Ranking nine candidates in wide open Jack Adams Award race

HC at Noon discussion on how good and entertaining Lightning vs. Bruins was, with a few words on fourth liner Anthony Cirelli’s worth to the Lightning, and why coach Cooper deserves more credit than you think for their success.

The Jack Adams can be a weird award.

Commonly given to the coach whose team exceeds expectations the most, often aided by excellent goaltending, the list of coaches who didn’t win it in a given season is almost more interesting.

Mike Babcock has never won the award despite reaching three Stanley Cup Finals in his career. Al Arbour, whose Islanders teams won four Stanley Cups in a row, took it home only once. Joel Quenneville guided the modern dynasty Blackhawks through their glory years and is the most sought-after coach on the market today, yet his one and only Jack Adams came when he was on the St. Louis bench in 1999-2000.

Meanwhile, six different coaches won the award from 2010 to 2015 and only one of them still has an NHL job today — Ken Hitchcock of the Edmonton Oilers.

Because of this standard, you’ll rarely see a coach repeat as the Jack Adams winner. In fact, that’s only been accomplished once and you’d have to go all the way back to 1986-87 and 1987-88 to notice Jacques Demers did it with the Red Wings.

The net for this year’s Jack Adams candidates should be cast wide and deep. Barry Trotz seemed to be running away with the award a few months ago, but as some other teams have caught the Islanders and written their own great story his candidacy is no longer a slam dunk anymore.

We count nine coaches who have some case to be this year’s Jack Adams Award winner, which by definition is given to the coach who is “adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success.”

Here is a summary for each of them, ranked.

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1. BARRY TROTZ, NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Even though he shouldn’t be considered a runaway, Trotz remains one of the top candidates for the award and should be a no-doubt finalist at least. Yes, he’s gotten excellent play from goalies Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, who have both improved their save percentages by at least 20 points over last season. But Trotz isn’t benefitting only from his goalies — the sturdier argument is that his goalies are benefitting from his great coaching.

Last season, the Islanders were a disaster on defence. Averaging 35.6 shots against per game, only the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs allowed more on average in the cap era. This year that number is down to 30.9 per game, which ranks as one of the 12 best defences in the league. As goals go up league-wide, the Islanders have improved from 3.57 goals against per game last season to 2.38 this season and are the first team on record to go from worst to first in this category. Sitting second in the Atlantic Division, the Islanders are back in the playoffs after losing John Tavares over the summer.

2. JON COOPER, TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

The most ridiculous thing about this award is how rarely the coach of the best team wins it. Trotz did it with Washington in 2016, but you’d have to go back to Quenneville in 2000 to find another Presidents’ Trophy winner who won the Jack Adams. Yes, Cooper’s Lightning lineup is stacked and expectations were rightfully high, but if he can’t win it in a season where they chased history, how could you ever build a better case?

Let’s start with the fact Tampa Bay looks likely to be just the third team in the past 23 years to finish with the best goal differential, power play and a top-three penalty kill – 1997-98 Dallas and 2010-11 Vancouver also achieved that, but neither of their coaches won the Jack Adams. The Lightning also became just the third team in NHL history to reach the 60-win mark in a season and in both of the other two cases when this happened the bench boss did win coach of the year – Scotty Bowman with the Wings in 1995-96 and … Scotty Bowman again with the Montreal Canadiens in 1976-77.

Past seasons aren’t taken into consideration, but that hardly seems fair if you’re also against giving Cooper the award because of how good his team is. The Lightning weren’t always this good and they did miss the playoffs as recently as 2017. He has grown up as a coach with the organization from the AHL, where he coached the likes of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn. It’s paying off this season in an historic way.

3. CRAIG BERUBE, ST. LOUIS BLUES

Hired on Nov. 20 to take over a disappointing 7-9-3 team, Berube has led a furious comeback that could still result in a division title. The turnaround wasn’t instant, though, as the Blues continued to struggle to an 8-9-1 record in Berube’s first 18 games behind the bench.

