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8 Debate: Babcock earns nod as top NHL coach

Friday, 04.05.2013 / 11:00 AM / 8 Debate

By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer

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8 Debate: Babcock earns nod as top NHL coach
NHL.com and NHL Network continue their look at the best of the NHL with their ranking of the top eight coaches.

It is an argument that inspires passion in every rink, sports bar and living room where hockey is being played or is on the television. It can incite elevated heart rates in person and long discussion threads on the Internet.

Who is the best?

NHL.com and NHL Network gathered 10 writers and television personalities and asked that very question. Each was asked to rank their top eight in eight categories -- centers, left wings, right wings, defensemen, goalies, coaches, general managers and guys who wore the No. 8 sweater.

The voting, which took place for all eight segments in mid-February, is complete and the points have been tallied. Here is our answer to the simple question, who are the best in the NHL?

After picking the best at each position in the NHL, it is time to shift the focus to behind the bench. Being a coach in the NHL means plenty of scrutiny and not a lot of job security. The best coaches can be successful with different rosters and different expectations, but success is still the most important factor.

8 Debate: Top coach voting results

  • 1. Mike Babcock (5 first-place votes) -- 68 points
  • 2. Barry Trotz -- 42
  • 3. Joel Quenneville (1) -- 37
  • 4 (tie). Dave Tippett (3) -- 36
  • 4 (tie). Claude Julien -- 36
  • 6. Dan Bylsma -- 27
  • 7. Ken Hitchcock -- 22
  • 8. Peter Laviolette -- 18

Others receiving votes: Todd McLellan (17 points, one first-place vote), Peter DeBoer (17), Bruce Boudreau (11), Alain Vigneault (10), John Tortorella (8), Paul MacLean (6), Darryl Sutter (3), Randy Carlyle (2)

Six of the men who made this top-eight list have lifted the Stanley Cup as a coach, while the other two have consistently exceeded expectations with low-payroll rosters. The list has coaches with a variety of styles, coaching and playing, but each finds a way to win and does it consistently.

Here are the voting results. Note: A coach received eight points for a first-place vote, seven for a second and so forth to one point for an eighth-place ranking (number of first-place votes in parenthesis).

1. Mike Babcock (5 first-place votes) -- 68 points

Babcock is proof that a great coach can come from just about anywhere in hockey. His only playing experience as a professional came in England, though he was a captain at McGill University. He didn't have a ton of success at the Canadian junior level as a coach, reaching the Western Hockey League finals twice in eight seasons.

Even after two undistinguished seasons in the American Hockey League, it would have been hard to peg Babcock as a prodigy, but he has been a star at the NHL level. He guided the Anaheim Ducks to the Stanley Cup Final in 2003 as a rookie NHL coach, and now has three Final appearances on his resume, including the 2008 championship with the Detroit Red Wings. He's led Canada to a gold medal at the World Championship in 2004 and the Winter Olympics in 2010.

"I'm surprised that Mike Babcock received just half of the first-place votes," NHL.com managing editor Shawn Roarke said. "The man has a Stanley Cup ring and an Olympic gold medal. That's a pretty good resume in and of itself, if you ask me. In fact, he is the only coaching member of the IIHF Triple Crown club: Stanley Cup, Olympic title and World Championship with Canada. A pretty exclusive club, for sure. For good measure, he has also won at the World Junior level and Canadian university level. Simply, he has won at every stop of his career.

"The reason is because he relates to all kinds of players and gets the most out of them by finding a role for them in the team that best suits their skill set. Plus, as he proved at the Olympics, he has the requisite ego and the cult of personality to deal with superstar players and bend them to the good of the club."

2. Barry Trotz -- 42

Trotz also had no professional playing experience in North America, but he was a successful coach in the AHL before the Nashville Predators made him the first (and still only) coach in franchise history in 1997. He won the Calder Cup in 1994 and reached the finals in 1996 with the Portland Pirates (then the Washington Capitals' affiliate).

When general manager David Poile left the Washington Capitals to go to Nashville, he brought Trotz with him. Poile and Trotz remain there, which is a testament to their relationship and the culture of success they have created in one of the League's smallest markets.

Nashville has been in the Stanley Cup Playoffs seven of the past eight seasons and reached the second round each of the past two. Trotz is a no-excuses kind of guy, so a limited budget doesn't mean much to him. He proved his willingness to adhere to the principles he and Poile have laid out in Nashville when he suspended Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn for a critical playoff game last spring.

"Trotz has gotten more out of his teams than any coach of the past 15 years," NHL.com staff writer Dave Lozo said. "It's not that Nashville is devoid of talent, but they just never seem to have a ton of offensive talent, yet they keep winning because he gets players to buy into this system. That's the sign of a great coach to me. There's never dissent. Players leave via free agency, new ones come in, and for the most part, the Predators keep winning."

