Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
With the plethora of individual trophies available to NHL players, there is always plenty of debate over who should win what award. Whether it’s debating who has the qualifications to win the Hart Trophy, or the defensive skills to pick up the Selke or the Norris, or who can fill the net enough to pick up the Rocket Richard, hockey pundits and fans alike have always been fascinated by the arguments that surround who should win each of these storied trophies.
One award that is difficult to handicap during the regular season is the Jack Adams Award, given out to the coach who is “adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success.” Unlike the Ross, Richard, or Jennings, which have statistics do the work instead of voting, the Adams is subject to a lot of perception on the part of voters. Of course having a team make a massive jump in the standings helps, but in the event that several teams do that in the same year, it can be very difficult to determine which coach was the biggest contributor to his team’s success.
Looking at the past 10 years, we have seen some weird happenings in terms of giving out the award. Two coaches who led their team to the sixth seed in the playoffs (Bob Francis in 2002 with Phoenix and Jacques LeMaire in 2003 with Minnesota) and one coach whose team actually fell from the first seed to the fourth (Bill Barber in 2001 with Philadelphia) have won the prize, but there have been plenty of meteoric success stories that have taken home the hardware as well.
Bruce Boudreau’s Capitals went from the obscurity of the 14th seed to a division title and a 3rd seed in 2007, and Dave Tippett led the Coyotes to a 28 point jump in the standings in 2010. With so many different types of coaches (and varying degrees of success) being good enough to win the award, it would be helpful to look at the average requirement to hear your name called on-stage at the NHL Awards.
Increase in Points
The average team, in their year prior of having a coach win the Adams, had 87 points. The year that their coach won the award, that number rose to 104 points.
Position in Standings Naturally it can be assumed that a jump in points would also result in a jump in the standings. Of the ten coaches who have won the award during this millennium, six of them led their teams from the outside looking in the previous season into the playoff promised land the next. Five of them took their teams to division titles as well.
In an interesting wrinkle, the first half of the last decade was dominated by teams who didn’t make a huge leap forward, as teams only averaged a jump of about two spots in the standings. The second half of the decade put a lot higher emphasis on the “standings jump”, as the average spots climbed rose dramatically to nearly eight. This was aided by Boudreau’s 11-seed jump and Tippett’s nine spot increase.
Teams went from an average seed of 8.3 in their conference up to 3.3, which would mean that the typical Adams winning coach led his team to a five-spot jump in the standings. The post-lockout league certainly has more parity in it (hence the bigger standings swings), and the winners of the Adams have provided proof of that assertion.
So now that we’ve established that a jump of about 17 points and five spots is good enough to qualify a coach for the Adams, we can begin to see some of the potential candidates emerging this year. Considering that teams who were already considered front-runners before the season began seem to get less consideration for the Adams than they used to, we can effectively eliminate teams who were pre-season favorites like Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh, Peter Laviolette in Philadelphia, Mike Babcock in Detroit, and Alain Vigneault in Vancouver.
There are a couple of other coaches who could be viewed as dark horse candidates, but should not be considered finalist material at this point. Terry Murray has the Kings in good position to knock off San Jose as the kings of the Pacific Division, but right now he’s being out-paced by another member of that group, who we’ll get to momentarily. Also, Jacques Martin will warrant some consideration as well, with the Canadiens right in contention in the Northeast Division even after letting playoff hero Jaroslav Halak go this off-season.
With those two dark-horses being in the conversation as well, here are the four favorites to take home the Adams this season.
On Pace For: 2nd in Eastern Conference (10 spot jump) & 104 points (24 pt. increase)
Boucher was part of a big-time changeover in the front office of the Lightning this last off-season. New General Manager Steve Yzerman brought with him from Detroit a hunger for winning, and Boucher was the guy that he tapped to get the most out of a group of youngsters and veterans who were coming off of a 12th-place finish in the East last year.
This season, Boucher may be getting helped by the impressive offensive exploits of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, but he has also managed to keep the team afloat while dealing with some extremely inconsistent goaltending from Mike Smith and Dan Ellis. He has put together some very productive line combinations, and with Ellis solidifying his spot in the crease a bit more lately, the team is currently on pace to dethrone the Washington Capitals in the Southeast Division.
Working in Boucher’s favor will certainly be the competition that he is facing from within the division. The Bolts are going to have to fend off the always dangerous Caps, but the Atlanta Thrashers have been playing much improved hockey this season, and the Carolina Hurricanes are lurking in the shadows after an abysmal season last year. If he can manage to lead his team over those obstacles and get to that division crown, then he would seem to be the odds-on favorite to pick up the Adams.
The defense might be an area that could undermine his chances. Putting together the right line combinations on offense is certainly a big part of coaching, but coming up with an effective defensive game plan could almost be argued to be even more important. Boucher has a lot of work to do in getting production from his blue line, and that will be worth keeping an eye on during the second half of the season.
Marc Crawford – Dallas Stars
On Pace For: 3rd in Western Conference (9 spot jump) & 106 points (18 pt. increase)
Unlike the Lightning, who have been generating some serious buzz since before the season about their turnaround, the Dallas Stars have been a team that has operated under the radar. With ownership problems dominating the headlines, it was easy to see them getting lost in the shuffle of a very strong Pacific Division, with teams like Los Angeles, San Jose, and Phoenix vying for bragging rights.
