Darren Eliot
Monday February 11th, 2008

There's no such thing as partial credit in the NHL, but with the trade deadline and final quarter of the regular schedule fast approaching, maybe it's time to look at the coaches who have done the best job thus far. In so doing, it is imminently clear that while the coaching position is the same across the board, situations differ greatly.

First, there are teams that came in with lofty expectations. Take, for instance, the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings coached by John Paddock and Mike Babcock respectively. Paddock was Bryan Murray's assistant and assumed the head duties after Murray moved to the GM's office. Paddock has kept the Senators atop the Eastern Conference despite injuries to key players and while dealing with the goaltending soap opera starring Ray Emery. Paddock has remained straightforward, helping keep his team focused throughout.

The same is true of Babcock in Detroit. His veteran crew has been the model of consistency for four-and-a-half months. Their focus has been impeccable. Babcock cited his team's "willingness to show up to work on a nightly basis" as the reason for their success. He knows he has a skilled group and one with so much experience that preparation isn't an issue. Still, his charges have been more attentive to detail this season. As Babcock put it, "When you combine hard work with skill, you're going to get results." The Red Wings are proof positive.

Then you have teams with debilitating injuries that have carried on admirably. Certainly the Pittsburgh Penguins and Colorado Avalanche fit that bill. Somehow, though, Michel Therrien with the Pens and Joel Quenneville with the Avs have been able to massage their line-ups and keep their teams moving forward.

In Therrien's case, losing goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and then Sidney Crosby was offset by some surprisingly superb netminding from journeyman Ty Conklin. That settled one issue. Therrien kept the locker room from feeling helpless when he turned to Evgeni Malkin -- a young star in his own right and last season's Rookie of the Year.

Therrien's approach was to sit down with Malkin and explain to him that as the team's best player, "It was his responsibility to make those around him better." The catch was that Therrien told him, "Having said that, don't feel that you have to do it all by yourself."

No matter the message, Malkin has performed in spectacular fashion, leading the Penguins to the top of the Atlantic Division on the strength of efforts like Sunday's four-point performance against the Flyers in a 4-3 victory.

Out west, Quenneville had the same starting goaltender/star player injury combination conundrum with Jose Theodore and Joe Sakic out. Then Ryan Smyth's ankle gave out and Paul Stastny missed a month after appendix surgery. Even with their top four players sidelined, the Avs have remained viable in the Northwest Division, trailing the Wild by three points. Theodore has been sensational after a sluggish return. Stastny is back in the lineup and the hope is that Sakic and Smyth could be back for the stretch drive. Until then, Quenneville will do what he has done all season: plug along, as in plugging people like rookie TJ Hensick into spots where they have the best chance to succeed and then watching them come through.

Finally, there is the surprise team category. Undoubtedly, the Phoenix Coyotes and Washington Capitals qualify. What Wayne Gretzky has done in the desert deserves recognition as does the accomplishment of Bruce Boudreau in Washington. Gretzky has brought together a bunch of fine young players led by Peter Mueller and gotten them to believe in themselves. The addition of Ilya Bryzgalov in November from Anaheim was the final piece to the team's confidence equation.

Gretzky committed his full attention to his coaching duties this season and the Coyotes have benefited. If he finds a way to get his team to win at home down the stretch -- the Coyotes are under .500 in Jobing.com Arena (11-13-2) while owning the second-best road record in the conference (17-11-2) -- Gretzky's group might just stun everyone and sneak into the playoffs. What a feat that would be in the ultra-competitive West.

The Capitals are authoring the story of the season, though. Boudreau took over November 22 when they were 6-14-2 -- worst mark in the NHL. Since then, only Detroit has been better. The Caps offense is fourth-best in the NHL since his arrival even though is has lost top centerman Michael Nylander. Superstar and franchise cornerstone Alex Ovechkin signed a 13-year, $124M mega-deal. Distraction? Ah, no. Ovechkin has 23 goals and 36 points in the Capitals' last 22 games, zooming to the top of the NHL's goals and points list. More improbable and impressive, the Caps have gone from afterthought to leading the Southeast Division.

So what did Boudreau change?

"Our defensive zone coverage is the same, but we're more aggressive in the neutral zone and up ice on the forecheck. The biggest difference is the mindset that yes, we're going to make mistakes, but now they'll be on our terms."

That's a great line in what is shaping up as the story of the NHL season. Coach-of-the-Year honors without coaching the entire season? Just an intriguing possibility at this point.

The Week Ahead

Boudreau's boys take on three Southeast rivals this week, all on the road. First up: the Thrashers in Atlanta on Wednesday. The two teams are separated by only one point, so the Caps can grab a little breathing room with a win. Then come the Panthers in Miami and the Lightning in Tampa Bay. With the Hurricanes (currently tied for second with Atlanta) facing the Bruins in Boston on Monday, the Penguins at home on Thursday, and Panthers at home on Saturday, the Caps have a shot at opening some daylight in the tightly-contested division.

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