Commentary

Ranking the NHL coaches at the quarter mark

Updated: November 21, 2008, 3:34 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

As we near the quarter mark of the NHL season, some things are coming into focus. Other issues remain fuzzy, with body-of-work judgments pending, and that's especially appropriate in a league in which your regular-season record is irrelevant roughly 17 seconds after the 82nd game ends.

There have been two coaching changes -- Joel Quenneville taking over for Denis Savard in Chicago and interim coach Rick Tocchet stepping in for Barry Melrose in Tampa Bay. I was going to say "already," but in this league of massive turnover, some might be thinking, "That's all? Only two?"

[+] EnlargeJacques Lemaire
Jeff Vinnick/Getty ImagesHeading into Thursday's action, Jacques Lemaire and the Wild were fourth overall in the West.

In the offseason, I was asked to rate the NHL coaches, and I did so by groups, feeling that a 1-through-30 structure would be excessively presumptuous. Plus, the fact is that virtually anyone hired for a first, second or fifth chance at an NHL coaching job is at least competent.

Some of the e-mail responses from fans of specific teams surprised me, arguing I had drunk the Kool-Aid offered by their "own" coaches and that they were overrated, had worn out their welcomes and were far more appreciated by outsiders than those who witnessed their work on a game-by-game basis.

Others believed I significantly underrated "their" coaches. Some of the reaction along those lines seems to reflect a school of thought that fans can, and do, (a) blast their "own" coaches and call for their firings after every loss; yet, (b) become defensive when "outsiders" chime in.

With that as the backdrop, my view is nothing that happens in a single 20-game segment of a single season should drastically impact the evaluation of a man's body of work as a coach -- regardless of how extensive that body of work is.

So, if you're looking for me to say that Todd McLellan is certain to be the next Scotty Bowman, or that Dave Tippett should be run out of Dallas … not happening.

But it's not out of line to at least reassess, and concede where some coaches' stock is rising … or sinking. (Besides, maybe it will be a nice change of pace to see a reference to a stock rising.) I am moving a few coaches up into "better" categories, but that's only in instances where I was on the fence in the first place, and I've been sold.

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
Any quarrel here? Other than the fact that the rich got richer, which isn't his "fault"? His broad-based background, his Stanley Cup résumé, his adaptability all add up to this: He should be at the top, or near the top, of any list. Stock: Up.

Jacques Lemaire, Minnesota
I've said it before and I'll say it again: You've got to give the devil -- or ex-Devils coach -- his due. In some ways, he has helped ruin the game, if you consider sports to be entertainment and the showcase of individual skills. That effect shows up in every arena in the league, and it's weird that one of the NHL's major challenges is to continue to try to undo the damage. But now the Wild are winning without Marian Gaborik. (Yes, I'm among the multitudes who think the guy is a 70-goal scorer waiting to happen under a coach who will let him play.) Lemaire is the best there is. I hate to say it, but he is. Stock: Up.

Lindy Ruff, Buffalo
This team is in what would be a playoff spot if the season ended today. There's still some talent left, so it's not as if it was a case of the last guy to depart should turn out the lights. Ryan Miller is playing well, but the longest-tenured coach in the league is helping keep the Sabres afloat. Stock: Unchanged.

Barry Trotz, Nashville
I admit I've used Trotz as the working example of the coach who has done a tremendous job of getting the most out of what he has had over the years, sometimes in trying situations, and I've heard from many who think I've gotten carried away in placing him in this category. But he remains a testament to the value of stability behind the bench, and I still don't think this league often enough takes all the working conditions, and the state of the roster, sufficiently into account when evaluating coaches. If he can get this bunch into the playoffs, he should be an automatic Adams Award finalist. Stock: Unchanged.

The Proven I (holdovers) ...
… 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
With Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne around from the start this time, the Ducks have recovered from a 1-5-0 start and played through the slight distraction of the Brian Burke Circus -- and I say that conceding that players don't get all that wrapped up in management changes, unless the GM and a player May be surgically connected at the hip. Stock: Unchanged.

[+] EnlargeCraig MacTavish
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarOur scribe believes Craig MacTavish has gotten a lot out of the Oilers' lineup early on this season.
Ken Hitchcock, Columbus
He didn't thrill Rick Nash with the experimental look at center, but it served notice that even when Nash's numbers are good, he should be capable of taking over more games -- even in Hitchcock's system. But Hitch will be doing a better job this season as soon as, or if, he gets NHL-caliber goaltending from Pascal Leclaire or Fredrik Norrena. Stock: Down.

Claude Julien, Boston
OK, OK. I moved him from "suspect," where I had placed him primarily because he had been a coach for a full season only twice in his three stops, to this category based on his work last season and the Bruins' strong early-season play. Stock: Up.

Peter Laviolette, Carolina
If he gets fired soon, it might come down to not getting enough out of Eric Staal. There's been some speculation that Laviolette might have been sent packing if the Canes hadn't beaten Tampa Bay last weekend (in a shootout), and whether that was right or wrong is almost beside the point. Once the "speculation" begins, a GM either has to decisively move to squelch it or it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because the coach has been undercut. Stock: Down.

