers

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    He’s a raging volcano. Death to young players. Unable to change with the times. Yes, all of these describe John Tortorella in one way or another, but Ranger fans are hoping that the time comes for Tortorella to be effective as well.

    He’s got an impressive list of accomplishments after coaching the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Stanley Cup, and this season will prove to be pivotal in his connection on Broadway as the Rangers march towards a hopeful playoff appearance and more.

    For Tortorella, he’s shown a softer side as of late and appears to be happy using his “mule” players (Ruslan Fedotenko) in roles that they excel with. If he can avoid suspensions for brawling with fans and reporters alike, Tortorella is a spark plug to the organization.

12. Ron Wilson, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    You could contend that if this countdown was based upon recent performances alone, Ron Wilson would be towards the bottom of the list. Luckily, it is not.

    Wilson seems to find a new franchise every five years that he can build into a playoff contender. He’s gone from the cellar to the ceiling with not one or two, but three NHL franchises. After bringing the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to their first playoff series, he coached the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup Finals.

    And while his time in San Jose was ripe with chances, he still managed to go from missing the playoffs to making them every year. Now in Toronto, the common belief is that Wilson has the team playing the right kind of hockey that will get them back. That, and GM Brian Burke over his shoulder can make any coach look good.

11. Jacques Martin, Montreal Canadiens

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    Is Jacques Martin really as good as we say he is? Well, when you’re coaching a Montreal team with no patience to rebuild, a massive roster turnover, and a goaltending supernova in the 2009-10 season and yet you still go to the Eastern Conference Finals, then yes, yes he is.

    Martin has bounced around the league for two decades searching for his greatest conquest. He brought the Ottawa Senators up form the depths and into the front of the Eastern Conference during the 90’s, and then attempted (unsuccessfully) to do the same with the Florida Panthers.

    For a coach like Martin, massive turnover seems to follow him wherever he goes. And yet, with 556 career wins, he embraces the chaos.

10. Peter Laviolette, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Some of you may believe that this ranking is simply too high and most of it is coming because he was in the Finals last year. Truth is, Peter Laviolette has earned the distinction as one of the NHL’s best coaches for about a decade.

    Laviolette’s remarkable run with the Flyers was just the latest entry in a young coaching career full of upside. He coached the Carolina Hurricanes to their first Stanley Cup championship and was also one of the very few coaches who got the New York Islanders to the playoffs in the past two decades.

    But save for his two Cup appearances, Laviolette has missed the playoffs more often than not and hasn’t shown to be much more than above average. Perhaps another year in Philly can change all that.

9. Claude Julien, Boston Bruins

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    Quick! Name an NHL coach who was fired twice after coaching both teams to a winning record. If you answered Claude Julien, you are stiflingly correct.

    Julien, a solid, poised coach with a tendency to show the defensive aspects of the game, was terminated by both the Montreal Canadiens and New Jersey Devils before he could complete the year with the team.

    His Devils exit was most notable because the team finished with 49 wins and 107 points. Despite this, General Manager Lou Lamoriello decided the franchise wasn’t playoff ready and canned him. 

    New Jersey’s loss is Boston’s gain, as the Bruins have excelled with Julien driving home three consecutive winning seasons and playoff appearances along the way. In 2009, he won his first Jack Adams Trophy for the league’s best coach, an award he may win a few more times before all is said and done.

8. Randy Carlyle, Anaheim Ducks

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    Randy Carlyle is the coach who turned the Anaheim Ducks from an on-again, off-again playoff team into a yearly contender. Carlyle’s gritty style and vision makes the Ducks look like a Western Conference version of the Philadelphia Flyers, and that’s not a bad thing.

    Last season was his first playoff miss and his first season under 40 wins. That said, Carlyle is more motivated than ever to right the wrongs and return to the Stanley Cup finals. His 180 wins are the most among any coach in Ducks history, and now he wants to add a second Cup to his trophy case.

    Carlyle will have a mountain to climb, considering the Ducks missed the playoffs for the first time in his reign last season. You get one chance to rebound, and Carlyle’s taking it.

7. Alain Vigneault, Vancouver Canucks

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    Call him controversial and unorthodox, but Alain Vigneault gets results. As head coach of the Vancouver Canucks, Vigneault has done some pretty extraordinary things. He’s won the division three out of four years and even managed to challenge a decades-old rule on naming the goalie captain of the team.

