By Sean Hartnett
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Ranking the NHL’s best coaches is highly subjective and debate inducing. Here’s how I’d rank coaches across the league ahead of the 2017-18 season:
1) Mike Babcock, Toronto Maple Leafs: Babcock began his head coaching odyssey by leading a Cinderella Anaheim Ducks team to the 2003 Stanley Cup Final and took the dynasty-era Devils to seven games. He then presided over an era of consistent success in Detroit, lifting the Stanley Cup in 2008. Babcock’s teams always prioritize skill over brawn and gentlemanly play over viciousness, and he’s always willing to give youth a chance. He took on the challenge of pressure-cooker Toronto over the opportunity to coach several contenders in the summer of 2015, admitting, “There is pain coming.” His rapid acceleration of the Maple Leafs from perennial basement dwellers to one of the league’s most exciting young teams deserves major plaudits. Oddly, Babcock has never won the Jack Adams Award despite his successes and reputation for outwitting counterparts in matchup battles.
2) Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins: For too long, Sullivan was passed over when head coaching vacancies emerged. The turnaround was instant when the Penguns elected to dump Mike Johnston and promote Sullivan from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in December 2015. Sullivan molded the Penguins into a team that could handle adversity and got Pittsburgh’s stars playing their best hockey again. Sullivan is regarded by players as a very fair coach who is not afraid to make the tough calls if it benefits the team. This spring, he became the first coach to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the legendary Scotty Bowman did so with the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings.
3) Joel Quenneville, Chicago Blackhawks: A three-time Stanley Cup winner, Quenneville only trails Bowman for the most regular-season victories in league history and is third in all-time playoff victories, behind Bowman and iconic Islanders bench boss Al Arbour. “Coach Q” is hailed for his vision on the bench and strikes the ideal balance between being a hard liner and a players’ coach. Some may point to the mustachioed coach being the benefactor of star-studded Blackhawks teams. But in reality, he’s excellent at dividing up ice time, and a secret to Chicago’s success is how well Quenneville manages rest days during a grueling, 82-game schedule. He’ll run short practices and give days off for the return that his players come prepared to play when the puck drops.
4) Peter Laviolette, Nashville Predators: Laviolette has always gotten the most out of every team he’s worked with, starting with some overachieving Islanders teams in the early 2000’s. The 52-year-old is one of four coaches in NHL history to guide three franchises to the Stanley Cup Final. He captured his lone Stanley Cup ring with the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes, came just short of ending decades of frustration in Philadelphia and led the Nashville Predators to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance last season. Given Nashville’s talented roster and Laviolette’s smarts, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Preds make a repeat appearance in 2018.
5) Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning: Cooper is one of the league’s brightest coaches and personable with players and media alike. He brings a unique swagger to the bench, and his players all buy in.
BEST OF THE REST:
6) Guy Boucher, Ottawa Senators: Boucher excels in the matchup game and is getting the most out of a Sens team on the rise.
7) Alain Vigneault, New York Rangers: One of the league’s best coaches yet to lift Lord Stanley, Vigneault may have his best chance with Kevin Shattenkirk running the show.
8) Randy Carlyle, Anaheim Ducks: Carlyle led the Ducks to the Western Conference Final in his first season back behind the Anaheim bench. He’s a hard-driving personality, works well with veterans and knows how to get results.
9) John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets: The new Torts has embraced change, adapted to playing more uptempo and dialed back his former overly aggressive, over-coaching persona.
10) Claude Julien, Montreal Canadiens: Julien was certainly an upgrade over embattled coach Michel Therrien when the Habs made the Valentine’s Day switch. His track record with the Boston Bruins speaks for itself, but delivering Lord Stanley to Montreal in his second stint would be his greatest accomplishment.
11) Gerard Gallant, Vegas Golden Knights: The Panthers will regret their treatment of Gallant, another coach who strikes the right balance between being tough and being a players’ coach. He grew Florida’s youngsters in the right direction and is the right fit for the expansion Golden Knights.
12) Barry Trotz, Washington Capitals: Trotz will once again be under major pressure in the nation’s capital. He’s entering his contract year on a team that has outstanding talent but continually crumbles under the playoff spotlight.
13) Peter DeBoer, San Jose Sharks: DeBoer got off to a wonderful start by leading San Jose to the Stanley Cup Final in his first year in charge. Last season was a step back, and DeBoer will need to figure out how to get this team clicking offensively without Patrick Marleau around.
14) Ken Hitchcock, Dallas Stars: Everything old is new again in Dallas with Hitch back at the helm. He demands accountability, and fans will be hoping to party like it’s 1999.
15) Todd McLellan, Edmonton Oilers: McLellan ended a 10-year Edmonton playoff drought last season. Expectations will be higher this time around.
16) Mike Yeo, St. Louis Blues: Yeo led a remarkable second-half turnaround after replacing Hitchcock. The Blues enter next season with a retooled roster, and it should be interesting to see how their rebuild-on-the-fly approach works.
17) Paul Maurice, Winnipeg Jets: Maurice has molded the Jets into a flourishing offensive team, but the big challenge will be improving the league’s fourth-worst defense.
18) Bruce Boudreau, Minnesota Wild: Boudreau tends to achieve great regular season success that doesn’t carry over into the playoffs. He’s going to need to get over that hump.
19) Bruce Cassidy, Boston Bruins: The Bruins responded after Cassidy was hired as interim head coach in February. Now, he’s unquestionably the guy in Beantown, and there’s pressure that comes with the full-time tag.
20) Glen Gulutzan, Calgary Flames: Gulutzan guided Calgary to the playoffs in his first season in charge and will have a chance to do great things with a team blessed with outstanding youth.
21) John Stevens, Los Angeles Kings: Groomed as the heir apparent to Darryl Sutter, the defensive-minded coach showed promise in his younger days behind the Philadelphia Flyers’ bench.
22) Doug Weight, New York Islanders: A young coach who has shown promise and benefitted from giving youth a chance.
23) John Hynes, New Jersey Devils: The Devils have been in rebuild mode under Hynes’ watch. The bar has been raised by the arrival of No. 1 pick Nico Hischier and the additions of Marcus Johansson and Brian Boyle.
24) Dave Hakstol, Philadelphia Flyers: Fans in Philly have long been critical of Hakstol’s lineup decisions and defensive approach. It’s a tough city to win over. General manager Ron Hextall has been patient with Hakstol, but demanding Flyers fans expect results.
25) Bill Peters, Carolina Hurricanes: The Canes should improve with the additions of Justin Williams and Scott Darling to go along with maturing core players. Peters will have his chance to guide this dark horse team to the playoffs.
26) Rick Tocchet, Arizona Coyotes: Tocchet gets a fresh start in the desert and has his work cut out for him with a young Coyotes team. Aggressive in his approach, he’ll attempt to mold Arizona to an aggressive team on the ice.
27) Jeff Blashill, Detroit Red Wings: Blashill has won at the lower levels, but has much to prove at the NHL level. Questionable deployments and a tendency to lose games late isn’t helping his cause.
28) Jared Bednar, Colorado Avalanche: A defense-first coach, Bednar went 22-56-4 in his first season in the Mile High City. The Avs ranked last on the power play and 29th in penalty killing in Bednar’s first season behind the bench. He was thrown into a tough situation in Year 1, but he’s going to need to show progress to keep his job.
Not ranked: Phil Housley (Buffalo), Bob Boughner (Florida) and Travis Green (Vancouver) will make their head coaching debuts in 2017-18.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey