Commentary

Ranking the NHL coaches

Updated: August 4, 2008, 5:13 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

If the New York Islanders get around to hiring Ted Nolan's successor by opening night, nine NHL head-coaching jobs will have turned over since the end of last season.

Barring a long-shot choice on Long Island, such as Providence Bruins coach Scott Gordon, three men will be getting their first chance running an NHL bench: Atlanta's John Anderson, Florida's Peter DeBoer, and San Jose's Todd McLellan.

In the past few days, ESPN.com has offered up Power Rankings -- the Kings and the Thrashers being at the bottom of their conferences helps explain why their next coaches have formidable tasks ahead of them -- and on the mind-games front, the Top 75 Fantasy Players.

Here's the third period, so to speak: Coaching rankings.

On the premise that it would be excessively presumptuous to rank them 1 through 30 -- after all, we're not talking about uniforms -- the rankings are done in groups. They are also purely subjective.

[+] EnlargeMike Babcock
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMike Babcock led the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup in June.

The Elite ...
... or the men who get the most out of their rosters, regardless of how good (or otherwise) those rosters are.

Mike Babcock, Detroit
He could become, if he hasn't already, the prototype for the modern-era coach. Babcock didn't play in the NHL, but he has a broad coaching background on the major-junior, Canadian college (briefly) and American Hockey League levels before stepping up, and up to the challenge. Yes, he's been blessed to be in organizations with considerable talent, but he has proven to be adaptive in the evolving NHL -- and that might be the most important quality for a coach in this era.

Jacques Lemaire, Minnesota
This is a tough one because of stylistic issues. He helped drag down the entertainment quotient in this league, and despite all the talk about the Wild being a skating team that uses speed and pounces on turnovers, not all the elements of the trap have disappeared from Minnesota's game. You'd think the State of Hockey is going to tire of that at some point, especially if the Wild slide this season and it drives Marian Gaborik away next summer. But you have to hand it to the crafty Lemaire: He frequently outcoaches his counterparts.

Lindy Ruff, Buffalo
Laments about "respect" get tiresome, and thankfully they're not as prevalent in the NHL as in the other sports. But this is the guy who has the longest tenure in the league, has persevered through trying circumstances on and off the ice in Buffalo, and on balance has done a terrific job. He deserves to be mentioned among the best in the league, and not as an afterthought.

Barry Trotz, Nashville
The only coach the Dallas Cowb ... er, the Nashville Predators have ever had has done a remarkable job under changing circumstances. He, along with general manager David Poile and associate coach Brent Petersen, is a testament to the positives of stability. Under less-stable leadership and in less-capable hands, this franchise would be a joke on the ice.

[+] EnlargeKen Hitchcock
Jamie Sabau/NHLI/Getty ImagesKen Hitchcock will try to lead the Blue Jackets to a playoff spot next season.

The Proven ...
... or the guys you know can pull it off until their voices get stale, it's time for a change, or the general manager needs to save his job by making someone a scapegoat.

Randy Carlyle, Anaheim
This is his first NHL job, but the former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman has coached a champion and shown poise and aplomb.

Ken Hitchcock, Columbus
Even more than Babcock and some of the others, Hitchcock is the quintessential worked-his-way-up coach who used to crack up the writers on the Western League circuit when he looked more like -- and sounded like -- John Candy. Somewhat inflexible and grating on veterans who wouldn't mind opening it up, he is still a great ambassador for the league and has Cups -- Memorial and Stanley -- on his résumé.

Peter Laviolette, Carolina
The Stanley Cup goes a long way here, too, but he has done a solid job in his second chance.

Craig MacTavish, Edmonton
I almost put him among the elite because the combination of injuries and the turnover in Edmonton the past couple of seasons have made the Oilers' competence almost as impressive as their playoff run in 2006.

Andy Murray, St. Louis
If you don't believe he's one of the best coaches in the league after his work in Los Angeles and then with the Blues, just ask him.

Tom Renney, New York Rangers
Another product of the Kamloops coaching factory, he has rejuvenated his image with fine work with New York.

Dave Tippett, Dallas
Recently rewarded with a deserved extension, the former Hartford Whaler -- that's just a cheap stunt to get you whistling "Brass Bonanza" for the rest of the day -- survived through some first-round playoff frustration ... and should have.

