10 Best NHL Coaches of the Past 20 Years

Peter MillsContributor IIIFebruary 12, 2012

10 Best NHL Coaches of the Past 20 Years

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    No matter how much talent a squad has, without a strong coach behind the bench, it'll never succeed.

    So much of what coaches do is intangible, and comparing some to others is nearly impossible. Nonetheless, that's what I've tried here.

    Based on a combination of regular and postseason success, awards and overall effectiveness, here are the 10 best coaches of the past 20 seasons.

    A quick note: If you disagree with any picks, or feel someone more important was left out, I encourage you to voice your opinion below.

10. Lindy Ruff

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    All-Time Record: 548-414-78-78

    Playoff Record: 57-44, 1999 Conference Champion

    Awards: 2006 Jack Adams Award

    What he lacks in playoff success, he makes up for in longevity. Ruff has been head coach of the Buffalo Sabres since 1997, making him the longest-tenured coach in the sport.

    Despite the fact that the Sabres never became a powerhouse, Ruff has led them through thick and thin, only once finishing with a losing record (2003). It's no easy feat to look appealing to a team's management year after year, but Ruff's influence is clearly valuable to the franchise.

9. Claude Julien

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    All-Time Record: 331-205-10-71

    Playoff Record: 37-30, 2011 Stanley Cup Champion

    Awards: 2009 Jack Adams Award

    The Bruins are not extremely popular outside of New England. Some think they're dirty; others think they get special treatment. Nonetheless, the Bruins are a well-coached team.

    Before Boston, Julien coached Montreal for three seasons, and New Jersey for one, enjoying mild but not overwhelming success.

    Since joining Boston, Julien has turned the B's into a top-tier team, winning 179 games over four seasons. His team plays as one cohesive unit, and the results speak for themselves.

8. Joel Quenneville

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    All-Time Record: 608-373-77-76

    Playoff Record: 70-63, 2010 Stanley Cup Champion

    Awards: 2000 Jack Adams Award

    Quenneville has coached three teams during his career, and excelled with all three.

    He started with the Blues in 1996, and stayed with them into the 2003-04 season, making the playoffs every year. He then spent three years in Colorado, all with winning records, before taking the helm of the youth movement in Chicago.

    And remember, the Blackhawks may be superbly talented, but they're also young and immature, and Quenneville has kept the team among the elite since joining them.

7. Barry Trotz

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    All-Time Record: 487-415-60-75

    Playoff Record: 14-26

    Awards: None

    It's not easy to build a team from nothing, but that's what Barry Trotz has done.

    The only coach the franchise has ever known, Trotz has led the Predators from purely mediocre to potential Cup contenders.

    While Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter make the team pretty scary now, Trotz dealt with negligible talent and even less money for years. The Preds are not a team that get big free agents: They don't attract big names, and they don't pay huge sums for stars.

    But thanks to Trotz, Nashville became relevant much earlier than it could have. His first winning season—also the team's first playoff appearance—was 2003-04. His best player that year? Scott Walker led the team in goals and assists, and finished with just 67 points.

    Since then, the Preds have steadily improved. They've had winning seasons every year since, and have missed the playoffs only once in that time. 

    Trotz was named a finalist for the Jack Adams in 2010. While he has yet to take home the trophy, it feels like it's just a matter of time.

6. Ken Hitchcock

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    All-Time Record: 557-357-88-77

    Playoff Record: 66-55, 1999 Stanley Cup Champion, 2000 Conference Champion

    Awards: None

    I was surprised to see that Hitchcock hasn't won a Jack Adams Award. At the end of the '90s, he led the Stars to back-to-back finals appearances, winning the Cup in 1999.

    He then spent three successful seasons in Philly, where he won a combined 130 games. From there, he spent time with the Blue Jackets, where he took the franchise to its first playoff appearance. They got swept, of course, but hey, they're still the Blue Jackets.

    While in Columbus, he also oversaw Rick Nash's development. In a cruel twist of fate, Hitchcock was fired just four months after Nash signed an eight-year extension.

    For a more recent example of his abilities, look at where the St. Louis Blues currently stand. Yeah, he's that good.

5. Peter Laviolette

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    All-Time Record: 349-247-25-57

    Playoff Record: 38-33, 2006 Stanley Cup Champion, 2010 Conference Champion

    Awards: None

    After two winning seasons with the Islanders (an achievement in and of itself), Laviolette took over for the Carolina Hurricanes. In 2006—his first full season with the team—he won the Stanley Cup.

    He coached three more winning seasons with the Canes, and then went on to Philadelphia. In his first year with the Flyers, they made it to the Stanley Cup Finals.

    In the two seasons since then, he has consistently kept Philly among the best teams in the league, despite massive player turnover (including team captain Mike Richards and leading scorer Jeff Carter).

