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(JASON COHN)
(JASON COHN)

Plenty of candidates for NHL coach of the year Add to ...

If you want to amuse yourself for a while, try to figure out who should be the NHL's coach of the year.

This season's race, which will be decided by members of the NHL Broadcasters' Association, is the closest in years. While it is common for the award to go to the head coach whose team shows the most dramatic improvement, which is why Scotty Bowman only won twice, there are several candidates who managed to guide their teams through much adversity, which makes it difficult for the voters.

There are at least five solid candidates and a case can be made for three or four others.

At the top of the list are Dan Bylsma of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Barry Trotz of the Nashville Predators, Alain Vigneault of the Vancouver Canucks, Dave Tippett of the Phoenix Coyotes and Guy Boucher of the Tampa Bay Lightning. You can also make arguments for the Washington Capitals' Bruce Boudreau, the Boston Bruins' Claude Julien and Todd McLellan of the San Jose Sharks. And I'm sure at least some Toronto Maple Leafs' fans will argue for Ron Wilson thanks to the team's big improvement since late January. On that basis, then, Jacques Lemaire of the New Jersey Devils needs to be considered.

It is a real shame Trotz has yet to win this award despite being last year's runner-up to Tippett and a finalist a few other times. No NHL coach has done more with less than Trotz.

The Predators sensibly stick to a budget, which does not allow for many high-powered players, yet Trotz keeps them in contention every year. His teams may not play the most entertaining hockey in the world but somehow Trotz manages to convince his players to successfully employ his disciplined, defensive game.

Trotz's regular-season success has yet to translate into the same in the playoffs, but the voting is based on the regular season. This year, he has the Preds sitting sixth in the Western Conference despite the fact his leading scorer, Martin Erat as of Tuesday, has 49 points. But goaltender Pekka Rinne makes Trotz one smart coach.

Vigneault rates consideration because he managed to steer the Canucks, admittedly a supremely talented team, to the President's Cup despite distractions like injuries to his defencemen and the constant roar of a neurotic fanbase and at least some media types.

Speaking of steering through distractions, last year's winner, Tippett, again has the Coyotes a lock for the playoffs despite the threat of moving to Winnipeg hanging over his team.

Boucher is a rookie head coach who took the combination of holdover veterans and youth provided by rookie general manager Steve Yzerman and turned the Lightning from last year's also-ran to the likely fifth-place finisher in the Eastern Conference.

Boudreau, the 2008 winner, convinced the Capitals to play a more conservative style and stick to it despite a slow start. Now he has them in position to finish first in the east. Julien brought the Bruins back from a disappointing post-season a year ago to be contenders again, while McLellan's Sharks are the hottest team in the NHL over the last 30 games.

In the end, though, if your agent had a vote, it would go to Bylsma. He is persevering through the biggest shares of adversity and distractions.

On the adversity side, Bylsma had to deal with losing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to injuries for the last half of the season. Then he had to keep his players focused through the distractions of the cameras from HBO's 24/7 television series and the debate on concussions and head shots that raged around Crosby and bad-boy Matt Cooke.

Through all of that, the Penguins are still in the top four of the Eastern Conference, which makes Bylsma the winner by a narrow margin over Trotz.



 

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