The playoffs are less than a month away, and playoff-bound teams are beginning to separate themselves from the pack, if only a little bit. Some teams have stuck at or near the top of the standings for most of the season, while others have had to dig their way out of early season holes back into playoff contention.
The success of some teams depends heavily on the man in charge. Here’s how one writer sees the race for the Jack Adams Award shaking out, in no particular order.
Jacques Lemaire, New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils were on pace for the league’s worst record with John MacLean at the helm, and by no small measure. The team was 9-22-2 in its first 33 games, at which time Lemaire returned to help salvage his former team.
The hiring was first thought to be an interim arrangement, the best case scenario being that Lemaire instilled at least a little fire into a team that sleepwalked its way through the first part of the year.
The response has been seismic. The team lost 7 of its first 8 games under Lemaire, and has since reeled off 22 wins in its last 27 games (22-3-2 since January 9). New Jersey’s overall mark since MacLean’s ouster is 23-10-2.
Lemaire’s effect on this club can’t be understated. The defense is playing at the level many expected when the year began, no doubt aided by the return of stud defenseman Anton Volchenkov from a prolonged injury. Lemaire’s defensive systems even helped backup goaltender Johan Hedburg run off a streak of 8 straight wins through February.
Offensively, Ilya Kovalchuk has finally started playing like the man who signed one of hockey’s richest contracts over the summer. Kovalchuk has hit the 25 goal mark after having his slowest-ever start to a season under MacLean. Brian Rolston, put on reentry waivers by the team a few months ago, has found his stride, as have regulars Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac.
New Jersey still ranks last in the league in goals per game and 26th on the power play, but never ranked higher than 15th even when they were winning division titles. The club ranks 10th in goals against (2.5 per game) and penalty kill percentage (83.8), numbers that were drastically worse under MacLean.
The club is currently 32-32-4, at .500 for the first time since the preseason and 12th in the East. While New Jersey’s climb out of the conference basement has been nearly unprecedented, the mountain barely gets smaller as other teams near the playoff bubble have begun playing better as well.
The Devils trail Buffalo and New York by 8 points for the last playoff spot, but have at least a game in hand on all the teams in front of them. With 14 games remaining, New Jersey will likely have to reach 90 points to hit the postseason, or 22 points in 14 games (the cutoff in 2010 was 88 points, 93 points in 2009).
That could require as many as 10 or 11 wins over their final 14 games. Not unthinkable, given their recent streak, but difficult given the recently improved play from Buffalo, Atlanta and Toronto. If the Devils manage to sneak their way in, there will be no denying Lemaire for coach of the year.
Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh Penguins
When the Penguins hit November with a middling record and no apparent identity, fans questioned the young Bylsma’s viability as a head coach. Since then, the team has reeled off a 12-game winning streak, has kept afloat in the absence of its best players and now finds itself a handful of games out of the conference lead with 12 games to go.
The HBO “24/7″ series revealed the players and the coaches to the world in ways only those close to the organization had known before. Among the series’ many stars, Dan Bylsma stuck out for his energetic approach to the game, his rapport with his players, and the detail-oriented approach with which he and General Manager Ray Shero ran the team.
Bylsma’s message of “grinding these bitches down” has been well-received. The lineup is comprised of players that fit Bylsma’s mold – tenacious, fierce on the forecheck and backcheck, painful to play against. In his second full season in command of the team, his players are fitting the mold he has helped to create, and that style is reminiscent of the way Bylsma carved out his own playing career in the NHL.
The focus on defense was facilitated by Ray Shero when he acquired Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek during the offseason, and Bylsma’s club responded. The team is 5th in goals against (2.4 per game) and has had the top-ranked penalty kill for most of the season, currently at 87.1 percent.
Bylsma’s popularity with the players can’t be understated. Former coach Michel Therrien was unpopular with his players by all accounts, and by the middle of the 2009 season was stuck in 10th place with the same squad that had been to the Cup finals the previous year. Bylsma entered the picture, and it goes without saying that the team responded (Bylsma was also voted “coach you would most like to play for” by NHL players in a survey taken at the All-Star break).
This season, Bylsma’s systems have been at the fore, as key personnel have been felled by injury all year long. The complete list of Penguins to have missed 10 or more games this year – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik, Jordan Staal, Zbynek Michalek, Chris Kunitz, Mike Comrie, Arron Asham and Mark Letestu. AHL callups Nick Johnson and Eric Tangradi have also missed significant time with injury, as has Dustin Jeffrey, who figures to remain with the team for the rest of the year. The Penguins are north of 270 man-games lost to injury.
Pittsburgh trails Philadelphia by 3 points for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference titles. If the team keeps up its current pace, it figures to finish at 4th or 5th in the conference. In the absence of so many key players for such great lengths of time, Bylsma is a strong candidate for the Jack Adams.
Peter Laviolette, Philadelphia Flyers
More Atlantic Division love, but like Bylsma and Lemaire, Laviolette inherited a talented but overachieving team in the middle of a poor season and turned things around.
His Flyers club, though stumbling of late, has been at the top of the Eastern Conference for most of the season. His uptempo approach to the game is built to succeed in the post-lockout NHL, and the results are evident. After trading turns with Pittsburgh through December and early January, Philadelphia has held the Eastern Conference lead without contest.