Since then, the only team with a better record than the Blues are Cooper’s Lightning. St. Louis is 28-10-4 since Jan. 3, have only three two-game losing streaks and none that lasted any longer. This neatly coincides with the arrival of rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, who has a 1.85 goals-against average and .928 save percentage since first stepping into the crease on Dec. 16. That’s the chief reason for St. Louis’s recovery, but it isn’t the only one.

The Blues defence has turned it on. Alex Pietrangelo has 25 of his 36 points since Jan. 1, while Vince Dunn has nine of his 12 goals in that time. Jay Bouwmeester rebounded and the Blues saw their defence improve from allowing 30.5 shots against per game from Oct. 3 to Dec. 31 down to 26.7 ever since. On offence, Vladimir Tarasenko had the shooting percentage turnaround the odds suggested was coming with 20 of his 31 goals coming since Jan. 1.

4. BILL PETERS, CALGARY FLAMES

We’ve already named three very worthy coaches for consideration, but how do you keep Peters off a list of finalists? The Flames may have underachieved last season in missing the playoffs, but they changed their roster in a big way with a draft weekend blockbuster that brought in two key pieces for this year’s roster: Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin.

Peters’ teams in Carolina always had good possession numbers, but those were never translated into enough goals or wins to make the playoffs. It didn’t begin smoothly in Calgary, with a 5-5-0 start that looked like it may turn off the edge of a cliff following a 9-1 loss at home to Pittsburgh on Oct. 25. But Peters ensured the team didn’t get too far off track, calling that loss a “wake-up call” in retrospect, and the Flames went 5-1-1 in their next seven games.

The knock on Peters is that Calgary’s 20th-ranked power play and 19th-ranked penalty kill aren’t very strong, with the latter getting a bit worse than it was last season. Calgary’s shooting percentage has risen considerably from 6.85 to 9.17 at 5-on-5 and their shot share totals have remained relatively consistent, so compared to the three listed above him there appears to be more of an underlying course-correction and less of a clear line to be drawn from Peters’ influence to the Flames’ vast turnaround.

5. RICK TOCCHET, ARIZONA COYOTES

The reality of his candidacy relies completely on where the Coyotes finish the regular season. With it looking unlikely now that Arizona will get into the playoffs – a fate that could be cemented Thursday night – Tocchet will be a long shot to win the award, but his accomplishments deserve to be highlighted nonetheless.

Only the Anaheim Ducks have more man-games lost to injury and their playoff hopes died a long time ago. The Coyotes, meanwhile, have kept chugging along with a 21-14-6 record since Jan. 1 that is 11th-best in the league over that time. They are a stingy team, though it’s hard to call them among the best defences in the league. Arizona allows an average of 30.7 shots against per game and, according to Natural Stat Trick, 130 scoring chances on the season which ranks 11th and 12th league wide, respectively.

Arizona relies on that defence and the goaltending behind it because their offence gets out-chanced regularly and averages just 2.54 goals for per game – a total less than the average number of goals they give up. They do have the best penalty kill in the NHL and that has vastly improved from their 19th-place finish on the PK last season, a sign the coaches have adjusted. The goaltending hasn’t missed a beat since Darcy Kuemper stepped in for an injured Antti Raanta, and you have to wonder how much of that is the individual skill set versus the team structure in front.

6. ROD BRIND’AMOUR, CAROLINA HURRICANES

After apprenticing for the lead job as an assistant coach with the Hurricanes for seven seasons, Brind’Amour’s first season behind the bench may end with the team’s first playoff appearance in a decade. The ‘Canes have usually finished with strong possession numbers in recent seasons without any of the expected offence with it. Their shot differential dominance at 5-on-5 has continued as the ‘Canes lead the NHL in CF%, but the offence finally broke through in 2018-19 as the ‘Canes have scored the third-most goals in the NHL since Jan. 1.

