It’s about this time of the season, when a handful of clubs have fewer than 15 games remaining and the home stretch is well under way, that the races for the major awards begin to crystallize For instance, as we noted earlier this week, the Hart Trophy race seems to be slimming down to a field of only five or so true contenders. Among them are the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl, Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon and New York Rangers’ Artemi Panarin, the latter a potential winner should his Blueshirts make the post-season.
But it’s not just the legitimate MVP hopefuls who are coming into focus. There are clear-cut frontrunners for most of the major awards. The Washington Capitals’ John Carlson has been leading the Norris Trophy pack for some time. The battle between the Avalanche’s Cale Makar and Vancouver Canucks’ Quinn Hughes for the Calder Trophy continues to heat up. The Vezina Trophy race, which features the Winnipeg Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck, Boston Bruins’ Tuukka Rask and Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy (hey, for better or worse, wins seem to matter), is starting to narrow down to the cream of the crop, too.
As the season winds down, though, the Jack Adams Award appears to be one of the most difficult races to call. Matter of fact, it might be one of the toughest coach-of-the-year decisions in recent memory. Consider that last season was a veritable no-brainer, Barry Trotz’s work in turning the seemingly basement-bound New York Islanders into a Metropolitan Division contender one the most stunning piece of coaching magic the league had to offer. The campaign prior, the award went to Gerard Gallant, who turned the expansion Vegas Golden Knights into a first-season juggernaut. And before that, it was John Tortorella who turned around the Columbus Blue Jackets and captured the hardware for the second time in his career.
This year, however, there’s been no similar story – or at least no story that seems destined to have a surefire Jack Adams ending for one bench boss or another. Instead, there are airtight arguments to be made for several bench bosses. As such, here are the cases for the 10 coaches who seem likeliest to win the award:
Bruce Cassidy, Boston Bruins
The argument is about as straight-forward as it gets. He’s coaching the best team in the league. Yes, the Bruins haven’t yet locked up the Presidents’ Trophy, but Boston has the inside track and is six points clear of the St. Louis Blues at a point in time where both clubs have 15 games remaining. In all likelihood, the Bruins are going to end up atop the heap when all is said and done.
If you really want to get into it, too, Boston have above-average underlying numbers and have managed to put up a top-10 scoring rate while having the best goals-against rate in the NHL. Cassidy didn’t reverse the fortunes of an already-talented club, so that’s going to hurt his case, but it's hard to ignore the continued success.
Jared Bednar, Colorado Avalanche
Here’s a rule of thumb: look at which teams have the best season-over-season improvement and bet on their bench bosses getting a long look for coach of the year. This season, Bednar stands to be one of those coaches. Last season, the Avalanche snuck into the playoffs with 90 points as the second wild-card team and managed to piece together a first-round victory over the Calgary Flames. This season, though expectations were much higher, Colorado is on pace to finish with 109 points. That’s a 19-point increase, tied for second-highest in the league.
The knock against Bednar from some corners might be that he has the gift of MacKinnon. True as that may be, though, the Avalanche are going through a rough patch with injuries and still managing to keep pace with the Blues for first-place in the Central.
John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets
Funny to think there was a time fans and pundits alike thought this was a hire the Blue Jackets would live to regret. Not only has Tortorella already won the Jack Adams once for his work in Columbus, he has as good a case as any coach for the award this season.
The Blue Jackets were expected to be a basement-dweller this season after the mass free agent exodus that took place in the off-season with Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene highlighting the departures. Instead, the Blue Jackets woke up Thursday one point clear of the New York Islanders for the second wild-card spot. That that’s the case given the laundry list of injuries Columbus is battling is nothing short of remarkable.
That’s the case for Tortorella. The case against, however, comes down to one word: playoffs. The Blue Jackets’ grasp on that wild-card spot is tenuous and the injury list feels like a ticking time bomb. If Columbus misses the post-season, Tortorella’s Jack Adams odds will go up in smoke.
Dave Tippett, Edmonton Oilers
Surely, you understand the argument against Tippett. Which coach wouldn’t do well with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in his lineup? And to that, we respond with, “Todd McLellan.” Talented as he may be as a bench boss, he failed to propel the McDavid and Draisaitl-led Oilers to the post-season during the 2017-18 campaign and Edmonton’s abysmal start during the 2018-19 campaign ultimately led to McLellan’s firing. Having two superstars in the lineup is no guarantee of success.
