On the Cusp of Greatness?

by | Nov 3, 2016

In my last column I talked about which NHL coaches had risen or fallen or stagnated on my top 50 charts which are determined by my rating system featured in my book Bench Bosses: the NHL’s coaching elite. There were no new entrants into the top 50 charts during 2015/16 season but this new season augurs well for one of the three following potential entrants: Mike Sullivan from the Pittsburgh Penguins; Barry Trotz from the Washington Capitals; and Jon Cooper from the Tampa Bay Lightning. All three men are within striking range of breaking into the top 50 and thus placing themselves on a loftier perch in the annals of NHL coaching immortality.

Mike Sullivan took over a team laden with talent but precious little motivation and became the sixth interim head coach in NHL history to lead a team to the Stanley Cup title; adding 17 points to his coaching value (jumping from a +3 to a +20) and positioning himself quite well to knock on the door of greatness if only he can engineer another march to the Stanley Cup finals like he did last season. If Pittsburgh can earn triple digits in team points, win the Metropolitan division title, and the reach the Stanley Cup finals then Mike Sullivan will enter the elite ranks at the 45th position and gain 20 steps in rank. If the Penguins score triple digits in team points but fail to win the divisional title then it becomes imperative for Sullivan to reach the Stanley Cup finals to enter the elite ranks in the 50th position (thus surpassing Gerry Cheevers in the process). If Pittsburgh fails to reach triple digits then Pittsburgh must have a winning season, make the playoffs, and win the Stanley Cup to allow Mike Sullivan to enter the top 50 in the 47th position. But the challenge for the Pittsburgh Penguins (and Mike Sullivan) is the fact that no NHL team has repeated as Stanley Cup winners since 1997/98.

Barry Trotz (who ranks 68th) added ten plus points to his coaching value thus raising himself from a +9 to + 19. Trotz’s path to greatness this season is a tad rougher. Unlike Mike Sullivan Trotz must lead the Caps to triple digits in team points; win the Metropolitan Division title; and reach the Stanley Cup finals to crack the top 50 ranks; or else he needs to lead the Caps to triple digits in team points and win the Stanley Cup title to enter the NHL coaching pantheon. If Barry Trotz can go all the way with a triple digit season, division title win, and the Stanley Cup title then he will vault 27 steps in rank to the 41st position (between Roger Neilson and Jimmy Skinner).

In short what he needs to do is end his heartbreak coaching streak (as discussed in my chapter “Heartbreak Coaches” in my book Bench Bosses). Trotz suffered his ninth playoff loss last season without ever leading a team to the Stanley Cup finals thus making him the third greatest heartbreak coach of all-time. The challenge for Trotz is can he defy his own playoff jinx? Can he inspire the Caps to overcome their own franchise playoff jinx (their sole Stanley Cup finals appearance was in 1997/98)?

Jon Cooper only added 3 points to his coaching value in 2015/16 because of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s failure to defend their Eastern Conference title. Still, Cooper, like Barry Trotz and Mike Sullivan could leapfrog to greatness if he can coax another stellar season from the Lightning like they did in 2014/15. If Tampa can reach triple digits in team points, win the Atlantic Division title, and reach the Stanley Cup finals then Jon Cooper will enter the top 50 ranks. If Tampa does all that and win the Stanley Cup in the process then Jon Cooper would advance 32 steps in rank and enter the top 50 charts in the 42nd position (between Jimmy Skinner and Tom Johnson). If Tampa falls short of triple-digits then it becomes imperative that they rally in the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup outright for Jon Cooper to enter the top 50 ranks this season.

Hypothetically John Tortorella has a shot at the top 50 ranks since his coaching value is a +21 (ahead of Mike Sullivan, Barry Trotz, and Jon Cooper) but Torts’ coaching value declined sharply when he accepted the head coaching job with the Columbus Bluejackets last season from +27 to a +21. Columbus would have to reach triple digits in team points and win the Metropolitan division title for Tortorella to enter the top 50 ranks (which is highly unlikely) and so that is why I didn’t add Torts to the list of prospective applicants for NHL coaching greatness.

Mike Sullivan, Barry Trotz, and Jon Cooper have the horses to reach for greatness and what remains to be seen is which of these future NHL coaching greats will ultimately stand with the other NHL greats in the NHL coaching pantheon?

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