3. Joel Quenneville (1) -- 37

Quenneville played more than 800 NHL games as a defenseman, but he has surpassed his playing exploits as a coach. He needed five seasons as a full-time coach (two in the AHL, three as an assistant with Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche) before earning his own command.

He has coached his team to the postseason 13 times in 15 seasons as an NHL coach, and will make it 14 out of 16 later this month. Quenneville won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 and has them positioned to be one of the favorites again in 2013.

"Joel Quenneville is often underrated," Roarke said. "The easy out is to say he is blessed with an embarrassment of riches. That may well be the case with Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and company, but it only tells part of the story. Coach Q has never had a game-stealing goalie, usually a prerequisite to win a Stanley Cup, and he has patched together the lower half of his roster -- bottom-three defensemen and bottom-six forwards -- on an almost annual basis.

 

"Let's not forget, his Cup-winning team in 2010 was blown up and rebuilt on the fly and he never even blinked. He can stay so unflappable because he has the confidence to take risks and put players in new positions. The unsuccessful move of Kane to center last year is a prime example. He tried it because he thought it might work. It didn't and he was flexible enough to admit he was wrong and move on."

4 (tie). Dave Tippett (3) -- 36

Tippett was a role player who carved out a career of more than 700 NHL games before winning a championship as a coach in the International Hockey League with the Houston Aeros in 1999. That led to three seasons as an assistant with the Los Angeles Kings before he was ready for his own job.

After leading the Dallas Stars to the playoffs five straight seasons, Tippett missed in 2009 and was deposed -- a move that worked great for the Phoenix Coyotes but not so much for the Stars. Tippett has made the Coyotes a consistent contender despite incredible off-ice distractions due to their ownership situation. He helped them to the Western Conference Finals last season for the first time in franchise history.

He's won with Ilya Bryzgalov in net. He's won with Mike Smith. He's also won with one of the League's lowest payrolls.

"Tippett has done the most with the least in his three-plus seasons in Phoenix," NHL.com senior writer Dan Rosen said. "He's had to battle budget problems, ownership issues, players wondering about their futures, always concerned if they're going to be in Phoenix or if they should keep a bag packed, and yet the Coyotes have made the playoffs three times under him and last year got to the Western Conference Finals. There is nobody on the team that's a true star. Outside of Shane Doan, who is getting up there in age, he doesn't have anybody up front that general managers in the League are saying they have to have on their team.

"I understand why people wouldn't vote Tippett the best. He's not the hot choice and he's never won a Stanley Cup, but what he's done in Phoenix despite all the issues is nothing short of sensational."

4 (tie). Claude Julien -- 36

Julien played professional hockey for nearly as many seasons (12) as he did games in the NHL (14), but his travels (he played for nine different teams) helped prepare him for life as a coach. He's a prime example of the short life span for NHL coaches, and that sometimes the first impression isn't the one people should use to make their final judgments.

His first NHL coaching job lasted less than two full seasons -- he was in charge of the Montreal Canadiens for 159 games. His second was shorter -- Julien lasted less than one season with the New Jersey Devils before general manager Lou Lamoriello fired him with three games left before the playoffs.

Julien has found a home with the Boston Bruins, though. He's done a great job managing a veteran club, and he's shown a willingness to hold everyone accountable on and off the ice. He won the Stanley Cup in 2011, and the Bruins are a top contender again in 2013.

"All Julien has done with Boston is win," NHL.com columnist John Kreiser said. "He's gotten the Bruins to buy into his system. It's easy to overlook him on a team that's had a Norris Trophy winner, a two-time Vezina winner and a Selke award winner, but he's the one who keeps everything running."

Despite his team dealing with major injuries in recent years, Dan Bylsma and the Penguins have had at least 100 points in each of his three full seasons as coach. (Photo: Steve Babineau/NHLI)

6. Dan Bylsma -- 27

Like Quenneville in 2010 (and Darryl Sutter in 2012), Bylsma is part of a recent trend of midseason coaching hires who end up leading a team to the Stanley Cup. He did so with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, but that isn't the only he reason he belongs on this list.

Bylsma played more than 400 NHL games, mostly as a bottom-six forward. He was in his fifth season as a coach when the Penguins promoted him to the parent club from the AHL -- and a few months later he was hoisting the Cup.

The Penguins have had at least 100 points in each of his three full seasons, and they've continued to win despite major injuries to stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Bylsma is beloved by his players and is cited as a reason others want to play in Pittsburgh. He and his staff have embraced advanced statistics and encourage an attacking style of play.

"Bylsma stepped into a tough situation and won a Stanley Cup four months later," Kreiser said. "He's been able to keep his superstars motivated, and he's also been able to deal with injuries to those superstars. He's adaptable and his players work hard for him. If the Penguins have all hands on deck for the playoffs, they'll be among the favorites."