By the most-improved criteria, too, Tippett's Oilers are even with Bednar's Avalanche, but the difference between he and Tippett is the latter’s team was expected to be a bubble team at best. When reality is greater than expectation, it’s a prominent feather in a coach’s Jack Adams-candidacy cap. Tippett is holding some good cards.
David Quinn, New York Rangers
The rebuild is on fast forward in New York. The off-season signing of Artemi Panarin and acquisition of Jacob Trouba ensured that was the case. Of course, no one in their right mind could have fathomed the Rangers would become a playoff contender this soon. Next season? Maybe. This season? Yeah, right.
Like Tortorella – and Panarin in his pursuit of the Hart, for that matter – Quinn’s Jack Adams case is predicated solely on whether the Rangers make the post-season. If they do, it’s going to be difficult to ignore the abrupt turnaround. If they don’t, he should still be lauded for a job well done…and maybe buy Panarin a really nice, really expensive bottle of wine.
Alain Vigneault, Philadelphia Flyers
The case for Vigneault was partially laid out when outlining the reasons the Flyers have gone from a sleeper to threat in the Eastern Conference. But the reasoning doesn’t stop at his ability to install and get his team to buy-in to a system that has turned them from a basement 5-on-5 club into one that is among the top half of the league in a number of metrics. Because of that, Vigneault has also been able to author a significant season-over-season turnaround in Philadelphia. That, too, is flying under the radar, though. The Flyers had 82 points last season. They’re on pace for 106 this season. Given all current points paces in the NHL, no team has improved more. Matter of fact, it's one of the largest improvements in the past three seasons.
Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins
On paper, the knocks against Sullivan might seem the same as those against Tippett, but the reality is that Sullivan has had to work as hard as, if not harder than, any other coach. Only two Penguins have played in every game this season, and included in the absences have been Sidney Crosby (28 games), Evgeni Malkin (14), Bryan Rust (14), Kris Letang (eight) and Jake Guentzel (26 and out for the season). Sullivan’s lineup has been ever-changing, yet he has kept Pittsburgh in the thick of the Metropolitan race in spite of that.
As impressive as his work with an injury-riddled roster, though, is what he’s done with a defense corps that was considered one of the weakest in the league. Only four teams in the NHL have allowed fewer goals against than the Penguins this season and the own-zone effort of his group has been astounding. Jack Adams or not, full marks to Sullivan.
Craig Berube, St. Louis Blues
Has any Stanley Cup winner in the past decade had a greater air of one-season wonder about them than the Blues? Not taking a single thing away from St. Louis’ stunning run from worst-to-first, it felt as though the Blues captured lightning in a bottle and then…stood pat. The lone significant off-season move was the addition of defenseman Justin Faulk in the days leading up to the campaign, but not much else had changed. There appeared every possibility for a letdown. Mix in the early season injury to Vladimir Tarasenko and it looked like the team was going to slip in the standings and end up fourth or fifth in the Central Division.
But not so fast. Through a combination of a deep attack, excellent defending and Jordan Binnington proving he was more than the second coming of Andrew Hammond, the Blues find themselves first in the Western Conference and a challenger for the Presidents’ Trophy. That Berube is coaching the defending champions likely counts against him, but he’s continued to impress.
Travis Green, Vancouver Canucks
A young Canucks roster had all the makings of a team that was going to excite and play an enjoyable brand of hockey before eventually falling short of the post-season. Unfortunately, that is still a scenario that could play out with Vancouver even with the Winnipeg Jets for the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference and sliding due to four consecutive losses. However, if the Canucks get into the post-season, Green should probably get a little love. He’s found the right fits for a number of players in his lineup and pushed all the right buttons at all the right times to get his team into a position where a late run can help them lock up a playoff berth. He’s maybe the least likely to win on this list, but he’s in the conversation.
Paul Maurice, Winnipeg Jets
Among the losses on the Jets blueline were Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Already, that was going to make life difficult for Maurice. But then, unexpectedly, came the departure of Dustin Byfuglien for what was at first a temporary leave and has since turned into a possible decision to call it a career. There was every reason for that to derail Winnipeg’s season and turn this into a disappointing lost year in franchise history. Instead, largely on the strength of Hellebuyck’s goaltending brilliance, the Jets are in a wild-card spot and doing what they can to hold on with both hands.
Some may assert that if not for Hellebuyck, Maurice wouldn’t be in the conversation. That’s probably true, too. But that’s not going to change the fact that the Jets, with Maurice at the helm, have been better than expected given the upheaval of their ‘D’ corps.
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