The Al Arbour Coaching Tree: From Terry Crisp to Brent Sutter

Radar Reviewing Video: From the NHL's 1987 book, "Hockey: Twenty Years," celebrating 20 years since expansion.

Long-time readers (i.e. twisted, demented people, the "Don't you people have homes?!" types) know my affection for the Islanders began in a roundabout way with Al Arbour, who awed my father by playing NHL defense with glasses on and coaching the Blues -- for parts of three seasons during a coaching carousel -- before he joined the Isles.

My favorite Arbour tale involves what his old coach, boss (as Blues GM) and friend Scotty Bowman told him when he was considering taking the Islanders job: "You take that Islanders job, you'll be losing for ten years," Bowman said.

Ten years later, Arbour was tying the bow on his fourth consecutive Stanley Cup while Bowman was struggling in Buffalo. How about them apples? (Speaking of apples, was there anything cooler than watching Arbour walk across the ice for the handshake in 1993 after his upstart Islanders just ended Bowman's bid at a dynasty with the Penguins?)

So I was thinking the other day, as I read a Brent Sutter interview about the Flames -- Brent once hit Al with a pie at a urinal, by the way -- about all of the players Radar coached who became coaches themselves. Surely they should be good coaches ... right?

I remember when I followed the NFL, "coaching trees" were a big offseason topic. Disciples of Bill Walsh, disciples of Bill Parcells, disciples of Rick Koti-- um, er, scratch that last one. So disciples of Al Arbour oughta be a nice exercise, no? It's August, anyway. Here's a look at many of Arbour's former charges-turned-coaches. What I learned from this research: The student has definitely NOT become the master...

Terry Crisp

Under Al: Crisp actually played for Arbour (briefly) in St. Louis and then preceded him to the Islanders by a year: By the summer Arbour was hired by Bill Torrey, Crisp was on his way to Philadelphia, where he'd pick up a couple of Cups but retire before the Isles could take one from his Flyers in 1980.

As Coach: Calgary, Tampa Bay, 286-267-78.

Today Center Ice subscribers know him as the cowboy hat-wearing color man on Predators broadcasts. But in his younger days he was a successful coach in three years in Calgary, leading them to their only Cup in 1989.

Red Berenson

Under Al: Red, the last man to score 6 goals in an NHL game, played with Arbour (as captain) and under him ever so briefly before he was traded to Detroit for Garry Unger.

As Coach: St. Louis (1980-82), 100-72-32

Berenson coached the Blues for parts of three short seasons. His best, 107 points in 1980-81, won him the Jack Adams Award when his Blues narrowly missed out on the regular season title to some team, let me think of it ... it's there somewhere ... oh yeah: Al Arbour's Islanders, who had 110 points. That year was sandwiched by two 60-plus seasons, and typically impatient and broke Blues management sent him packing.

Despite what Dean Lombardi says, Red's had quite the career at Michigan ever since.

Jean-Guy Talbot

Under Al: This one comes with major caveats: A longtime Canadiens player whose career was extended by expansion, Talbot was part of the revolving door at the helm of the Blues in those days, when the ownership ran through one coach after another after three-time Cup finalist Bowman took off. Talbot played with Arbour and succeeded him as coach but, naturally, was fired before he'd had a full season.

As Coach: St. Louis (1972-74), New York Rangers (1977-78), 82-90-28

Greg Gilbert

Cheers to Hockey1919, who pointed out I missed Gilbert in the original post.

Under Al: A 1980 Islanders draft pick, Gilbert joined the team in time to win the final two Cups, and stuck around until the late-80s exodus to Chicago where -- stop me if you've heard this -- Mike Keenan was collecting former Cup winners. A checking forward, his best stat year was 1983-84 when he potted 31 goals and 66 points. He never even broke 50 points the rest of his career.

As Coach: Calgary (2000-2002), 42-56-23

Gilbert's coaching career has included multiple stints in the AHL as well as that tenure with a pretty bad Flames team. (This was in the era when the Flames went eons between playoff series wins -- from their 1989 Cup win under Terry Crisp to their wild ride to the finals in 2004.) He was fired last summer as coach of Toronto's Marlies despite a winning record, only to be picked right back up by Philadelphia's transplanted Adirondack Phantoms. By the looks of his career, you'd think he wants another shot at the NHL, but he'd need the right connection and the right performance to get it.

Butch Goring

Under Al: Goring's impact on the Islanders under Arbour needs no introduction. He was the "final ingredient" to the dynasty. He was also one of the first true Arbour players to go into coaching, at the age of 36 in Boston.