7. Ken Hitchcock -- 22

Hitchcock never played at the higher levels of the sport, but he's been a successful coach since the days when many on this list were still players. He won two WHL titles in six seasons with the Kamloops Blazers before three seasons as an assistant with the Philadelphia Flyers and three as a bench boss in the IHL.

He won the Stanley Cup in 1999, his fourth season with the Dallas Stars, and lost in the Final the next season. Hitchcock is the only coach to get the Columbus Blue Jackets into the postseason, and he returned to an NHL bench last season to lead the St. Louis Blues back into the playoffs after the franchise had missed five of the previous six seasons.

"Hitchcock is one of those coaches that you either love him or you hate him," Rosen said. "If you love him, you appreciate his knowledge and his ability to get the most out of players, especially getting the most out of players other coaches have struggled with. Just look at what he did in Columbus in getting that team to the playoffs and turning Rick Nash into a 200-foot player. Look at what he's done in St. Louis in turning that team around and getting young players to buy into his philosophy while allowing himself to change so he can relate to the young players.

"However, Hitch is also one of those coaches that has a short shelf life with teams, and that leads many people to be turned off by him. It's understandable, but he's won wherever he's been and has been able to get players across the League to buy into his philosophy. He's a winner and he belongs on this list."

8. Peter Laviolette -- 18

Laviolette was in the final season of a playing career spent mostly at the AHL level in 1997, but two seasons later he was coaching the same team (Providence) to the Calder Cup and his credentials as a top young coach were established. He spent one season as an assistant with the Boston Bruins before the New York Islanders made him a 36-year-old coach in the NHL.

The Islanders have made the playoffs four times since 1994, but they did so in both of Laviolette's seasons. Let's just say getting rid of him hasn't worked out on Long Island. Laviolette won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and reached the Cup Final in 2010 with the Philadelphia Flyers. He coached the United States at the Winter Olympics in 2006 and has a chance to be one of the greatest American-born coaches in the sport's history.

"Judging a coach is like judging paintings," said Lozo, who was surprised Laviolette wasn't higher on the list. "It's totally subjective and people tend to see what they want to see. He's been successful now with three organizations, been to the Cup Final twice, won it once. Maybe there's a perception he's had more talent to work with. I honestly don't know. Everyone has their favorites, I guess."

Others receiving votes: Todd McLellan (17 points, one first-place vote), Peter DeBoer (17), Bruce Boudreau (11), Alain Vigneault (10), John Tortorella (8), Paul MacLean (6), Darryl Sutter (3), Randy Carlyle (2)

TOP 8 COACHES (VOTING BREAKDOWN)
Brian Compton
NHL.com
John Kreiser
NHL.com
Dave Lozo
NHL.com
Corey Masisak
NHL.com
Shawn Roarke
NHL.com
1. Tippett 1. Tippett 1. McLellan 1. Babcock 1. Babcock
2. Babcock 2. Babcock 2. Trotz 2. Laviolette 2. Trotz
3. Trotz 3. Bylsma 3. Laviolette 3. Trotz 3. Quenneville
4. Julien 4. Julien 4. Babcock 4. Bylsma 4. Tippett
5. Quenneville 5. Hitchcock 5. Vigneault 5. Tippett 5. Julien
6. DeBoer 6. Trotz 6. Julien 6. McLellan 6. Sutter
7. Hitchcock 7. DeBoer 7. Tippett 7. Boudreau 7. DeBoer
8. Boudreau 8. Tortorella 8. Boudreau 8. Hitchcock 8. Bylsma
Dan Rosen
NHL.com
E.J. Hradek
NHL Network
Mike Johnson
NHL Network
Barry Melrose
NHL Network
Kevin Weekes
NHL Network
1. Tippett 1. Babcock 1. Babcock 1. Quenneville 1. Babcock
2. Trotz 2. Quenneville 2. Julien 2. DeBoer 2. Quenneville
3. Babcock 3. Hitchcock 3. McLellan 3. Julien 3. Bylsma
4. Hitchcock 4. Laviolette 4. Quenneville 4. Boudreau 4. Julien
5. MacLean 5. Tortorella 5. Vigneault 5. Trotz 5. Hitchcock
6. DeBoer 6. Bylsma 6. Bylsma 6. Babcock 6. Tortorella
7. Bylsma 7. Boudreau 7. MacLean 7. Carlyle 7. Vigneault
8. Julien 8. Tippett 8. Trotz 8. Bylsma 8. Trotz

Quote of the Day

There was a lot of talk off the ice. From a player's standpoint, that's not the talk in the room. GMs make decisions, coaches make decisions, but as a team you have to come together and be ready to go, and we are.

— San Jose Sharks forward Tommy Wingels on his team's approach entering training camp