At the start of every NHL season, we are asked to make predictions about what may lie ahead in the coming year, a source of much amusement for readers after the fact when the reality of a 1,230-game season sets in. My inclination is always to play the percentages when it comes to looking ahead into a nebulous and unpredictable season, which is why I anointed Patrick Roy as the future winner of the 2014 Jack Adams award back in September before he had ever coached an NHL game.
There were two good reasons to like Roy’s chances. One, he’d put in the time learning the coaching craft in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, something players of his stature are rarely prepared to do. Accordingly, it wasn’t much of reach to think Roy could make a difference on a young but talented Avalanche team that needed better focus from its emerging nucleus and far more consistent goaltending from Semyon Varlamov. But there was also a good secondary reason.
The Avalanche finished 15th out of 15 teams in the NHL's Western Conference last season, which meant there was nowhere for them to go but up.
And NHL broadcasters, who vote for the Jack Adams, love to reward coaches who preside over teams that make giant season-over-season gains.
The Jack Adams trophy was introduced in the 1973-74 season and in that time, 34 different coaches have won it in the 39 times it has been awarded. Pat Burns is the only three-time winner – Scotty Bowman, Pat Quinn, Jacques Demers and Jacques Lemaire each won it twice, while enormously successful coaches such as Al Arbour and Joel Quenneville, among others, have only ever won it once each.
There is something about supporting consistent year-over-year coaching success that the voters tend to dismiss.
So, for example, the Detroit Red Wings’ Mike Babcock is finally getting some notice for the Jack Adams trophy this year because Babcock has his injury-gutted team in contention for a playoff spot. Last Friday, Babcock earned his 413th win with the Red Wings, tying him with none other than Jack Adams for the most in franchise history. And yet he has never won the Jack Adams trophy. Some believe this may be Babcock’s finest coaching effort, but it still might not be enough to get him a coach-of-the-year award.
Detroit is remarkable because it has made the playoffs in 22 consecutive years. Next on the list is the San Jose Sharks, who have had Todd McLellan behind the bench since the 2008-09 season. McLellan’s Sharks are also a model of consistency, and currently chasing the Anaheim Ducks for top spot in the Pacific.
Ducks’ coach Bruce Boudreau is another legitimate candidate that frequently gets overlooked. Boudreau has one Jack Adams on his resume, dating back to his NHL season when he took over the Washington Capitals mid-season from Glen Hanlon and got them unexpectedly to the playoffs. He has had a remarkable winning percentage ever since but like Babcock and McLellan, his accomplishments have been easy to overlook because the Ducks are considered to be an elite NHL team. But Anaheim has had its injury issues this year – mostly on defence – which have forced them to play a number of youngsters, all of whom have developed nicely and seem to gotten the job done.
Once you get past Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, the Ducks’ elite level talent drops way off. And yet over the past two seasons, they have posted one of the best cumulative records in the league.
Every one of the above, along with the Boston Bruins’ Claude Julien, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Jon Cooper and even the Philadelphia Flyers’ Craig Berube, have done remarkable work with their respective teams.
But Colorado has been unexpectedly good and is currently red hot, even playing without Matt Duchene, their leading scorer. The Avs had won six in a row going into Sunday’s date with the Pittsburgh Penguins and following Saturday’s big win over the St. Louis Blues, Roy became just the fifth first-year coach in NHL history to record 50 wins. (The others: Tom Johnson with Boston; Mike Keenan with Philadelphia, Burns with Montreal and McLellan with San Jose). In that same game, Varlamov became the first goalie to get to 40 wins this season, which tied him with Roy for the Avalanche record for goalie wins in a season, established by St. Patrick in 2000-01.
It wasn’t clear what Roy’s presence behind the bench might do for the Avalanche goaltenders – help them, because he was one of the best of all time, or intimidate them, to the point where they couldn’t function. It has clearly turned out to be the former – and Varlamov’s play gives Colorado hope that they can find a way to navigate the playoffs in the tough Central Division and win a round or two, even though they will open against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO CRAIG BERUBE: Given how many qualified candidates there are, it is unlikely Berube will get much support for the Adams, but his influence on the Flyers’ turnaround after a dismal start cannot be understated either.
The Flyers were a 1-5-1 mess coming out of training camp and when it didn’t look as if it would get any better in the first week (0-3 to start the year), general manager Paul Holmgren made what looked like a panicked move, dumping holdover Peter Laviolette and promoting Berube to the top job.
Berube had paid his dues – in the minors as both an assistant and a head coach, and in the NHL, as an assistant. The effort and the will and – to borrow a term from Brian Burke – the pugnacity that he demonstrated in an NHL career that saw him get into 1,054 career games (and rank seventh overall on the penalty-minute list, with 3,149) was also evident in the way he learned how to coach.
The way things are shaping up, even after dropping three in a row, Philadelphia will almost certainly play the New York Rangers in the opening round, an attractive match-up in both markets, two old Patrick Division rivals that haven’t bumped into each other all that often in the recent past.
