At this point in our hockey culture and the award's history, the Jack Adams is less about being the NHL's best coach in a given season than an honor for the Most Unanticipated Success or the Greatest Feat of Perseverance by a coach.
For example, the NHL Broadcasters' Association last year chose Barry Trotz of the Nashville Predators, Joe Sacco of the Colorado Avalanche and eventual winner Dave Tippett of the Phoenix Coyotes as their finalists. (Hey, NHL Broadcasters' Association, try to stay up and watch some Eastern Conference games next time, huh?)
None of these coaches led their teams to a conference or division title. Tippett's was the only one with home ice in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
What they did accomplish, however, was to defy expectations and/or overcome adversity during the season. For Trotz, it was the annual smoke-and-mirrors routine of squeezing a playoff berth out of what's seen as a lackluster roster. For Sacco, it was coaching a collection of kids to a playoff berth well before anyone expected them to qualify. For Tippett, it was surviving ownership hell and a thrifty roster to lead the Coyotes to their best regular season in franchise history.
Pittsburgh Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma is the Overcoming Adversity candidate this season for the Jack Adams: Losing Staal, then Sid, then Malkin during the season; coaching through reality television stardom and the Winter Classic distraction; and leading his team to within reach of the conference and division titles.
He's an ideal candidate. Alain Vigneault of the Vancouver Canucks, within the context of the award, is not.
Sure, he won it in 2007, but that was with a team that surprised us. This season, he's at the helm of a 113-point juggernaut that's locked up the President's Trophy; and since they started handing out that hardware in 1984-85, President's Trophy-winning coaches have won the Jack Adams four times in 25 seasons — and once in the last 10 years (Joel Quenneville, 2000).
Yet there's a growing feeling that the best NHL coach might actually be the one coaching the best NHL team this season.
As of Tuesday night, the Canucks still had a shot at making NHL history: Becoming the first team in the expansion era (from 1968) to lead the NHL in goals for, goals against, power play conversion and penalty killing. They lead in GAA and the power play; they trail Detroit by a goal and the Penguins by 0.8 percent on the kill.
The Crosby/Malkin narrative is a powerful one for Bylsma, but if the Canucks are able to pull off that quadruple play, that's a hell of a check mark on Vigneault's side.
The case for Vigneault was made by Richard Loat of Canucks Hockey Blog, including:
Significant kudos need to be given to his in-season coaching to get the Canucks to the point they are today. After losing six defenceman in three weeks, Vigneault's team went 7-2 in that span. Rotating through 14 blueliners this season, Vigneault has fostered a system that boasts the leagues lowest goals against per game and highest goals scored per game. Now, while part of that is due to an improved goalie tandem, there is no doubt his blueline has been responsible as well. Despite a rash of injuries and issues and a rotating cast on the fourth line, he has consistently iced a team that amplifies their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses.
Vigneault rates consideration because he managed to steer the Canucks, admittedly a supremely talented team, to the President's Cup despite distractions like injuries to his defencemen and the constant roar of a neurotic fanbase and at least some media types.
But his choice for the award is Bylsma:
On the adversity side, Bylsma had to deal with losing Sidney Crosby(notes) and Evgeni Malkin(notes) to injuries for the last half of the season. Then he had to keep his players focused through the distractions of the cameras from HBO's 24/7 television series and the debate on concussions and head shots that raged around Crosby and bad-boy Matt Cooke(notes). Through all of that, the Penguins are still in the top four of the Eastern Conference, which makes Bylsma the winner by a narrow margin over Trotz.
Helene Elliott has Bylsma and Vigneault in her top three, but the LA Times columnist went with a different winner, albeit a familiar one:
Winner: Dave Tippett, Phoenix. Honorable mention: Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh; Alain Vigneault, Vancouver.
Tippett won last year and remains remarkably good at getting a lot out of a low-budget team. Bylsma had to retool after losing Crosby and Malkin and persuaded his players to play defense. Vigneault's Canucks have the league's best record despite injuries that have led the team to use a league-high 37 skaters.
Given the award's history, we'd say Bylsma has the inside track.
The Canucks suffered through injuries, too, but not the magnitude of the ones Bylsma coached through. Plus, "24/7" was a de facto infomercial for his coaching prowess and general good nature. Don't underestimate that aspect when it's a bunch of broadcasters voting for the award.
That said, a Vigneault victory would be refreshing, because so few quality coaches of deeply talented teams ever do win the Jack Adams. As Mike Babcock will tell you.