Craig MacTavish, Edmonton
The Oilers' dearth of home games so far means Edmonton's first quarter mostly has shaped up as an attempt to tread water. And the Oilers have. He still has gotten an amazing amount out of this roster the past few seasons. Stock: Unchanged.

Andy Murray, St. Louis
The Blues have been horrible the past month, but injuries -- the latest, Andy McDonald's broken leg -- and bad goaltending haven't helped Murray. Still, he's finding ways to keep Keith Tkachuk on track. Stock: Down.

Joel Quenneville, Chicago
He was out of work during the offseason rankings, and this one is tricky. The change from Savard to Quenneville made it apparent this just didn't spring up overnight, and it was almost that the Hawks were looking for an excuse. But Quenneville, while especially flighty in his holding-the-nose handling of goaltenders, has gotten the most out of what he's had in the past -- in St. Louis and even Colorado last season -- and so far he's hit the right buttons with the young Hawks. Stock: Up.

Tom Renney, New York Rangers
So long, Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan; hello, Markus Naslund and Nikolai Zherdev. And the Rangers, while benefiting from having played the most games in the league, have been one of the success stories early in the season. Renney, at times, seems to rub strong personalities the wrong way, but what coach doesn't? Stock: Up.

Dave Tippett, Dallas
With a contract extension, at least he has some breathing room. You'd think. The biggest of the problems here have been Marty Turco stinking it up for a stretch and Sean Avery being Sean Avery. At least Tippett, in theory, could do something about the latter. Stock: Down.

Michel Therrien, Pittsburgh
He's not screwing up a good thing, and sometimes there's a lot to be said for that. The Penguins have several games in hand on the Rangers and probably will be in the Atlantic Division lead soon. Stock: Up.

Ron Wilson, Toronto
How dare he call the Toronto media "bipolar." Well, pretty easily, actually, despite the fact the Leafs have played that way, too. It makes me hope that someday Wilson gets a job in New York and gets a load of that tripolar mob. Now we wait for the other shoe to drop -- the arrival of fellow U.S.-born Brian Burke to be general manager. Stock: Unchanged.

The Proven II: Joined the club ...
… or the first-time NHL head coaches I previously had listed under "jury's still out," but who have done enough in the past, and in the first 20 games, to warrant a reappraisal (and inclusion in a new category).

Bruce Boudreau, Washington
Coming up on his first anniversary in the job, but with a résumé that includes years in the minor pros, he is the right touch for the team with Alexander Semin coming into his own. Now, if Jose Theodore can only live up to that new contract … gee, where have we heard that before? Stock: Up.

Guy Carbonneau, Montreal
The Habs have hit a little skid, but Carbonneau would have been a worthy Adams choice last season and has the look of a coach settling in for a long run in Montreal after successfully making the transition from heady player to heady coach (and the two don't always equate). Stock: Up.

The jury is STILL out ...
… or the first-time NHL head coaches who will have something to prove.

Wayne Gretzky, Phoenix
His faith in his ability to nurture young talent will make or break him as a coach -- at least in this first try. And it's unfair, but we're always watching the former megastars for signs of disgust or loss of interest. The funny thing is, I was about to say the Hawks have made their move and the Coyotes haven't, yet as of Thursday, Phoenix has only four fewer points. Stock: Unchanged.

John Stevens, Philadelphia
A so-so start in the wake of that 39-point turnaround last season isn't cause for panic … or anything else. Stock: Unchanged.

Brent Sutter, New Jersey
Well, if he can keep the Devils in playoff contention until Martin Brodeur's return, he might even be able to stop looking over his shoulder to see if GM Lou Lamoriello is getting itchy. Stock: Unchanged.

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

Tony Granato, Colorado
The issue here primarily was whether any Quenneville successor was being set up for failure. He's tried to reintroduce up-tempo hockey, with mixed results, and the Avalanche have been one of the most mercurial teams in the league. Stock: Down.

Craig Hartsburg, Ottawa
Back from major junior for another shot, the slow start raises the issue of whether the collapse last season wasn't a fluke, but indicative of the real Sens. Stock: Down.

Mike Keenan, Calgary
The longer he keeps a relatively low profile, the more credible he becomes in his latest stop. And the Flames have survived in the early weeks despite the fact that goalie Miikka Kiprusoff has looked as if he's worn out. Stock: Up.

Terry Murray, Los Angeles
Marc Crawford signed off on the rebuilding project, but got burned by it. Murray has the Kings playing at least respectable hockey. Stock: Up.

Alain Vigneault, Vancouver
With Mike Gillis coming in as GM, the leash seemed short here. Vigneault's Adams Award won't sway him. But the Canucks have overhauled the Wild in the division, and as Luongo goes … Stock: Up.

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

John Anderson, Atlanta; Peter DeBoer, Florida; Scott Gordon, New York Islanders
They're not miracle workers. None of their teams has been embarrassing, either. Stock: Unchanged.

Todd McLellan, San Jose
With his background of coaching in major junior and the IHL and AHL before joining the Wings as an assistant, he was a hot commodity -- and the Sharks landed him. It looks like a great move so far. Stock: Up.

Rick Tocchet, Tampa Bay
He's the interim coach and is trying to soothe bruised egos in the wake of Barry Melrose's brief -- too brief -- tenure. Stock: Unchanged.

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."