According to Berube, he first started thinking about a coaching career towards the end of his playing days with the Washington Capitals, when he and Dale Hunter would sit around and ponder their respective futures.
Among the coaches whose paths he crossed in 17 NHL seasons as a player, Berube said he was most influenced by two – Ken Hitchcock, now the St. Louis Blues’ coach; and Darryl Sutter, the Los Angeles Kings’ coach. From Hitchcock, Berube learned about organization and structure; from Sutter, he learned the value of direct communication.
“Hitch is a very smart hockey guy who’s been around and has been very successful,” said Berube, in a telephone interview. “I learned a lot from him and from how he approached the game. The other guy I really enjoyed playing for was Darryl Sutter in Calgary. I liked his black-and-white approach to the game. He’s just direct. I really try to be the same way. I don’t try to beat around the bush about anything. Whatever you need to tell a player or get off your chest, just tell them the truth and be direct about it and that’s my approach.”
Berube’s NHL career began in 1986, during the most freewheeling period in NHL history. Since then, the game was come full circle, to the point where now a frequent criticism of NHL hockey is that it is over-coached – and that the ability to improvise has virtually disappeared.
“There’s a lot of structure and that’s the way the game has to be played – I really believe that,” said Berube. “But along with playing the system thoroughly every night, you need hard-working and competitive players. If you’re not doing those two things, you’re probably going to be in trouble during the game, because it really comes down to hard work and competitiveness within the system.”
THE JOHN TORTORELLA WATCH: Ever since Canucks’ general manager Mike Gillis went on the radio in Vancouver last Thursday and criticized his team’s style of play under coach John Tortorella, much of the conversation on the West Coast has centred on Tortorella’s future with the team – and could he survive the debacle that his first season has been?
The answer is, in all probability, he can. The five-year, $10-million contract that Tortorella received makes it almost certain that they cannot tie the can to him right away, not with all the injuries they’ve had to key personnel, from the Sedin twins to Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows and Alex Edler. Vancouver actually wasn’t bad coming out of the gate and Tortorella might have miscalculated by overplaying the Sedins early, a tactic he was used to in New York that works with some star players and not with others. The Sedins aren’t the spring chickens they used to be and in an era where the game is faster than it’s ever been, cutting their minutes down to get 17 or 18 effective minutes from them probably would have made more sense.
So it has been a learning experience for Tortorella and a learning experience for the Canucks players and once the emotion of the season – and their inability to clinch a playoff spot – is removed from the equation, you’d have to think that everyone will publicly kiss and make up and Tortorella will be back in September, to see if they can’t turn it around. The bar will be set lower and the chance for some of their younger players to actually crack the lineup will be enhanced and if they get off to a decent start, all will be – if not forgotten, at least forgiven. And if it continues to spiral south, then mid-season will be time enough to swallow one of the largest coaching buyouts in NHL history. The Canucks desperately do not want to see it to come to that.
THIS AND THAT: Hard to believe that a player playing in Montreal could be having the kind of season Max Pacioretty is having and do it semi under the radar. Pacioretty has recorded three hat tricks already this season – only Joe Pavelski of San Jose and Tyler Seguin of Dallas – have managed to duplicate that feat. He is just the fourth Montreal player in the NHL’s expansion era to record three or more hat tricks in a season and with 39 goals, he has moved into a tie with Pavelski for third place in the NHL goal-scoring race behind Alex Ovechkin (49) and Corey Perry (41, going into Sunday’s game with the Edmonton Oilers). What’s more remarkable is that 29 of those goals came at even strength, just behind Perry, who had 34 even-strength goals and just seven on the power play. Ovechkin will win the Rocket Richard trophy again this year but Friday’s goal was his first at even strength since Feb. 27, a long five-on-five drought that partially explains why the Capitals will likely not make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference this year. If Pacioretty hadn’t missed nine games earlier this season to injury, he might be in the race for the goal-scoring title, a remarkable achievement considering all that Pacioretty has gone through to get healthy in his career. As it is, he ranks ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel, a far more celebrated goal-scorer, for top spot among NHLers playing for Canadian teams … How about this for a career revival? Ilya Bryzgalov, unemployed at the start of the season and unwanted by the Western Conference’s last place team, the Edmonton Oilers, is 5-0-3 is his first eight decisions for the Minnesota Wild, which picked him up at the trading deadline, largely as an insurance policy. With Bryzgalov getting the majority of the starts down the stretch, the Wild has solidified its hold on the first wild card spot in the West and if the season finished today, would cross over to play Anaheim in the opening round … Speaking of Minnesota, a nice but obscure milestone for Zach Parise in a win over Pittsburgh the other day. The first of two assists recorded gave him 500 career points. Zach's father, J.P. Parise, scored 594 points in his 14-season NHL career, meaning the Parises are only the third father/son pair in NHL history in which each player scored at least 500 career points, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The others are Gordie and Mark Howe, and Bobby and Brett Hull. Nicely done.