Michel Therrien, Pittsburgh
I almost didn't put him here, in part because of his whining during the Finals. But all in all, you can't knock his work with the young Penguins, despite the reality that this was a powerhouse waiting to happen. And if you know his background -- as a phone company worker and assistant coach, he talked with Laval coach Bob Hartley about practice plans from the top of telephone poles -- it's easy to root for him.

Ron Wilson, Toronto
They should sell admission, or pay-per-view showings, of his sparring with the Toronto media for as long as his tenure lasts. With this team, playoff underachievement might not be an issue, but he's still among the league's best.

[+] EnlargeWayne Gretzky
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireWayne Gretzky will enter his fourth season as coach of the Coyotes in 2008-09.

The jury's still out ...
... or the first-time NHL head coaches who still have to show they can be productive in what passes in this sport for the long run.

Bruce Boudreau, Washington
What a story. Finally gets his chance after years of coaching in the minors and wins the Jack Adams Award. But after the newness wears off, can he prove it was indicative of a difference-making touch?

Guy Carbonneau, Montreal
Long one of the most respected players in the league, and a virtual assistant coach on the ice, he paid some coaching dues as a real assistant and then did a terrific job with the Canadiens in his first two seasons as head coach. Chances are, he'll jump to be among the elite pretty soon ... and he already has in some books.

Wayne Gretzky, Phoenix
The issues are how long this can keep his interest and how passionate he can be, but he loves working with young players and the Coyotes could be a playoff team as soon as this season. He delegates authority, but there's nothing wrong with that as long as it's not to excess. And he does have a unique credibility.

Denis Savard, Chicago
A remarkably similar situation to Gretzky's-- a legend of a player, if to a lesser degree, working with young potential stars. But if he continues the nurturing, gets the Hawks back among the upper echelon and rekindles excitement in the league's sleeping-giant market, he'll be a hero.

John Stevens, Philadelphia
Given his journeyman background as a minor league player and coach, it's easy to root for him. The Flyers' 39-point turnaround last season was a feather in his (and Paul Holmgren's) cap, and if that proves to be no fluke, Stevens joins the ranks of the proven.

Brent Sutter, New Jersey
He has the pedigree and the long NHL playing career, and he did a great job with the family's Red Deer Rebels before joining the Devils. If he causes Lou Lamoriello to stop treating coaches as disposable, Sutter really will have proven himself.

The Suspect ...
... or they'll have to prove some people wrong to be considered (back) among the elite.

Tony Granato, Colorado
One of the strangest situations in the league. Despite some ridiculous parroted criticisms of his work during his first stint behind the Avalanche bench, he still has the best winning percentage of any Colorado coach ... ever. But now he gets a second chance, and under conditions that might make winning difficult. He bought into the company line that it was time to trust the organization's own young talent, and this might be a team headed for a fall -- no matter who is coaching.

Craig Hartsburg, Ottawa
He's back for his third try, and there's a chance he became a better coach during his recent stint in major junior.

Claude Julien, Boston
Yes, he got a raw deal in New Jersey and was a bona fide Adams candidate last season at Boston. But for a mixed bag of reasons, he has only been a head coach for a full NHL season twice in his five separate seasons behind the Canadiens', Devils' and Bruins' benches.

Mike Keenan, Calgary. We all know the man is a quirky genius on many levels, and he stayed relatively low-profile last season, so he might have learned some lessons. But given his recent track record and volatility, he's still in this category ... for now.

Barry Melrose, Tampa Bay
This is in no way, shape or form a knock on our former ESPN colleague. Somebody should have coaxed him out of Bristol a long time ago. But he hasn't been a head coach since that two-seasons-plus stint with the Kings -- the one that began with a run to the Finals -- ended 13 years ago.

Terry Murray, Los Angeles
Fourth try. This might be unfair. He was in the Cup finals with the Flyers, but that was 11 years ago, and he hasn't been a head coach in seven years.

Alain Vigneault, Vancouver
Yes, he won the Adams Award only a year ago. But that was his only season with 40 or more wins. He still may prove to be considered a great coach, but he might need to be, after all the turmoil in Vancouver, to keep his job.

How the heck can we know yet? ...
... or the first-time NHL head coaches.

John Anderson, Atlanta

Peter DeBoer, Florida

Todd McLellan, San Jose
McLellan is in a decent situation; the other two aren't.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."