Skip to main content

Melrose: My top-five coaches in NHL history

by Barry Melrose

The game has changed a lot in the past century, and some of the men on this list are reasons that the game has changed the way that it has. But there's one thing that will never change in the NHL, and that's that you won't be able to consistently compete -- or win a Stanley Cup -- without a great coach.

Now, some of you might be surprised that you won't see Toe Blake or Punch Imlach on this list, and while they and a few others were tremendous coaches in the Original Six era, they didn't have the same impact. None of them changed the game or revolutionized it the way the guys on my list did.

Here are my top five greatest coaches in NHL history:

5. Roger Neilson -- Many people will say Neilson didn't win much, and it's true he never won a Stanley Cup as a head coach -- he only reached the Final once -- but Neilson changed the way coaching was done. He was incredibly influential and innovative in ways the game had never seen. He was the first guy ever to study film, his practices were well thought out and much more organized than practices had been at the time, and the guys that played for him, Darryl Sittler, Dan Maloney, guys I played with in Toronto that had played for Roger loved him. They all talked about how creative he was.

One of the best things about Roger was how he would always look for ways to exploit the rule book, like when he famously had his goaltender leave his stick on the goal line after being pulled for an extra attacker because there was no explicit rule against it. They had to make rules to combat Roger's thinking. He was influential for workouts, nutrition and a number of other things, but really his use of video might be his greatest legacy. If you go into an NHL dressing room you can't imagine the money and time tied up in video, and that all started with Roger Neilson.

4. Fred Shero-- Shero was a little odd, but he, like Nielsen, was so innovative. He changed the way people coached. He was the first guy to really use assistant coaches, one of the first guys to have game-day skates and one of the first guys to really open his arms to the Russian style of hockey. Most importantly, though, he built the Philadelphia Flyers of the 1970s. You can call the Flyers whatever you want, but they did win two Stanley Cups with Shero in the 1970s. Shero's Broad Street Bullies won as many Cups as the Boston Bruins of that era did, and nobody is going to say those Flyers had as much talent as the Bruins.

When you look at how he used people on the power play, the intimidation factor, the way he ran his practices, he really brought a lot of things into the NHL that hadn't been used before. People used to laugh at him and call him nuts, and his players have plenty of stories, but he took a bunch of guys that were just tough and crazy and had four or five great hockey players, and made them arguably the best team in the NHL for a three or four-year period.

3. Glen Sather -- I put Sather at No. 3 rather than No. 2 because his Edmonton Oilers teams were just so talented, but Glen has to get marks for putting it together. Any argument of great dynasties includes those Oilers from the 1980s, and Glen coached those teams and was the GM for those teams. I played against a number of great teams in the NHL, including the Islanders of the early 1980s, and the Oilers were the greatest team I ever saw.

People can argue that he should have won with that talent, but he won five Stanley Cups. You can look at the Pittsburgh Penguins of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis. Those teams were just as talented and they only won two Cups. The Bruins of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito only won two Cups. You still have to press the right buttons and do the right things. Glen did that, and don't forget, his last Cup came after the Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky, which is pretty impressive, too. Glen probably doesn't get enough credit for how good a coach he was.

2. Al Arbour -- Arbour won four Cups in a row and probably only didn't win a fifth because the 1984 New York Islanders ran into those Oilers, who might have had the greatest collection of talent in the expansion era. Arbour took a team of young people that many thought couldn't win the big one and turned it into one of the most dominant teams the NHL had ever seen, winning 19 consecutive playoff series. Winning a Stanley Cup once is pretty hard to do. Doing it four times in a row is pretty phenomenal.

Arbour's Islanders were tough, but also very skilled. When you walked into an arena to watch the Islanders, you couldn't tell if they were up five or down five because they always played the same way. He coached the same way, too. You never saw him yelling or screaming. He was always under control and so were his teams. Arbour had longevity, he had success, he was innovative and opened his eyes to a lot of European players when many coaches of his era didn't. It's hard to argue that he's not one of the greatest to ever stand on an NHL bench.

1. Scotty Bowman -- It's gotta be Scotty Bowman. You look at his career wins, you look at his Stanley Cups and you look at how he did it in different places. Yeah, he always had good teams wherever he coached, but there were a lot of guys that coached good teams and never won Stanley Cups. His teams in Montreal were among the greatest of all-time, he took over a team in Pittsburgh recovering from the tragic loss of coach Bob Johnson and won a Cup, and in Detroit they had the same team before he got there without winning and when he showed up they won three Stanley Cups.

Scotty changed the game in a number of ways. When everyone began building tough teams because Philadelphia was winning Cups, Scotty went to a more skilled team that was tougher and brought the game back to being skill driven rather than one built on physicality. In each place he innovated and in each place he won. You look at Bowman's numbers, what he did and the number of Cups he has, and you have to say he was the greatest coach ever.

View More

The NHL uses cookies, web beacons, and other similar technologies. By using NHL websites or other online services, you consent to the practices described in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, including our Cookie Policy.