4. Mike Babcock

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    All-Time Record: 408-205-19-78

    Playoff Record: 70-42, 2008 Stanley Cup Champion, 2003, 2009 Conference Champion

    Awards: None

    Mike Babcock might be the only coach in the league who is consistently more intimidating than John Tortorella. His scowl can melt faces.

    He started his head coaching in 2002-03, when he led the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to the Stanley Cup Finals, eventually losing in seven games to Pat Burns' Devils.

    Post-lockout, he took over as head of the Detroit Red Wings, where he has enjoyed perennial success. In his first season, his team went 58-16-8, finishing with 124 points—just eight shy of the all-time record. Under his tutelage, the team went to back-to-back Stanley Cup finals, winning in 2007-08 and losing in Game 7 the following year.

    The Red Wings seem to always be near the top of the standings. They haven't missed the playoffs since long before Babcock's time, and have won six of seven division titles since he took over. Part of their success comes from having extremely skilled players, but not every coach would be able to keep a team performing at such a high level every season.

    Babcock's Wings have also won at least one playoff series in each of the last five seasons, the longest active streak.

3. Jacques Lemaire

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    All-Time Record: 617-458-124-63

    Playoff Record: 61-56, 1995 Stanley Cup Champion

    Awards: Jack Adams Awards in 1993-94, 2002-03

    Lemaire took over as head coach of the New Jersey Devils for the 1993-94 season. Though the team's postseason ended on a sour note (in overtime of Game 7 of the conference finals against its most hated rival, the Rangers), Lemaire took home the Jack Adams Award.

    The next season, he coached the Devils to a Stanley Cup.

    Some fault Lemaire for his defense-oriented coaching style. He popularized the neutral-zone trap, which some blame for a decrease in the NHL's popularity. Regardless of what you think of his style, a coach's job is to win, and when he took over a Devils team without much offensive flair, he turned them into champs.

    In 2000-01, Lemaire became the Minnesota Wild's first coach. In just their third season, the Wild made the playoffs and upset their way to the conference finals, despite not really having any quality players besides Marian Gaborik.

    He stuck with the Wild for most of the decade, before returning to the Devils for the 2009-10 season, after which he retired.

    The next season, he un-retired and regained control of the Devils for the second half of the Devils' 2010-11 season, where he led a brilliant late-season surge (which of course fell short because the Devils were awful in the first half of last year).

    Among other qualities, Lemaire is great with developing players. Most recently, his work with Ilya Kovalchuk helped the Russian learn to play just about everything besides offense.

2. Pat Burns

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    All-Time Record: 501-353-151-14

    Playoff Record: 57-44, 2003 Stanley Cup Champion

    Awards: Jack Adams Awards in 1988-89, 1992-93 and 1997-98

    Pat Burns had a very impressive career.

    In his first year as a head coach, he won the Jack Adams Award for coaching the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Finals. However, that's not in the last 20 years, so it doesn't go into consideration.

    What does fall under the umbrella of this list are the next 12 seasons he coached.

    In the 1992-93 season, he took over the Maple Leafs and won the Jack Adams Award. He coached Toronto for four seasons before taking over the Bruins in 1997-98. In his first year with the team, you guessed it! He won the Jack Adams.

    He coached Boston into the new millennium and eventually became head coach of the New Jersey Devils for the 2002-03 season, where he won his first and only Stanley Cup.

    Let me just emphasize those last paragraphs: He coached four teams, and in his first year with each team, he won either the Jack Adams or a Cup. That is, simply put, astounding.

1. Scotty Bowman

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    All-Time Record: 1,244-573-314-10 (505-246-103-10 inside time frame)

    Playoff Record: 223-130 (109-58), Stanley Cup Champion 1973, 1975-79, 1992, 1997-98, 2002

    Awards: Jack Adams Awards in 1976-77 and 1995-96

    Scotty Bowman had an unreal* coaching career.  His career highlights include:

    -The 1991-92 Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    -The 1995-96 Jack Adams Award with the Detroit Red Wings. That season, the Red Wings won 62 games, an all-time record. They also finished just one point shy of the all-time record (a record Bowman set with the Canadiens 19 years earlier).

    -Back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1996-97 and 97-98. During those two postseason runs, his team lost a total of 10 games.

    -The 2001-02 Stanley Cup with the Wings. After this season, he concluded his coaching career,

    Those highlights don't include the first 19 seasons he coached, during which he won five Cups with the Canadiens, including four in a row.

    One could make a very strong argument that Bowman is the best coach of all time, but that's a list for another day.

    *Bowman finished his career at 671 wins above .500. That margin is more than any other coach on this list has wins. Unreal.