Mendes on Sens: MacLean deserves Jack Adams


Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Earlier today, I posted what I thought was a rather safe tweet.

I assumed it would get a few retweets and comments, but I hardly figured it would generate a massive discussion. After all, most people in the hockey community are marveling at the job Paul MacLean is doing with an injury-ravaged Ottawa Senators lineup.

But within minutes, my Twitter feed was flooded with responses from Habs fans who were offended that I didn’t mention Michel Therrien’s name as an equally worthy candidate for the coach of the year award.

Upon further review, Therrien’s name absolutely belongs at the forefront of any discussion about the Jack Adams Award. Same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Anaheim, as he’s taken a Ducks team that finished in last place in the Pacific Division a year ago and turned them into the second-best team in the entire league.

But the question today is simple: Is Michel Therrien more worthy candidate for the Jack Adams award than Paul MacLean?

This is where there is a great debate.

From a Habs’ fans perspective, what Therrien has done is nothing short of remarkable. He’s taken a team that finished dead last in the conference a year ago and vaulted them into first place in their division this season. He did not let the P.K. Subban contract negotiation became a distraction at the start of the season. In fact, under Therrien’s watch, Subban is having a season that is worthy of Norris Trophy discussion.

But it’s not like what Therrien is doing in Montreal is completely unprecedented.

Since the NHL switched to its current playoff format in 1994, there have been eight other instances where a team finished dead last in the conference one year — and ended up making the playoffs the very next season.

In 2010-11, for example, the Florida Panthers finished dead last in the Eastern Conference. The next season – their first under new head coach Kevin Dineen – they ended up winning their division. Dineen was not even one of the three finalists for coach of the year award. For the sake of accuracy, here’s the list of the eight teams that made the playoffs exactly one season after finishing dead last in their conference:

1997 – Ottawa Senators

1998 – Boston Bruins

1998 – San Jose Sharks

2002 – New York Islanders

2007 – Pittsburgh Penguins

2008 – Philadelphia Flyers

2010 – Colorado Avalanche

2012 – Florida Panthers

And it’s certainly worth noting that Therrien has done this before, as he was at the helm of that 2006-07 Penguins team that completed a similar turnaround. But even after guiding those young Penguins to a 47-point improvement, Therrien did not win the Jack Adams Award, as it went to Alain Vigneault in Vancouver instead.

In fact, on that list of eight teams that have completed the similar turnaround to what the Canadiens are trying to do this season, only Pat Burns with the 1998 Boston Bruins ended up winning the Jack Adams. So for some reason, the voters — who are broadcasters from around the National Hockey League — are not impressed with the going from worst-to-a-playoff spot storyline.

Conversely, we have seen them be sympathetic towards coaches whose teams have been decimated by injuries. Dan Bylsma won the award two seasons ago, when he guided the Penguins to a playoff spot without the services of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for most of the second half of the season. And the voters were so impressed by the job Vigneault did with an injury-ravaged Habs team in 1999-2000, that they made him a finalist for the award even though his team missed the playoffs entirely.  No coach whose team has missed the playoffs has ever won the award, so for Vigneault to even be a finalist shows how much stock was put into his decimated lineup.

And those seem to be the best comparables for MacLean. The day after the Senators learned they would be without Erik Karlsson for the remainder of the season, Nick Kypreos went on Hockey Central and flatly stated that “this is not a playoff team, plain and simple.”

Nick was simply verbalizing what all of us were thinking. Sure the Senators could withstand a brief loss of Jason Spezza, but the double-whammy of losing Erik Karlsson would send this team into a tailspin. The public perception was that the Senators would be decimated by the injuries.

When Craig Anderson kept winning games in the absence of those two superstars, there was a lot of talk that the Sens netminder should win the Vezina – and possibly the Hart Trophy – for his efforts. But now it’s been almost a month since Anderson played a game and yet the Senators are still sitting in sixth place overall in the NHL.

At some point, we need to give MacLean the credit for this remarkable season. Right now the club is playing without five regulars in Spezza, Karlsson, Anderson, Milan Michalek (who led them in goals last season) and Jared Cowen (who would have been a top-four defenceman).

Those aren’t five part-time players who play a small role on this team. Those are five major players who could have helped this team immensely. And yet the Senators continue to chug along, thanks in large part to the system put in place by MacLean.

Would the Habs be in a playoff spot if they didn’t have Carey Price, PK Subban, Andrei Markov, Tomas Plekanec and Max Pacioretty in the lineup for an extended period of time?

I guess that is a hypothetical question that we don’t know the answer to.

But in Ottawa, it’s not a hypothetical question. It’s the reality. And it’s why Paul MacLean deserves the Jack Adams Award if his team makes the playoffs.

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