A good coach can turn a mediocre team into a playoff team. A great coach can turn a playoff team into a Stanley Cup contender.
Coaches are responsible for a lot more than just setting lines and calling for changes. They put systems into place, develop young talent, plan and run practices, and these days, they have to deal with the personalities and quirks of today’s NHL players.
Coaches are also mentors; they have to make sure relationships within the team are in good-standing. That includes relationships between the coaching staff and the players, between the coaching staff and management, between players and management, and between the players themselves. They are the central cog of the team.
In the past decade, the NHL, specifically commissioner Gary Bettman, has made a massive push for parity. There are so many rules in place aimed at evening the odds for each and every team, coaches have become more important than ever.
There's really only one thing that matters when you’re a coach in the NHL: winning. In order to be successful and have any chance at a long-lasting career, a coach has to win. If you don’t win, you won’t stick around for long, doesn't matter who you are, just ask Wayne Gretzky.
Coaches are the ultimate leaders of the team. They're the ones who make passionate pre-game speeches, they make the adjustments between periods, and they face the most criticism when things fall apart.
The following are the top 15 NHL coaches of all time.
15 Jack Adams
Jack Adams is the only person to have won the Stanley Cup as a player, coach and general manager. Every year, the NHL’s coach of the year is awarded, a trophy named after him.
Adams spent 20 seasons as a coach in Detroit, back when the franchise was known as the Detroit Cougars, then Falcons and finally the Red Wings. His 413 regular season wins don’t rank him very high, but teams played less than 50 games a year the majority of his career.
As a coach, Adams won the Stanley Cup four times and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1959.
14 Pat Burns
In his first season as an NHL head coach, the former cop led the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup Final in 1989.
He eventually made his way to their rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he just fell short of winning a Conference Championship.
In 2003, now as head coach of the New Jersey Devils, Burns won his only Stanley Cup.
In 1,019 games, Burns won 501 games. He also won the Jack Adams Award three times, in 1989, 1993, and 1998, all with different teams. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a builder in 2014.
13 Lindy Ruff
In 1996-97, the Buffalo Sabres had just won their division and were eliminated in the second round of playoffs. The offseason was dramatic though; head coach Ted Nolan clashed with star netminder, Dominic Hasek, the General Manager, John Muckler was fired, the new GM, Darcy Regier offered Nolan a one-year extension, which he rejected (he had just won the Jack Adams), leading Regier to hire Lindy Ruff.
Ruff spent 15 years as coach of the Sabres, winning 571 regular season games out of 1,165. In 1999, Ruff led the Sabres to Stanley Cup Final, where they fell short to the Dallas Stars, losing on the infamous Brett Hull ‘Toe in the Crease’ goal.
In 2013, Ruff was named as head coach of the Stars, where he’s still running the bench.
Ruff also won the Jack Adams Award at the end of the 2005-06 season, when he led the Sabres to the Conference Finals and ranks 8th in All-Time Wins with 652.
12 Mike Babcock
Babcock marks the first entry on this list who never played in the NHL.
His impact as an NHL coach was immediate; he stepped behind the bench of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2002 and led them to the Stanley Cup Final in his first year.
After two seasons, Babcock left the Mighty Ducks and headed to the Detroit Red Wings. Babcock’s Wings won their division four years in a row from 2005-09, resulting in a Stanley Cup championship in 2008 and a Conference Championship in 2009.
Over the course of his career, Babcock has only missed the playoffs once and has been a finalist for the Jack Adams Award twice.
He became the highest paid coach in NHL history, when he became the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
11 Darryl Sutter
Sutter spent 10 seasons behind the bench of the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks, before heading to the Calgary Flames, where he really made his mark.
After making the playoffs every season as a coach, he was fired 24 games into the 2002-03 season. He was unemployed for four weeks, before being hired in Calgary.
In his first full season as coach (and GM, which was added to his job duties in the off-season) in Calgary, Sutter led the Flames to their first play-off berth in seven years. The Flames went on an unbelievable run, losing the Stanley Cup in 7 games, although Flames fans will tell you they should have won it in game 6.
As head coach of the Los Angeles Kings, Sutter has won two Stanley Cups (2012, 2014). His 547 career wins puts him at 15th on the all-time list.
10 Punch Imlach
Imlach was known for ruling with a heavy hand. After being named as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he fired his coach, Billy Reay, and subsequently named himself as the replacement.
In his fourth season as head coach, in 1961-62, Imlach won the Stanley Cup, the first of three in a row. Then in 1966-67, Imlach won another Stanley Cup with the Leafs, which also marks the last time the Maple Leafs won it.
His authoritative style finally led to his dismissal shortly after the 1969 season. He then coached the Buffalo Sabres for a season and a half until his health began to deteriorate.
His coaching record ended with him winning 402 games out of 889 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984 as a Builder.
