John Tortorella is used to making headlines, but when he did so as the first American-born coach to win 500 games in NHL history, it was reason to consider Tortorella among the greatest American-born big league coaches of all time. He has the Stanley Cup, the Jack Adams Award, the milestone 500th win and he’s climbing the all-time wins list with each passing victory.
But it’s hard to argue that Tortorella is the greatest American coach the NHL has seen with Peter Laviolette hot on his heels.
On Sunday, Laviolette did what Tortorella had done one month earlier: he became a 500-game winner, the second American-born NHL bench boss to hit the half-grand mark. The thing is, though, Laviolette’s climb to win No. 500 has been more impressive than Tortorella’s and it would seem as though it’s only a matter of time before Laviolette finds his way back on par or above Tortorella on the all-time wins list. And purely statistically speaking, it’s hard to argue with Laviolette being not just the better of the two bench bosses, but the best American-born NHL coach in history.
For some, putting Laviolette in the same conversation as Bob Johnson or Herb Brooks is akin to hockey heresy. There’s reason for that. The accomplishments of Johnson and Brooks are legendary. Johnson is arguably the greatest coach the NCAA has ever seen, a Hall of Famer twice over and a Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990-91. Johnson had his NHL tenure cut short, tragically passing away in November 1991 to brain cancer. Brooks was likewise a standout coach in the NCAA, a Hall of Famer three times over and most famous for leading the United States to gold at the 1980 Olympics. Sadly, Brooks passed away in August 2003 as the result of a car accident.
The legacies of both Johnson and Brooks are untouchable and their importance to the game as coaches in the United States will never be matched. For both, though, their greatest work and most lasting mark was made outside the NHL — Johnson at University of Wisconsin, Brooks for his part in the ‘Miracle On Ice.’
It’s hard to know where Johnson’s career would have gone had he been able to continue coaching. The 1991-92 Stanley Cup seemed a given, at the very least, but beyond that it’s impossible to say. He finished with 234 wins in 480 games behind the bench, and went 41-35 in the post-season. As for Brooks, he coached 506 games and has a perfect .500 points percentage — 219 wins, 219 losses, 66 ties and two defeats in extra time. In the playoffs, Brooks went 19-21. From a purely statistical point of view, neither matched what Laviolette or Tortorella has accomplished in the NHL.
So if Johnson and Brooks are removed from the discussion, the debate comes down to Laviolette and Tortorella, with a handful of present-day coaches sprinkled in. Despite who’s added to the mix, though, it’s hard to choose anyone but Laviolette as the best American-born coach the league has seen.
While Tortorella was the first to 500 wins, it took him 1,028 games to pick up the milestone victory. By comparison, Laviolette added win No. 500 to his resume in game 970. The 58-game difference in coaching tenures is significant, too, because Laviolette is only 12 games back of Tortorella for the title of winningest American-born coach in league history. Tortorella has a career points percentage of .544, and Laviolette bests that with a mark of .577. And when it comes to the post-season, Laviolette has a decided edge.
Over the course of their respective careers, both Laviolette and Tortorella have seen the playoffs eight times. Over that span, Tortorella has been one-and-done on four separate occasions, while Laviolette has advanced to the second round five of eight times. Both have two post-season runs that went beyond two rounds under their belt and both have a Stanley Cup victory — bookending the lockout with Tortorella winning in 2003-04 with Tampa Bay, Laviolette in 2005-06 in Carolina — but Laviolette has the edge with a second trip to the final. He led Philadelphia to an Eastern Conference championship in 2009-10 and came two wins shy of adding a second Cup to his trophy case.
From a win percentage standpoint, Laviolette holds the edge, too. In 102 playoff games, his teams have won 52. Tortorella’s squads, by comparison, are below .500 in post-season action, dropping 43 of 89 games.
As far as accolades go, the only thing separating the two is a Jack Adams Award. Tortorella won coach of the year for his job in Tampa Bay during the Lightning’s title-winning season, and there’s a fair chance he’s adding a second Jack Adams this season for the job he’s done in turning around the Blue Jackets. Laviolette, on the other hand, is a two-time finalist, coming a single vote shy of the award in 2005-06. Tortorella can have the individual awards, though, because there’s a good chance it’s Laviolette who holds the edge in victories when both coaches call it a career.
The debate about who is a better bench boss — Laviolette or Tortorella — is likely to continue until their careers are done, and it’s only going to get more crowded at the top. In just eight seasons, Dan Bylsma is already at the 300-win mark at the helm of a young Sabres team that is building for the future, Mike Sullivan’s Penguins have won 63 of 100 games under his direction and recently fired Jack Capuano is knocking on the door of his 235th win, which would put him one ahead of Johnson.
But right now, if you had one game to win and needed to choose one American-born coach, Laviolette’s numbers have shown that he’s the best bet to get the job done.
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