As Coach: Boston (1985-87) 42-38-13, Islanders (1999-2001) 41-88-14. Total: 84-126-27

I don't remember a lick of Goring's tenure in Boston. With the Islanders, he was cursed with bad teams and probably a quick-to-scapegoat Milbury as his boss. I've read some reporting about that tenure that makes me think there were issues (aren't there always on losing teams?), but it would have been interesting to see if he'd been given more time.

Today Goring is a mostly beloved TV analyst for MSG and the Isles. He is also known to dress snazzy.

Lorne Henning

Under Al: An expansion Islander whose use waned by the 1980 and 1981 Cup-winning seasons, Henning famously assisted on Bobby Nystrom's 1980 Cup-winning goal, then admitted afterward if his risky pass in the neutral zone would have been intercepted, Arbour wouldn't have let him see the ice again.

As Coach: Minnesota North Stars (man it's fun to type that again) (1985-87) 68-72-18; Islanders (1995, 2001) 19-39-7.

Henning currently serves as director of play personnel and assistant GM for the Canucks.

Dave Lewis

Under Al: An original Islander beloved by Arbour and Torrey, Lewis is an example of "You have to give to receive." He was dealt in the Goring trade, with Olympian Ken Morrow ready to step in and the Islanders in need of a center like Goring. Lewis went on to the Devils and Red Wings before retiring in 1988, never having tasted the Cup he spent so many years chasing with the surging Isles.

As Coach: Detroit (2002-2004), Boston (2006-07), 135-83-21. Fortunately Lewis would lift the Cup three times as Bowman's assistant coach in Detroit. But when Bowman retired, Lewis took the reins and was given less than three strikes in the ever impatient Red Wings country. (Funny how his tenure coincided with goalies the fans ate alive.) For a coach with a .604 winning percentage, Lewis was cut no slack in either NHL locale.

Bill McCreary

Under Al: Did I mention the Blues ownership was a mess with its coaching situation after Bowman? Bowman became GM and got Arbour into coaching, but Bowman returned as coach briefly and then was axed completely. McCreary was one of three Blues coaches in 1971-72 -- another was even Sid Abel for nine games, the other was Arbour. McCreary was more a Blues teammate of Arbour's than a player he coached. Arbour's coaching skills did not rub off on him.

As Coach: St. Louis (1971-72), Vancouver (1973-74), California Golden Seals (1974-75). Career: 23-59-15.

Looking at the teams he was hired to guide, McCreary never really stood a chance.

Barclay Plager

Under Al: You maybe don't know this, but the Plager brothers are revered in St. Louis. Barclay was a hard-nosed, hard-hitting expansion hero, and his brother Bobby was a master of the hip check. Both terrorized opponents as a teammate with -- and later, a player for -- Al Arbour. When Arbour retired as a player, Barc was one of the guys who succeeded him as captain.

As Coach: St. Louis (1977-80, 1982-83), 49-96-33

A longtime assistant coach before his death from cancer in 1988, Barclay wasn't an ideal fit as a head coach -- though he rarely had much to deal with. His two turns of service sandwiched Berenson's three-year tenure. But talk to an old-time Blues fan, and you'll hear stories about Barclay, Berenson and Arbour like they're some kind of trinity.

Bob Plager

Under Al: Like his brother Barc (and for a shorter time, their brother Bill), Bob patrolled the blueline as Arbour's teammate with the Blues, delivering devastating hip checks that would make Andy Sutton look like an angel. He kept playing during Arbour's tenure as coach.

As Coach: St. Louis, 1992 (4-6-1)

Probably best to pretend Bob's coaching tenure never happened. While Barc was the serious one, Bobby was and is a joker. After a successful stint at their IHL affiliate, the Blues named Bob coach at the beginning of the 1992-93 season. Unable to deal with the pampered modern player -- Brett Hull was one -- Plager said screw it and quit after 11 games. He remains with the organization as a commentator, quipster, and generally beloved character.

Jimmy Roberts

Under Al: Roberts was dealt back to the Canadiens just 26 games into 1971-72, so he didn't have much time under Arbour as coach. But he was a longtime teammate of Al's during the Blues Cup runners-up years.

As Coach: Buffalo (1981-82), Hartford (26-41-13), St. Louis (3-3-3). Total: 50-60-24

Roberts is probably best compared to Bobby Plager as a coach. He did half a season for Bowman in Buffalo, did a full (but bad first-round exit) season in Hartford, and filled in as interim coach in St. Louis after Mike Keenan was fired. Head coaching in the NHL wasn't really his thing.

