We are getting down to awards-picking time when everyone picks who they think will and should win awards. Among the awards people will talk about at this time is the Jack Adams, which is given annually to the best coach in the National Hockey League.
Now, it should be noted that it stands to reason that the coach whose team is the best in the NHL might be the best coach, or at least be in the running. Ken Hitchcock and Claude Julien have both, for example, done pretty well this season by any measure. However, this is not the way in which the award is traditionally given out; instead, it’s usually granted to the coach that made the biggest surprise surge in the standings, and less often to the one whose team was hit with the most significant injuries.
Given the latter consideration, it is not at all surprising to see Mike Babcock’s name bandied about — mainly by people in the greater Detroit metropolitan area, but also Steve Simmons — as being a Jack Adams candidate. Perfectly legitimate to think so. Given how hard injuries have hit everyone of basically any importance on the team (they’re second in the league in man-games lost to injury, in fact), that the ship has remained anything resembling steady is kind of incredible. Among the Red Wings who have missed at least semi-significant time due to injury include: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson, Gustav Nyquist, Jimmy Howard, Johan Franzen, Danny DeKeyser, Todd Bertuzzi, Danny Cleary, and the list goes on like that. Basically, only Drew Miller, Kyle Quincey, and Niklas Kronwall have been consistently healthy from front to back.
But the problem with this is that through it all, the Red Wings have remained right where everyone basically thought they’d be at the beginning of the season: Firmly in the middle one-third of the league. That is to say, prior to last night’s games they were 14th in the NHL, having finished 13th in the lockout-shortened season, and that’s probably about what everyone foresaw. This doesn’t take into account, obviously, that by all rights based on injuries they should be lower, or that even with a team that was half-comprised of AHLers, they haven’t really slipped underwater in terms of possession for more than a dozen or so games here and there this season. It’s pretty remarkable and certainly praiseworthy.
Another problem with the case against Babcock: The Penguins are a better team that has actually lost about 100 more man-games to injury than the Red Wings. And sure, that doesn’t include Sidney Crosby, or Evgeni Malkin (who missed 11 games), but it does include Kris Letang (who missed 37 and counting) and James Neal (who missed 23), and that’s not nothing. So what of Danny Bylsma, who’s had to play with more of an AHL team than even Babcock, and has his team sitting fifth in the NHL as of Monday? I mean, if we’re judging on the basis of, “He kept his team good despite a rash of injuries,” that’s got to be a consideration.
Even with all the injuries, in fact, the Penguins’ corsi with the score close is actually up three points over last year. Then there’s Detroit, which has seen it drop about the same margin, despite moving to an easier conference and division. The Penguins improving considerably in this way despite it all speaks a lot more to Bylsma’s coaching job than the understandable letdown Babcock through which Babcock has suffered.
But I’ve always been of the opinion that this isn’t really a great way to judge a coach, especially if he’s barely sneaking his team into the playoffs in the hopes of keeping a lengthy streak of playoff appearances alive, especially if it ends with his team getting brained over five or six games by a vastly superior team like, say, the Boston Bruins.
Another name you’re hearing a lot as being worthy of consideration, and the guy who’s almost certainly going to win the award as a matter of fact, is Patrick Roy. Look, he took over the team and it vaulted from 29th in the league with 39 points from 48 games (a 67-point pace) to its current total of 94 from 71 (a pace for 109). That is a huge turnaround that cannot be ignored. But one must also consider that no coach can have that talismanic a turnaround in actual practice, and the numbers bear that out. The culprit behind the Avs going from a gutter to a mansion on the hill is luck; their share of possession has increased two-tenths of a point.
At even strength with the score close, Colorado’s shooting percentage has gone up two full percentage points (6.8 to 8.8), and its save percentage is up 28 (.909 to .937). That is a ton of extra goals scored and far fewer conceded, and it’s almost impossible to say that Roy had anything to do with it. Maybe adding an elite talent up front like Nathan MacKinnon helps you score a little bit more. Maybe you give him a little credit because he’s one of the greatest goaltenders of all time, but there are wild fluctuations of this type every season; Carey Price, for instance, went from .905 last year to .924. His coach didn’t change. His team didn’t get the No. 1 overall pick. And the Habs went from one of the best in the East last year to only being a little better than mediocre this year. Also luck.
The only true candidate for this award is obvious: Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper. He hasn’t brought the Lightning up as far as Roy has the Avs (“only” from 28th to ninth, as opposed to 29th to seventh), but he’s done it without quite so much smoke and a notably smaller number of mirrors, and despite the fact that the Bolts have had a lot of the same problems as Detroit or Pittsburgh.
Sure, they’re only 19th in the league in terms of man-games lost to injury but a pretty healthy chunk of their 177 belongs to a young buck outta Markham called Steven Stamkos, who was on a 68-goal pace when he broke his leg. Cooper had Martin St. Louis and Valtteri Filppula to fall back on, yes, but after that the leaders aren’t pretty or marquee: Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Teddy Purcell, Alex Killorn, Victor Hedman. Stamkos, in fact, is currently eighth on the team in scoring despite missing 45 games.
Despite the roster problems, which were not addressed in the offseason — thanks to almost no turnover from a team that drafted third overall last spring, which almost inexplicably sent that pick back to eviscerate the QMJHL for another season — Cooper got his club’s possession numbers to go up 6.7 points, to 51.6 percent from 44.9 percent just a season before. With the almost same players. And while he’s gotten a similar bump in goaltending (.909 to .935), his team’s shooting percentage is holding fairly steady; PDO is up to 101.6 from 98.6, compared to Colorado’s 102.5 from 97.6.
Not that this is going to change anyone’s opinions. The most important stat for voters are almost always the simplest ones to look at. For players, it’s stuff like GAA, points, save percentage, maybe plus-minus for Selke. For coaches it’s wins. Patrick Roy has a lot of them when he was expected to have very few indeed. Cooper’s having slightly fewer despite the same approximate expectations will therefore not enter into the discussion. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve it more, though.