    Now that the dust is settling and Vigneault is getting comfortable, he’s proving he can adjust to any situation. Not every coach could lose one half of their biggest starring tandem last year (Daniel Sedin) and still have a first place franchise.

    If pundits’ predictions are any indicator, Vigneault has the most pressure on him of any Western Conference coach to bring home the Stanley Cup. Anything less could result in his dismissal.

6. Bruce Boudreau, Washington Capitals

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    Speaking of under the gun, Washington’s Bruce Boudreau is officially at that point. Boudreau has literally taken the Caps from worst to first and must now evolve to the championship level if he wants to stick around.

    His pro coaching career started more with a whimper than a bang. Taking over for Glen Hanlon’s atrocious 6-14-1 record, Boudreau found the right chemistry with his budding young stars Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom to make an unlikely run at the Southeast Division title. One year later, the Capitals were established as a top team in the East.

    Last season, the Capitals were the best team in the NHL. Had not it been for a postseason collapse, we may have been singing the praises of a champion. But where most teams would panic, Boudreau remained calm in keeping his units together and looking forward to a new opportunity for this season.

5. Dave Tippett, Phoenix Coyotes

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    He’s conservative, defensive, and often criticized for helping to preserve a boring style of hockey. But within his somewhat archaic approach, Dave Tippett is a coaching genius.

    The defending Jack Adams Award winner took the lowly Phoenix Coyotes to their best season in franchise history with just one year of teaching. He’s never had a losing season and has won 50 games three times, including last year.

    Tippett also did something that Wayne Gretzky never could: coach the Coyotes. Superbly.

4. Joel Quenneville, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Just to get it out there: Joel Quenneville was really, really good before he ever won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks. That said, Quenneville is now and forever one of the NHL’s elite coaches.

    The Q-Stache started his NHL tenure by coaching the St. Louis Blues to seven consecutive postseason appearances, a huge streak considering today’s NHL parity. He then took over as coach of the rapidly changing and combustible Colorado Avalanche, leading the team to two surprising playoff berths despite a vastly improved division around him.

    When Quenneville left Colorado, he was quietly hired by the Blackhawks as little more than a pro scout. It didn’t last long, and two years later, Chicago is still savoring a monumental Stanley Cup win.

3. Lindy Ruff, Buffalo Sabres

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    Tenure is often overlooked in a league that has coaching turnovers for approximately 20 percent of its teams every year. But for Lindy Ruff, it seems unfathomable that he would ever be in that percentage.

    Ruff has spent the last 13 consecutive seasons as bench boss to the Sabres organization, leading the team to four Conference Finals and one Stanley Cup Final (but we won’t go into that). He’s gone from starting Dominik Hasek to Martin Biron to Mika Noronen to Ryan Miller and yet he’s still managing a contender.

    High priced talent has come and gone, yet Ruff remains completely unrelenting in his own quest to be a winner. By the end of the season, he’ll have 500 wins and may even rack up his 60th playoff victory.

2. Barry Trotz, Nashville Predators

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    As tenured as Lindy Ruff is, Barry Trotz consistency with the only team he’s ever known, a team that was in expansion when he took over, is stunning. The Nashville Predators may have taken a while to get off the ground, but no one can argue with the team’s success thanks to Trotz.

    They don’t boast any cover stars. They aren’t flashy and they don’t want to be. They never seem to purchase talent and never appear to be a contender. And then, despite all of this, Trotz inspires hard work and big plays out of the Predators, who have won 40 games each of the past five seasons.

    His name is constantly thrown into the mix as a Jack Adams candidate, and rightfully so. Despite everything that should be going wrong for a team still in its adolescence, Trotz does nothing but right. 

1. Mike Babcock, Detroit Red Wings

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    So this is it. The top of the list, and what better a representative than Mike Babcock. If you remained puzzled by the selection of Babcock at the top of the coaching pyramid, he’s a rundown of the numbers:

    -Seven NHL Seasons
    -Six Playoff Appearances
    -Five 100+ Point Seasons
    -326 Career Wins
    -Three Stanley Cup Finals Appearances
    -One Stanley Cup
    -One Olympic Gold Medal

    And yet, there’s still much, much more to be added to that list. Face it: the man can coach better than anyone else in the league.