Terry Simpson

Under Al: This one needs an asterisk because Simpson didn't have an NHL playing career and so obviously didn't play under Arbour. As an associate for Al, he had the unenviable task of succeeding Arbour as Islanders coach.

As Coach: Islanders (1986-88), Philadelphia (1993-94), Winnipeg (1995-96). Total: 159-168-41. It never really worked for Simpson as coach. Succeeding Arbour was hard enough, but it went from bad to worse and he didn't fare any better with the Flyers or Jets.

When I think of Simpson I think of this game, an 8-0 Islanders loss at the St. Louis Arena that I witnessed in person -- in childish horror -- as my dad tried to gently explain that things wouldn't be the same without Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin and Al Arbour. (Arbour would return as coach just days later.)

I swear to God, my dad got me into this team and I only started to fully understand hockey just as the team was falling apart. This was the moment -- watching that red light turn on 8 times as the Isles rolled over to the Blues -- that I realized the Islanders really weren't destined to return to the Finals every year. It's been 22 years since that moment of actualization. (Thanks, Pop: You turned me on to two teams that have basically taken turns ripping my heart out for the better part of three decades.)

By this time, you might be thinking as I was: "Wait, all that success Arbour had with the Islanders -- didn't he mentor more future NHL coaches?" Seems like most of them were former Blues teammates. Let me know in comments if you know of any I missed, but I've searched Hockey Reference's database of 371 coaches (where I familiarized myself with awesome names like Dit Clapper, Odie Cleghorn and Sprague Cleghorn) to find any connections.

Still, there are three more to mention (all in the video below), including the one referenced at the beginning of this post.

In this 1982 Cup celebration, Trottier appears early, and the Sutter brothers are interviewed at about 2:37. (h/t to the legendary and never forgotten Islanders Army, who kept me connected to the team years ago.)

Bryan Trottier

Under Al: Nothing short of an absolutely stellar two-way Hall of Fame career.

As Coach: Smurfs (2002-03), 21-26-6. Well, he went to the dark side and paid the price under Sather's folly -- but can anyone blame Trots after how this organization has treated him off and on?

Today, Trottier's role as player development director for the Islanders has ended, and he awaits a new role -- a hockey-side role in his eyes -- but says he'll always be an Islander. Damn straight.

Duane Sutter

Under Al: The first of the Sutters to play under Al, the third of the Sutters to play in the NHL, "Dog" won four Cups in his first four NHL seasons at age 23 but almost didn't want to come to Long Island because of the "skyscrapers." He was dealt to the Blackhawks later in the decade (the Blues-Blackhawks rivalry at one point included four Sutters), where he was introduced to Mike Keenan, who would be in the shadows for his coaching tenure in Florida.

As Coach: Florida (2000-2001) 22-35-8. Not even given a full year in either season with a bad Panthers team, this remains D-Sutter's only NHL coaching experience. Keenan succeeded him.

Today Duane works with two of his brothers in the Flames organization. He remains the only Sutter to grow a playoff beard that has its own zip code.

Brent Sutter

Under Al: Two years younger, drafted two years later, Brent was probably the most talented of all the Sutter brothers. (Injuries shortened Brian and Darryl's career, so that's always a tough evaluation.) He also lasted a little longer into the Islanders slow decline before finally being dealt to the Blackhawks who were managed by Keenan and big brother Darryl. He won the Canada Cup three times. (And yes, I blame all those Canada Cups for accelerating the decline and injuries of the dynastic Islanders.)

As Coach: New Jersey (2007-09), Calgary (2009-present): 137-88-21*.

The most decorated of any Sutter brother coach (if you include World Juniors), Brent led Canada's WJC team to consecutive gold medals while also managing his junior team in Red Deer. I once fancied him as an Islanders coaching candidate, but he always made clear his loyalties were to his old Islanders teammates and not to the much-maligned organization behind the NYI crest. So dream on then.

When he was finally ready to leave his WHL team behind and enter NHL coaching, it turns out he wasn't ready at all: He spent two mostly successful but miserable seasons (regular season anyway) as Devils coach before doing a bizarre "retire" bait-and-switch to get back to Calgary close to home and under his brother the GM. Can't really fault him on the desire, but the methods by which he moved from Jersey to Alberta were, ah, "unsound."

* * *

And that, unless I missed someone (please let me know), is it. For a legendary coach like Arbour, I almost expect him to have influenced more players to become great coaches. Then again, it's often a grinder or a career observer who becomes a great coach -- it's hard to project where the next good one will come from.

And actually, come to think of it, if you played under Arbour you might have seen the job of coach as thankless and marked by long hours. So forget that, might as well go into TV.

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