It’s not easy to get a head coaching job in the NHL. Many people wait years for the chance, toiling in lower leagues until opportunity knocks. And then, once you get there, success is more or less aligned with how good your team is. It’s hard to quantifiably measure how good a coach actually is. Sure, analytics can help guide the discussion, but it’s harder to judge coaches than it is, say, general managers.
Not that we won’t try, mind you.
Take this list with a hefty dose of salt, and the understanding that how a coach performs will almost always be linked to the quality of their team.
7. Bill Peters, Calgary Flames
Peters’ first head coaching gig lasted four years, as his Carolina Hurricanes went without a single playoff appearance during his tenure. He must have been doing something right though; he was hired by Calgary mere weeks after being let go by the ‘Canes.
The analytics community is a fan of his work—Carolina was closer to the top of the league than the bottom in terms of possession metrics during his tenure.
But the fact remains that he didn’t get much out of a pretty talented Hurricanes roster. Most of that was blamed on bad goaltending but when Scott Darling was brought in and nothing changed, the coach had to go.
It’s very possible the Flames get off to a hot start and Peters is revered as a genius who got out of a bad situation in Carolina. Then again, he’s the only coach on this list to be fired without leading an NHL club to the playoffs.
6. Guy Boucher, Ottawa Senators
Is this too low for the Senators coach? Yes, Boucher has a decent track record and his supporters can point to two Eastern Conference finals appearances in five years in the NHL as being undoubtedly impressive. And it is, there’s no arguing that.
But the problem is what’s happened directly after those years.
Boucher has established himself as the type of coach that comes in, riles up the troops for a year, gets some great performances and establishes a defensive system that effectively drones the life out of games and the opposition. For one year. The next season under Boucher’s reign is always a disaster.
After getting Tampa Bay to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010-11, the team finished out of the playoffs with a .512 winning percentage the next year. In 2012-13, Boucher led the club to a 13-17 record before getting canned.
The coach that replaced him, John Cooper, got the Lightning to the playoffs the very next year and is still in charge.
It took Boucher almost a year to settle on his next job. It happened to be SC Bern of the Swiss Hockey League, where he made the second round of the playoffs in his first year.
In his second year? He was fired less than halfway through the season with a 10-12 record. SC Bern went on to win the league championship that year. And the next year.
For the 2016-17 season Boucher was brought on by the Ottawa Senators and promptly got them within one game of the Stanley Cup final, mostly by relying on some sensational performances from Craig Anderson and Erik Karlsson, as well as a stifling defensive system.
Everyone knows what happened next. A complete tire fire of a season now has the Senators in maybe the worst shape a team has ever been in during the salary cap era. Expect this season to be Boucher’s last with the Senators (his contract runs out at the end of it) and, possibly, his final campaign as a head coach in the NHL.
5. Travis Green, Vancouver Canucks
Some might call it a homer pick to place a rookie coach over one that’s already gone to two conference finals. Sure, but at least Green’s never been fired at the NHL level (yet). The Canucks weren’t good last season, but there were some positive developments.
The coach recognized that the Sedins needed to play lesser minutes and in certain situations, and wasn’t shy about letting them know that. He also tried to formulate a shutdown line to play against other teams’ top units, allowing younger stars like Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser to play against lesser competition.
This team isn’t talented enough to compete yet, but Green showed he might be a good person to have in charge when they are. He also showed that he wasn’t afraid to give the Vancouver media a bunch of sass when they deserved it (check out the end of this video), and you have to love that.
4. Todd McLellan, Edmonton Oilers
He’s made the playoffs in seven of the 10 years he’s been an NHL head coach. Yes, most of those seasons were with a good team in San Jose, and his years in Edmonton have benefited from Connor McDavid. But when a coach succeeds so much more consistently than he fails, he has to be doing something right.
Last season in Edmonton went a long way towards tearing down the Melville, Saskatchewan native’s competence as a coach, as the Oilers missed the playoffs after going to the second round the year prior.
But we happen to be of the opinion that Edmonton’s troubles lie almost solely with the management team. The Oilers are a decent bet to be back in the playoffs this year.
3. Paul Maurice, Winnipeg Jets
If your team is doing well, you’re automatically considered good at your job. It’s just a fact in the NHL. Look at John Tortorella these days. His Columbus Blue Jackets have done quite well in the regular season of late, and he’s thusly and wrongly viewed as a competent bench boss.
Maurice has spent parts of 20 seasons as a head coach, including becoming the second youngest in history when he took over the Hartford Whalers at the age of 28.
But of the 18 years he’s ended the season with a club (we didn’t count the two he was fired halfway through), he’s only made the playoffs in six.
To be fair, he’s done well the times he has made it, getting to round three or better in three of those appearances. His ranking might as well be a microcosm for this entire list as, again, it’s very easy to get carried away with recent success.
He’ll likely win the Stanley Cup with the Jets and be considered a good coach for all of eternity. Sometimes that’s just how it goes. And hey, despite the rough seasons, that's probably what he is. He didn't have too much support during his years in Toronto, and the same goes for the majority of his time in Carolina.
2. Claude Julien, Montreal Canadiens
Stanley Cup wins still rule the day. Though Julien now finds himself in an unenviable situation with the Habs, he did go on one of the better coaching runs in recent memory, spending seven seasons with the Boston Bruins and making the playoffs every year, including two trips to the Finals.
We probably don’t have to remind you that he won the Cup on one of them.
1. Mike Babcock, Toronto Maple Leafs
This shouldn’t be a surprise. The only coach that had a legitimate bidding war for his services when he left the Detroit Red Wings is the easy number one in this ranking. Three Stanley Cup Final appearances, including one win, and he’s only missed the playoffs twice in 15 years as a head coach.
But the craziest stat on Babcock’s resume? He’s never been fired.
These rankings will change a lot as years go by, it’s just part of the volatile nature of being a head coach in the NHL. We don’t see number one moving much though.
Follow @ncaddell on Twitter