Instead of resigning themselves to their fate, the Stars have flourished under Crawford this season. Kari Lehtonen has been solid in net, Brad Richards is playing stellar hockey, and the team’s forwards have all really stepped up in a big way by playing a two-way style of hockey that has propelled them to the division lead.
Much like Phoenix last year, the Stars are dealing with the prospect of not having any salary room to make any deadline acquisitions, but that may end up being a blessing in disguise for this bunch. The team’s chemistry can certainly be pointed to as one of the biggest reasons for its success, and that is probably Crawford’s biggest accomplishment with the Stars this season. He has put together a group of guys willing to go out there and do whatever is necessary to win. Whether that’s scoring goals, getting feisty in the corners, or even dropping the gloves, he’s got 20 guys ready to skate through the boards each and every night.
The biggest hurdle facing Richards will be the stiff competition in the Pacific. All five teams are right in the thick of playoff contention, and that means that the Stars won’t really have any easy nights to fall back on in the tough months ahead. If they aren’t able to win the division, then that would severely undermine his chances at picking up the award, but it’ll be interesting to see how the final half shakes out for this bunch.
Davis Payne – St. Louis Blues
On Pace For: 5th in Western Conference (4 spot jump) & 98 points (8 pt. increase)
On paper, Payne doesn’t fit the criteria laid out earlier in this piece. His team is only projected to make a modest four spot jump in the standings after finishing just out of the playoffs a year ago, and the eight point increase is nine and a half points shy of where he theoretically should be.
The main reason why Payne is worthy of consideration is the way he has changed the culture of the Blues since he was hired in January. The team has always been known as a chippy bunch, but this year there is more subtlety to it, as Laura Astorian, writer of the Blues & Thrashers blog “Thrashing the Blues” can attest to. “This season, there seems to be more of an effort to return to the Blues’ heavy blue-collar style, but with a cerebral backing to it,” she says. Astorian also credits Payne’s willingness to teach his players for their turnaround this season, and this instilling of confidence by a coach who cares about them likely has helped them with the biggest hurdle that they have faced all season: the injury bug.
Another facet of Payne’s coaching style is the “high level of accountability” that he brought to the team, according to Susan Crosby of The Fourth Period magazine. “He is a confident and competitive coach. He doesn’t show it on the outside, however it is something that he has brought and is using to put his stamp on the Blues,” she said.
It’s impossible to tell exactly where the Blues would be if they hadn’t had as many injuries as they have, but when a team has had each of its six defensemen miss at least one game due to injury, and have been missing two of their best scorers (TJ Oshie and David Perron) for a good chunk of the season, the strain is very high. Even with all of the missed games, Payne has remained patient with the team, and has shown a propensity for leaving lines alone even if they are struggling, all in an effort to prove he has confidence in his men, and it seems to be paying off for them.
Perron’s loss has been particularly hard to swallow, according to Crosby. She also called Perron “easily the best player on the ice for the Blues,” and postulated that his absence has contributed to the overall ill health of the team’s special teams units.
While battling through injuries and still being a playoff contender certainly works in Payne’s favor for the Adams, it also could work to his disadvantage if the team starts to struggle, and it could also prove costly in the challenging division they find themselves in. With Detroit contending for the President’s Trophy and the Blackhawks starting to put together a run after early season struggles, the Blues are going to have a very tough road to hoe in the weeks and months ahead. It will be a huge test of Payne’s leadership abilities, and will tell us a lot about his coaching ability.
Craig Ramsay – Atlanta Thrashers
On Pace For: 8th in Eastern Conference (2 spot jump) & 98 points (15 pt. increase)
Like Payne, a quick look at the projected finish for Ramsay’s Thrashers doesn’t exactly paint a portrait of a slam dunk Adams candidacy. The two spot jump in the standings would be the smallest climb up the standings ladder to win a coach an Adams since John Tortorella brought the Lightning from third to first in the East in the 2003-04 season.
Aside from the 15 point jump (which is just shy of the 17.4 threshold), the main reason Ramsay deserves consideration for the Adams is that he has made some crucial decisions that have panned out well. With Ilya Kovalchuk gone, the team had to re-tool its roster into a more cohesive unit, instead of one that relied on its stars for scoring. This has paid dividends in a big way for Atlanta, as guys like Evander Kane and Andrew Ladd have been clicking on the offensive side of the puck.
In what may end up being the biggest call that a coach has made this season, Ramsay’s decision to put Dustin Byfuglien back on the blue line has been a huge boost to the squad. Not only has he played solidly defensively (in the face of a lot of criticism for his inability to do just that), but he has already set the franchise record for points by a defenseman in a season. Along with defensive partner Tobias Enstrom, he has fans in the south salivating over his excellent play, and Thrashers fans wanting Rick Dudley to “show him the money.”
The two biggest issues facing Ramsay’s Adams candidacy are the team’s relative lack of movement up the standings, and also the possible overshadowing of their surge by the Lightning’s excellent play to date. There is still plenty of time for Atlanta to get hot again after cooling off slightly in recent days, and it will be interesting to see if the two Southeast coaches end up cancelling each other out in the race to be recognized as the NHL’s most important coach.