Coaching In The NHL; Who's The Best?

By Kay Douglas

What does it takes to be a good coach in the NHL? Better yet, what does it take to be a great NHL coach?

Is it the most wins? Is it the most Stanley Cups won? Or is it a popularity contest among the players? Who will push them harder, keep them playing past the point of exhaustion, and make them want to play through the pain of broken bones and stitches still healing?

After regular season games have been played and the playoff positions are set coaches are left to motivate their players through dislocated shoulders, lingering concussions, and a multitude of superstitions. And then there is Lord Stanley’s Cup, waiting for new names.

Good NHL coaches? Mike Babcock, Claude Julien, Lindy Ruff, Barry Trotz, Daryl Sutter. Great coaches? Scotty Bowman immediately comes to mind. With 1233 wins and nine Stanley Cups Bowman has to be considered a great coach. He created a dynasty with the Montreal Canadiens by coaching them to five Stanley Cups, four straight between 1976 and 1980.

In 1993 Bowman became the Detroit Red Wings’ coach where he took them to the playoffs three times in nine years, creating the base for a modern day NHL dynasty.

In Detroit Bowman made a name for himself by coaching some of the most talented players in the game. During his tenure in Detroit Bowman earned the nickname, The Wizard of OV, for coaching to greatness the Russian players referred to as The Red Line. Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Sergei Fedorov and Slava Kozlov.

Abrupt, straightforward, without flair or charm, Bowman seemed cold and abrasive, sometimes obnoxious, and frequently controversial.

As a coach he was complex, confusing, and often misunderstood. Bowman was only about winning. His mother has been quoted as saying to him, “If you like the game, Scott, why lose at it?”

Bowman always knew more about the opposing team than the guy coaching them. That was the secret to his success. He was always three or four moves ahead. One of the Detroit players said of him "I think he wants to be the “winningest” coach ever." I think the idea is that no one will ever catch him.

Joel Quenneville is the current coach of the Chicago Blackhawks. He has an impressive number of wins at 837. When he coached the St. Louis Blues the team reached the playoffs in each of the seven full seasons he spent there. Playoff disappointments eventually caught up to him and he moved on to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2008.

Initially the players did not come away thinking this man would win more games than any NHL coach not named Scotty Bowman, but his candor and intensity left an impression.

Coaches have to win respect before winning games and Quenneville appears to accomplish that immediately. A former player has said that when he walks into the locker room he brings often needed prestige. He is tough but fair, one of those coaches you really want to play hard for. He is described as having a big heart, but his stoicism behind the bench seems to give the players the confidence to keep playing through the pain and exhaustion.

Quenneville won his first Stanley Cup, and Chicago’s first since 1961, in 08-09. His team won two more Cups in 2013 and 2015 and is widely considered one of the best, if not the best coach in the game today. He is an inadvertent local celebrity, an unassuming man with few peers in Chicago’s cast of coaches.

Quenneville just smiles when asked how many tomorrows he sees with Chicago, saying that even after eight seasons they are having too much fun to consider slowing down.

He admits it would take a very, very long time to catch Bowman in wins. However, becoming a legend himself seems right around the corner.

John Tortorella

In October the general consensus was that John Tortorella would be the first NHL coach to be fired this season. Fans, the media, and members of the NHL community pointed to Tortorella’s short fuse. What critics failed to take into account was that this is a coach with proven skill, who sits among the most successful NHL coaches of all time.

He is candid, straightforward, and very intense. It doesn't matter if you're a superstar or a fourth-line guy, he will give you an honest opinion about what he sees.

There's a reason he won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightening in 2004 and why Team USA named him coach of its 2016 World Cup team. He understands and enjoys the tactical side of the game. But his crucial strength is crisis management.

In 11 full seasons as a head coach Tortorella’s teams finished with winning records in nine of them.

After the Blue Jacket’s 16-game win streak in December the conversation turned to “this won't last forever. But there is strong evidence pointing to this being more than happenstance. About more than just a handful of games.

It's about the players and the mindset during the game. It’s how they talk about their success. Players from the top to the bottom of the roster wanting to be there, wanting to work, wanting to win for the city of Columbus.

John Tortorella’s message to the players during their brutal training camp has remained simple: "This will all be worth it." The coach is right.

After a historic first half of the 2016-17 season the Blue Jackets have hit a bump in the road. 7-7-0 in January and 3-3-1 in February. According to reports the players asked Tortorella to weather it more calmly. Usually it’s the coach grinding the players. In this instance they were looking for Tortorella to provide more positive feedback about the last few games.

This does not mean the relationship has soured. It can easily be a sign of respect from the players toward the coach who turned them from a bottom-dweller team into a playoff contender.


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