Laviolette’s club may feature the deepest group of forwards in the league. The club is fourth overall in goals scored (3.2 per game) and feature the third-best goal differential in the NHL (plus-37). His roster includes 9 players with 10 or more goals and 3 players with 20 or more goals. Mike Richards (19), Scott Hartnell (19) and James Van Riemsdyk (16) all have a shot at 20 goals for the season, while Danny Briere (29) has a chance to join Jeff Carter in the 30-goal club.
Defensively, the team has also been strong behind Kimmo Timonen, Chris Pronger and Andrej Meszaros, ranking 12th in goals against (2.6 per game) and 10th on the penalty kill (83.3 percent). The combination of a strengthened defense and relentless forward lines has helped to keep the pressure off of goaltenders Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher, both of whom have enjoyed excellent seasons.
The team sits at 42-19-7. Its 91 points through 68 games are already 3 more than it had all of last season, when it needed a shootout victory to sneak into the playoffs with just 88 points. Despite the recent lull, Laviolette’s systems have his team sitting comfortably with 14 games to go. The Flyers have games in hand on Boston, Pittsburgh and Washington (its three closest competitors), and GM Paul Holmgren further bolstered the club for a playoff run with the acquisition of Kris Versteeg prior to the trade deadline.
Even with the talented cast at his disposal, the turnaround that occurred once Laviolette took over last season has remained consistent, spawning a Stanley Cup berth last year and a shot at the President’s Trophy this season. The team’s consistent plays is a testament to Laviolette’s handle of his group.
Dave Tippett, Phoenix Coyotes
Amidst swirling relocation rumors for the second straight year, Tippett has kept the Coyotes in playoff position in the hotly contested Western Conference. Tippett took the team to its first playoff appearance in years a season ago, and has kept the ship steady throughout the tumultuous 2010-11 season.
At 36-23-11 through 70 games, Phoenix is only 3 points removed from 9th place and 2 points removed from 4th place. Such is life in the west. Tippett’s club is 4-4-2 over its last 10 but has won two straight, soundly defeating the Anaheim Ducks Monday to the tune of 5-2.
Last year’s Jack Adams award winner, Tippett’s teams have never finished worse than third in their respective divisions (coached Dallas Stars from 2002-2009, two division titles). In his first year with Phoenix, Tippet led the club to a 50-25-7 mark, good for 107 points.
While the team is off the pace from a season ago, the record can be attributed to the strength of its’ conference opponents. The most remarkable thing about the team’s success this season has been the environment in which they have played. Phoenix ranks second to last in home attendance. Rumors of relocation continue to circle the club. The NHL will not fund the team a nickle past this season, and ownership and arena lease issues still hang in limbo.
If players might be wondering whether they’ll have to scour the Winnipeg home market in the coming months, one can call them distracted. Tippett has kept the club focused enough to stay in the playoff hunt with less than a month in the season, something Wayne Gretzky couldn’t do in his time behind the bench.
If Phoenix escapes the crowd and manages to make some noise in this year’s playoffs, Tippett should again be a finalist for the award.
Mike Babcock, Detroit Red Wings
Always a contender, Babcock’s bunch endured another injury-filled middle of the season yet sit comfortably in the West. In five-plus seasons with the Red Wings, Babcock finished worse than first in the Central Division only once, ending last season in second behind the eventual champion Blackhawks.
Through 69 games this season, the Red Wings have eclipsed 40 wins (41-20-8, 90 points) despite the absences of key players earlier in the year. Pavel Datsyuk, Chris Osgood, Brad Stuart, Mike Modano, Danny Cleary, Brian Rafalski, Patrick Eaves and Kris Draper have all missed significant time due to injuries, yet the Wings haven’t relinquished control of the Central Division all season.
A testament to consistency, Detroit has endured only two streaks of three or more losses this season, and hasn’t gone more than three games without acquiring at least one point.
The Jack Adams award is only handed out annually, but the Wings’ consistency under Babcock can’t be dismissed. The team is in line for its fifth division title in six years and holds a 6-point lead over Chicago for this year’s title.
Babcock’s team can score – better than anyone, actually. The club is first overall in goals scored (3.2 per game) and have the 5th-best power play (21.1 percent), and field a plus-28 goal differential despite ranking 18th in goals and 15th on the penalty kill.
Any coach whose team can pull away from the West crowd and do it with a considerable amount of injuries deserves consideration.
Alain Vigneault, Vancouver Canucks – The Canucks are playing better hockey than anyone and have opened up an eight point lead for the President’s Trophy, but its hard not to win when you’ve got four of the league’s best players (Sedins, Luongo, Kesler) who have stayed healthy and are having career years.
Guy Boucher, Tampa Bay Lightning – Tampa is having an unreal turnaround from last season, from missing the playoffs to contending for the Southeast Division title. Boucher’s system is playing well to the strengths of Stamkos, St. Louis and others. Can’t ignore the job GM Steve Yzerman has done, either.
Bruce Boudreau, Washington Capitals – Growing pains for most of the season, the club seems to be finally responding to his calls for a more defensive style of hockey. Even if they finish the season at the top of the conference (8-game winning streak puts them a point behind Philadelphia as of Tuesday morning), Boudreau’s job security will be depend on the postseason.