That is due largely to the breakout from Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, who crossed the 80- and 70-point plateaus for the first time. But the pickup of Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask has been a huge win as the Swiss native has scored 13 times in 34 games. But the team’s shot quality has appeared to improve this season as well – the Hurricanes are third league-wide in scoring chances and lead the NHL in high danger opportunities at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick.

Their defence remains staunch and allows the third fewest shots against per game, which has put goalies Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney in positions to succeed. There was a solid base in place already for this team to turn a corner, but it finally came together under Brind’Amour.

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7. CLAUDE JULIEN, MONTREAL CANADIENS

Not many would have predicted the Habs to be in playoff contention until the last weekend of the regular season, but with two games remaining they’re right in the thick of it. Julien has certainly benefitted by having Carey Price return to form with a 2.28 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in the second half, but there’s a bit more to their success.

In the first half of the season, Montreal surprised everyone with their goal scoring and the fact they were third in the league on Dec. 31 with 96 goals at 5-on-5. That helped Montreal stay in it with the 12th-best record in the NHL while Price was struggling along with a save rate of just .904, and while Shea Weber was out of the lineup for the first two months of the season. They are still fifth in expected goals at 5-on-5 in 2018-19.

Julien also did a great job at playing and protecting Jesperi Kotkaniemi, which allowed him to have a very strong first year as a third-line centre and will build his confidence toward future seasons. The obvious knock on Julien’s candidacy is that Montreal’s special teams leaves something to be desired, especially their league-worst 12.5 per cent power play that has not improved an ounce all season.

8. JIM MONTGOMERY, DALLAS STARS

As a first-year NHL coach, Montgomery has no track record at this level, but had a long history of success at the University of Denver and won two USHL titles with Dubuque before that.

Like Brind’Amour, Montgomery took a team with a good base that had fallen short of expectations a couple years in a row and brought them back to the playoffs. The Stars’ roster construction left the team with a dearth of scoring depth, so after a while Montgomery split up the top unit of Tyler Seguin with Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov and it’s given the team a new look.

The coach also had to navigate and manage the waters after CEO Jim Lites flew off the handle and railed against the perceived lack of production put together by the team’s star players. While Seguin and Radulov carried on pretty much as usual, Benn struggled with just four goals in the following 22 games until finally recovering of late.

Montgomery has entrusted defenceman Miro Heiskanen with some big minutes and the rookie has come through with 12 goals and 33 points. Dallas also continues to be a low-risk, solid-defence team – although they are 18th in 5-on-5 shots against, they are top-seven in high danger chances against. This has aided the great performances in net for Anton Khudobin and Ben Bishop, the latter of whom should get some Vezina consideration even if he only finishes with 45 games played.

9. GERARD GALLANT, VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

As the defending Jack Adams winner, there is virtually no chance Gallant will take it home again in 2019, but there’s an argument to be made he’s done an even better job with this year’s team.

This season didn’t start as smoothly as the entirety of their 2017-18 schedule went. Without top defenceman Nate Schmidt, who was suspended for the first 20 games, the Golden Knights went 8-11-1. But once they got their No. 1 back Vegas started to soar, posting a 15-4-3 record in his first 22 games.

In the first half of the season, the Golden Knights were still a high-event team and a top-10 offence despite last year’s top line falling well off its scoring rate and only having the new duo of Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty together for five games in the 2018 portion of the schedule.

More opportunity was given to Alex Tuch, who was Vegas’s top scorer at the trade deadline. Late in the season, Gallant also put both Schmidt and Shea Theodore on their off-sides and found great results.

It took a little longer for this team to come together than it did in the inaugural run through the league, but it feels like the magic is back. The acquisition of Mark Stone at the deadline made Gallant’s job a little easier and now they head into this year’s playoffs with expectations of another long run.

Gallant has similar special teams knocks on his candidacy to Julien as Vegas ranks in the bottom half of the league on the power play and is 29th in the league since Jan. 1.

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