By Stu Hackel
It’s been a rough season for coaches. Eight have been replaced, three — Lindy Ruff, Tom Renney and Todd McLellan – have been injured and forced to miss some games, and then there’s poor Randy Cunneyworth, the good soldier who accepted the toughest coaching job in the league, with the Canadiens, which was made all the more difficult because they are no good and he’s unilingual.
With the NHL season heading down the home stretch, our thoughts also turn to the good work some coaches have done. These are the men who deserve consideration for the Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year.
This can be a dubious award. You look at the list of winners and see that it provides no job security for the winners. Ted Nolan in Buffalo? Gone before the start of the next season. Red Berenson in St. Louis? Gone in less than a season. Brian Sutter in St. Louis, Bill Barber in Philadelphia, and Bob Murdoch in Winnipeg? Gone after the following season. Bobby Kromm with Detroit, Orval Tessier in Chicago, Tom Watt in Winnipeg and Bobby Francis in Phoenix? Gone in less than two. Pat Burns in Boston? Two seasons plus eight games. It was Burns, the only three-time winner, who famously after his first Jack Adams campaign, his rookie season coaching Montreal in 1988-89, “I didn’t want to be coach of the year. I wanted to be coach for a year.”
And then there is the curious fact that some of the game’s very best coaches didn’t win the award as often as they should have. One of the hardest things for a coach to do is to keep a successful team successful, but that’s rarely recognized. Scotty Bowman, the greatest of all, won the Jack Adams Award only twice. Al Arbour, criminally, only once. Mike Babcock, who has probably been the league’s best for several years, hasn’t won it yet.
Those anomalies are likely because the NHL Broadcasters Association, which is in charge of the award, generally selects a coach whose season is marked by a conspicuously measurable result. If a coach guides a team to a big improvement over the previous year, he’ll get very serious consideration. So will a coach who has been able to keep his team winning despite serious obstacles, such as many and/or key injuries to his players, such as Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma did last season and is doing again, or getting his team to play well despite the franchise’s off-ice problems, as Dave Tippett did two seasons ago in Phoenix.
Those are really good standards, and it’s hard to fault them. They reflect excellent coaching. But they also tend to shortchange some guys who more consistently push the right buttons and get strong outcomes year after year. So, with that as preamble, here are some names that have to be considered this season — and it’s an unusually long list with no clear-cut favorite. In alphabetical order:
Mike Babcock – Babcock hasn’t done anything extraordinary this season, like get the Red Wings to make a big jump in the standings, although he has had to contend with a longer than usual injury list that has included many of his core players at various times. (Nick Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Jimmy Howard are all out at the moment.) But he’s figured out how to the keep this talented group at or near the top of the league once again, and from getting complacent, motivating both his stars and his role players to consistently give their best, perhaps more consistently than most teams. That deserves recognition.
Dan Bylsma – Once again, the Penguins’ coach has had to contend with major injuries to key players, including Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang, his best forward and defenseman respectively. And once again, the Penguins are solidly in the playoff mix, with hopes that their returning players will boost them further in the spring. It doesn’t seem to matter who is in or out of the lineup. Bylsma’s message and preparation always make the Pens a tough team to play against, and their belief in what he preaches in the room is reflected by how well they respond.
Peter DeBoer – The Devils pledged allegiance to Jacques Lemaire last season in an impressive second-half spurt that fell short after a poor start. No one could follow that act with ease, but DeBoer has gotten the Devs to buy into a more open offensive system while still maintaining the club’s traditional defensive acumen. He’s also earned their respect with his communication skills. With an 11-6-6 mark since the All-Star break, New Jersey has had a bounce-back season with a rookie defenseman (Adam Larsson) leading them in ice time and a blue line corps that is hardly up to the standards of the Stanley Cup years. DeBoer has inspired confidence and it shows everywhere, from a rejuvenated Marty Brodeur on out.
Kevin Dineen – One of the league’s big surprises, the Panthers lead the Southeast — and they haven’t been in the playoffs since 2000. But Dineen, a first-year coach, has had to deal with a massive rebuild as the front office brought in a plethora of new players, many on big contracts, who could easily have taken life in Florida to be a vacation. Instead, he brought his own determined playing style to the bench and imparted it to this group of castoffs, getting them to gel and find chemistry. They’re fun to watch.
Glen Gulutzan – There’s not alot of offensive talent or flair in Dallas. Gulutzan has one line (Loui Eriksson, Mike Ribeiro, and Michael Ryder) and one other point producer (Jamie Benn) to work with. The Stars have also had injury woes, but the first-year coach has fashioned a hard-working group that has started to play a consistent game at home and on the road, and could be peaking at the right time. This club has had to play in front of more empty seats than teams from Dallas are accustomed to seeing and live though some ownership challenges, but Gulutzan has opened the lines of communication and kept the players focused and always improving. They now top the Pacific Division and are the NHL’s hottest team.
Ken Hitchock – This one’s pretty obvious. Hitchcock took over for Davis Payne when the Blues were going nowhere and turned them around immediately, much like Bruce Boudreau did with the Capitals when he won the Jack Adams in 2008. On the fly, Hitchcock slashed their goals-against, improved their special teams play, installed a 200-foot system, and got the players to buy in fully. This was always a team with talent and he’s getting it out of the roster. St. Louis missed the playoffs last year, and with mostly the same personnel, is now tied for first overall.
Paul MacLean – No one expected much from the young Senators this season, perhaps not even the organization itself. But they’ve been one of the NHL’s big surprises and MacLean has been a huge part of that. He’s managed the expectations very well, and his long NHL playing and coaching experience has informed this group, giving it direction. He’s provided a big change in culture from the tense atmosphere he inherited and put the Sens on an upward path. For a first-year head coach, that’s very impressive.
Claude Noel – A tireless worker in his first full season (he coached Columbus for 24 games in 2009-10) , the Jets’ bench boss has had to contend with the adjustments of a relocated franchise, long travel for division games, and the usual ups and downs of a season. Noel is a different kind of guy, very cerebral, and, like Fred Shero, sometimes thinks far ahead of the moment. But he’s in it enough to have the Jets in the playoff fight, which is something they had big problems doing as the Thrashers. With nine of their last 16 games on the road, where they’ve struggled, his team’s fate (and his own as far as this award is concerned) may hinge on how well Winnipeg does away from the MTS Centre.
John Tortorella – Everyone calls him the NHL’s most demanding coach, but he’s got the Rangers responding to his demands. This isn’t a club with overwhelming star talent but it plays with a great team concept, starting with blocking shots — something that Torts tells his players they must do or they won’t play. Exacting in the little details that he drills into his troops, especially their defensive assignments, he’s driven this team — which has a good blend of youth, experience and some fresh faces — much further than most expected this season. The Rangers have a sizable lead atop the Eastern Conference.
Barry Trotz – He’s never won the Adams, but no one gets more out of his players game after game and season after season — and the Predators haven’t always had much to work with. Built from the goal on out, his Preds remain one of the league’s toughest opponents and a club that doesn’t beat itself. With another solid season in the league’s toughest division, Trotz is closing in on 500 victories, something only 16 other coaches have managed in NHL history.
This is a big group and all are worthy of consideration. There’s still a month of hockey to be played so some of them might push ahead of the others. But with all the turmoil in their profession, these guys are lookin’ good.
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