March 31, 2009
Last season, the Jack Adams Award for NHL coach of the year came down to the man behind arguably the most talented bench in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings; the former player-turned-coach whose transitional system and game management led the Montreal Canadiens to the top of the standings; and a charismatic, grandfatherly former "Slap Shot" extra who rose from minor league obscurity and orchestrated a stunning turnaround that brought the Washington Capitals from stumbling underachievement to a Southeast Division championship.
Even if you don't remember who won, you probably know who won by the biography.
The award is given annually to the coach who is "adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success," which is a bit like trying to hand out "best director" at the Oscars: No matter how much guidance and framework are provided to the players, and no matter how much psychology is practiced and tough decisions are made, there's always going to be arguments over whether the man makes the team or whether the team makes the man.
Just like the Academy Awards, it sometimes just comes down to the best storyline. Bruce Boudreau's was a Hollywood fairytale; Mike Babcock was, in contrast, the steady professional who led his team to a wire-to-wire conference title. Boudreau won the hearts.
Having coached the Sharks to a franchise-record 109 points (and counting), it's somewhat surprising that McLellan doesn't seem to get a lot fanfare for the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year. That could be in part because people assumed San Jose would have a great season, and the Jack Adams nominees are often guys whose teams did much better than expected.
Exactly. In an extraordinarily crowded field for the award, there seems to be more disqualifiers than legitimate defenses for a coach's candidacy. Coming up, a look at some of the general arguments against guys who are vying for the Adams.
In the meantime: Who is your pick for coach of the year?
A few of the "disqualifiers" for this year's crop of candidates, some of which seem like annual gripes.
Their Teams Are Too Talented
Babcock no doubt lost the award last season because he was a coach guilty of getting the best out of the best. As we wrote:
Knocking Babcock because he has an amazing array of talent at his disposal is rather unfair. It's the "Joe Montana Theory": It's one thing to be surrounded by talent, but it takes real skill and aptitude to utilize it.
But that's an argument few coaches whose teams are "expected" to win ever hear in their favor from voters. Babcock from the Wings, McLellan from the Sharks, Boudreau from the Capitals and perhaps even Mike Keenan from the Calgary Flames aren't going to get the credit they deserve because the talent on the roster promised their success on paper.
Anyone Can Play The Trap!
Rightly or wrongly -- and mostly wrongly -- some coaches are always going to get hit with the "defensive system" knock regarding their team's success. Never mind that Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins (second in the League in goals scored) and Brent Sutter of the New Jersey Devils (12th in goals) have led their teams to impressive offensive seasons along with their expected defensive responsibility. Those guys, and Ken Hitchcock of the Columbus Blue Jackets, will be seen as "playing the trap" by people who couldn't describe the defense if given a pen, paper and a copy of Jacques Lemaire's autobiography "Snooze: My Life as a Hockey Downer."
Ah, but here's the rub: Lemaire has won the award twice, with the Devils in 1994 and with the Minnesota Wild in 2003. Both times, his coaching helped turn franchises around (in the Wild's case, it was a 22-point improvement).
So if Hitchcock makes the postseason, he could still be in the running. Julien's Bruins went from the playoff bubble to the top of the conference, and Sutter led his team through months of Brodeur-less hockey. Impressive storylines will trump knocks on the systematic hockey with the voters, and these three guys have them.
Good ... But Not That Good
Yet where are the campaigns for Alain Vigneault, John Stevens and Paul Maurice?
The answer: Unless the turnaround is dramatic, being middle of the road isn't going to earn you the award.
That's Joel Quenneville's issue right now. He is, without question, a leading candidate for the Jack Adams based on how bad the Chicago Blackhawks were under Denis Savard and how he remedied so many of those issues after taking over. But this is a Blackhawks team that could still tumble from the No. 4 seed down to fifth; is that good enough for the coach of the year?
Small Sample Size
Bylsma is 14-2-3 after replacing Michel Therrien, and one expects that he'll garner support for coach of the year based on whatever that record looks like at the end of the season.
But the sample size is the issue: Can you really give a coach who led his team for 25 games the Jack Adams, even if his accomplishments can't be denied?
You Have To Be In It To Win It
Andy Murray of the St. Louis Blues has gone from the chopping block to the eighth seed in the West. Peter DeBoer has worked some miracles with the Florida Panthers, from his management of the goaltending to finding offense in a rather unthreatening lineup. Lindy Ruff and Randy Carlyle have done terrific jobs in keeping their teams in contention.
But there's a big difference between contention and the postseason (it's green and has 18 holes). For all the work Murray and DeBoer have done, it's hard to justify giving the coach of the year to a coach whose year ended after 82 games.
• • •
Those are the cynical reasons not to support certain guys. If we were to vote for three finalists, they'd likely be Claude Julien, Brent Sutter and Joel Quenneville, with Sutter getting the boot if either Andy Murray or Peter DeBoer make it. (If they both make it, we'd give the nod to Murray, based on the challenges he was presented this season.)
One guy who'll get the shaft: Terry Murray of the Los Angeles Kings, who has been a revelation this season for a team that needed one. No one's calling him a retread now.
Should be a wild race for the Jack this year. There's really only thing set in stone right now about the award: Barry Melrose has some long-ass odds.