Jack Adams Award voting appeared to be clear-cut, black and white, cut and dried this season. And at mid-season, make no mistake, it was.
Had you asked just about anyone around the all-star break which bench boss was deserving of the nod as coach of the year, it would have been nearly unanimous. New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz, fresh off winning the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals, had worked magic behind the bench. He had taken an Islanders team expected to sink to the bottom of the NHL standings and turned it into not just a wild-card contender, but a team fighting for top spot in the Metropolitan Division. He had pushed all the right buttons, helped put in place systems that had transformed Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss from second-string caliber keepers to top-tier Vezina Trophy quality goaltenders and flipped the supposed script New York was supposed to be following.
Thus, it was by no means shocking to see Trotz picked as the mid-season frontrunner by just about every publication of note. He was also voted top coach at the all-star break by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. And while for these honors he received nothing but bragging rights – the same amount one would expect from winning a three-legged race at a company picnic, but bragging rights, nevertheless. This is all to say that among all NHL bench bosses, Trotz was considered the best of the bunch at mid-season. Of that there was little doubt.
As we enter the homestretch, Trotz remains a frontrunner for the award, too. Arguably, he is alone at the head of the pack. His Islanders are two points off top spot in the division, trailing only the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals. They have a plus-32 goal differential and have surrendered the fewest goals against in the league, this one season after finishing with the most of any club in the NHL. The offense has been good, if not great. And Trotz has really turned what some viewed as a roster filled with a whole lot of nothing into a whole lot of something, and definitely much more than most would have expected in the aftermath of John Tavares’ departure to the Toronto Maple Leafs as an unrestricted free agent.
But to say Trotz is a lock to win the award, to say he’s the top candidate with no company around him, would be beyond foolish. As the season has worn on, several bench bosses have thrown their proverbial hats in the ring. Yes, the work Trotz has done borders on brilliant. Undoubtedly, he has spurred this team to greater success than anyone would have imagined. But the same could be said for several others, and it’s making for one of the toughest and tightest Jack Adams fields in memory. Just consider the candidates:
Rick Tocchet, Arizona Coyotes
A late and unexpected entrant into coach of the year contention, and a coach whose candidacy is based wholly on his team’s ability to cling to one of the final wild-card spots in the Western Conference. Entering action Thursday, Arizona is doing just that, one point clear of the Minnesota Wild for the second wild-card berth with a dozen games remaining in the Coyotes’ season. Most impressive about Tocchet’s year behind the Arizona bench is the way in which he’s helped his team respond to adversity. Faced with injury after injury – including the major, potentially season-sinking loss of goaltender Antti Raanta – Tocchet’s Coyotes have not only hung in the playoff race but have managed to leapfrog the Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche and Wild in recent weeks.
In order for Tocchet to have a shot at the Jack Adams, though, the Coyotes need to make it to the dance. It would mark Arizona’s first playoff berth since the 2011-12 campaign, and doing so during a season in which they’ve been more black-and-blue than nearly any team in the NHL would likely vault Tocchet into a top-three spot in voting.
Claude Julien, Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens’ coach has only earned passing praise in the face of Trotz’s success with the Islanders and the rise of a few other clubs. But Julien deserves to be in the conversation for all the same reasons the Islanders bench boss finds himself arguably atop the list of the league’s top coaches this season.
The expectations for Montreal were low, low, low, and not without reason. The Canadiens finished with the fourth-lowest point total in the NHL last season and their off-season adjustments included trading away top-six piece Alex Galchenyuk for then-struggling winger Max Domi, shipping out captain Max Pacioretty in a trade that was initially panned and eating salary in a Steve Mason buyout to acquire Joel Armia from the Winnipeg Jets. That hasn’t stopped Julien from coaching this bunch up and turning it into one of the league’s top possession teams and an unexpected wild-card contender, though.
Much like Tocchet, Julien will only earn consideration for the Jack Adams if Montreal makes it into the post-season. The Canadiens have a difficult road to hoe, but they’re in the fight and certain to stay in the hunt until the final days.
Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina Hurricanes
Put your hand up if you thought it was a troubling hire. And now the few of you who aren’t being honest, go ahead and raise your hands, too. Brind’Amour came aboard in Carolina without any experience in the top job on an NHL bench or anywhere else, for that matter. The concern was he would be a downgrade from Bill Peters, who opted out of the final year of his deal to head for Calgary. Turns out, though, that Brind’Amour went to school on what made the Hurricanes tick under Peters and has brought many of those same tenets to Carolina this season.
The Hurricanes have played a creative possession game, moved the puck well, defended scoring areas and limited opportunities against all season long, and paired with some decent goaltending – “At long last!” cries a long-tormented fanbase – Brind’Amour has Carolina primed to snap the NHL’s longest playoff drought. Truly, the only possible knock against Brind’Amour will come if the Hurricanes fail to make the playoffs. If Carolina earns a berth, though, one has to assume he finishes top-three in voting.
Craig Berube, St. Louis Blues
Jack Adams favorites have a tendency to be those who coach teams who had unexpected or surprising success. The evidence can be found in the past 10 winners of the award, more than a few of whom coached clubs that played above their heads en route to a post-season appearance. (Looking at you, Patrick Roy and the 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche.) But in a just world, Berube would deserve a top-three finish – and quite possibly a win – for his work in turning what was a locked-and-loaded yet somehow-foundering Blues team into a legitimate Western Conference contender.
Since Berube took over in St. Louis in November, the Blues are tied for the eighth-most points in the NHL and boast among the most impressive underlying numbers of any team in the league. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Berube’s work with the Blues has been transformative. And maybe that’s exactly the kind of season that should be awarded; truly impressive coaching of a good team that was, before changes, vastly underperforming.
The only possible knock against Berube is that he’ll coach only 63 games this season, to which we say: who cares? That’s three-quarters of a campaign, and he’s had his team operating among the best of the best since he took over.
Bill Peters, Calgary Flames
Franchise point improvement is generally a decent indicator of which coaches will get considered for the Jack Adams. That’s to say that if a team has a giant swing from one season to the next, say 20-plus points, that the coach is almost certain to be in the running. Well, turns out the coach on pace to guide his team to the largest season-over-season point improvement is Peters, who arrived in Calgary this summer and has turned the Flames into one of the Western Conference’s best clubs.
At their current pace, Peters’ Flames would see a 25-point increase from last season, a greater swing than the pace the Canadiens (24) or Islanders (23) find themselves on. More importantly, though, Calgary is playing excellent hockey under Peters. It’s not just a win or two here or there. It’s an entirely different club. The Flames control the play and have done so will poise all season long, and that can be tied almost directly to Peters’ arrival.
What could hurt Peters’ case, especially with all three of the Canadiens, Hurricanes and Coyotes potential post-season clubs, is that he’s coaching a star-studded lineup that has a great top-six and solid defense corps. It really shouldn’t, though. He’s been excellent.
Maybe most remarkable thing about the Jack Adams race this season, though, is that this list could keep going. Peter DeBoer’s San Jose Sharks have been exceptional, Gerard Gallant continues to impress with the Vegas Golden Knights, Bruce Cassidy doesn’t get nearly enough attention for the job he’s done with the Boston Bruins and Jon Cooper has the Tampa Bay Lightning on pace to flirt with the 130-point plateau.
So, is Trotz the frontrunner? Maybe. Maybe not. What we know for certain, though, is that this field is as deep as it has ever been, and no matter who wins, there will be at least a few coaches who can honestly say this could have been their year.