9 Glen Sather
Sather joined the NHL as a coach in 1979 when then Edmonton Oilers were absorbed into the league.
By 1982-83, the Oilers had become a high-scoring machine led by Wayne Gretzky. After losing in the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals, Sather’s team went on to win four of the next five Stanley Cups.
Following the 1989 season, Sather gave up the bench to focus on his managerial duties, but he’d return to the bench periodically during his career with the Oilers and New York Rangers.
Over the course of his career, Sather won 497 games out of 932, he won the Jack Adams award in 1986 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997 as a builder.
8 Pat Quinn
Quinn moved his way up the coaching ranks with the Philadelphia Flyers quickly. In 1978, he began the season as the head coach of the Flyers’ affiliate team and ended it as head coach of the Flyers.
In his first full season, the Flyers went unbeaten for 35 games and reached the Stanley Cup Final.
In 1994, Quinn’s Vancouver Canucks won the Conference Championship, but lost to the New York Rangers in the Finals.
Quinn’s coaching career spanned over three decades, he coached 1,400 games and won 684 of them, ranking him 6th on the all-time list, and he won the Jack Adams Award twice in 1980 and 1992. The only thing missing from his resume, is a Stanley Cup.
7 Mike Keenan
Known as ‘Iron Mike’, Keenan was notorious for butting heads with his players and with management of every team was coach.
His first four seasons as coach in Philadelphia, the Flyers won their division three times and won two Conference Championships.
He then led the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup Final in 1992, before being forced to focus on his managerial duties. A season later, he found himself with the New York Rangers, where he led them to a Stanley Cup victory in 1994, but he couldn’t get along with GM Neil Smith and left the team.
He continued to bounce around the NHL and eventually made his way to the KHL.
Over the course of his career, he coached eight teams for 1,386 games, winning 672 games, 7th all-time. He won the Jack Adams Award in 1985.
6 Ken Hitchcock
Ken Hitchcock began his coaching career with the Dallas Stars partway through the 1995-96 season. In every full season with the Stars, Hitchcock’s team won their division which culminated in a Stanley Cup victory in 1999 and a Conference Championship in 2000.
Currently with the St. Louis Blues, Hitchcock hasn’t been able to find playoff success, but has led the Blues to winning their division twice.
Hitchcock has coached 1,322 games, winning 708 games, ranking him 4th all-time, and he was awarded the Jack Adams Award in 2012.
5 Toe Blake
Joseph Hector Blake, was the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens from 1955-68. During that time, the Canadiens won eight Stanley Cups, including five in row during Blake’s first five seasons as coach.
He coached 914 games, winning 500 of them, one of only 21 people to hit the 500-win mark. His eight Stanley Cups are the second-most ever by a head coach. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966 as a player.
4 Dick Irvin
Dick Irvin enjoyed a long career as a coach, spending 27 seasons behind the bench. From 1929-1956, he coached the Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. He only missed the playoffs three times.
He won the Stanley Cup four times, once with the Leafs and three with Habs.
He appeared behind the bench 1,449 times and won 692 games, ranking him 5th all-time. Remarkable considering the NHL season was never longer than 70 games, and for most his career, it was around 50 games long.
He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1958 as a player
3 Joel Quenneville
Quenneville began coaching in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues where he led them playoffs every year he was coach, until his final season when he was fired when the Blues were on the cusp of missing playoffs.
After a few seasons with the Colorado Avalanche, Quenneville was hired on as a scout for the Chicago Blackhawks, but just four games into his first season with the team, he was made head coach.
Since the move, the Hawks have made playoffs every season and won three Stanley Cups.
Quenneville has coached 1375 games and won 754 of them, ranking him 3rd on the all-time list, and he won the Jack Adams Award in 2000.
2 Al Arbour
After spending parts of three seasons coaching the St. Louis Blues, Arbour left the team to become coach of the New York Islanders, where he would amass 19 coaching seasons.
He led the team to four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1979-83, just falling short of five in a row when the team lost to the young Edmonton Oilers.
In 2007, at the age of 75, Arbour returned to the bench to coach in his 1,500th game.
His 782 wins ranks him second on the all-time list, he also won the Jack Adams Award in 1979 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996 as a builder.
1 Scotty Bowman
Scotty Bowman’s coaching career began in 1967 with the St. Louis Blues and ended in 2002 with the Detroit Red Wings.
In the 30 seasons he spent as a head coach, Bowman stood behind the bench in 2,141 regular season games, winning 1244 of them, the most by any coach in history. He won nine Stanley Cups, including four in a row with the Canadiens from 1976-79. He won the Jack Adams Award twice, in 1977 and 1996, and he was inducted into Hall of Fame in 1991 as a builder.
He’s won three more Cups as a Senior Advisor to Hockey Operations with the Chicago Blackhawks.