The coach-of-the-year race in the NHL this season promises to be one of the closest in years for a simple reason – the award usually goes to the fellow whose team shows the most surprising improvement from the previous year.
There are three candidates in that category, Bruce Boudreau of the Anaheim Ducks, Randy Carlyle of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Michel Therrien of the Montreal Canadiens. Their teams finished 25th, 26th and 28th overall, respectively, last season and all are now in solid playoff position. Another category the voters like is coaches who keep their teams in contention despite a series of injuries to their best players. Paul MacLean of the Ottawa Senators and Dan Bylsma of the Pittsburgh Penguins are your candidates in this regard. Also in the mix might be Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks, who has restored his team to the top of the Western Conference after a relatively disappointing 2011-12 season.
Boudreau, who won the Jack Adams Trophy in 2007-08 with the Washington Capitals, is enjoying the old saying that good goaltenders make for good coaches. Jonas Hiller and the surprising Viktor Fasth are making him look mighty smart these days, although that might cost some points with the voters.
Carlyle and Therrien should be neck-and-neck in the voting, as both men took soft, defensively suspect teams and turned them into good two-way teams that can fore-check hard and protect their goaltenders by keeping the shooters to the outside. Carlyle might get a few more votes because Therrien has the more celebrated goaltender in Carey Price, even if the Leafs' James Reimer beat him both times they started against each other this season.
Bylsma will get consideration because he's had to deal with injuries to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and his two best defencemen, Kris Letang and Paul Martin. However, Pens GM Ray Shero has bolstered the lineup with the additions of Jarome Iginla, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen.
The coach to put your money on is MacLean. It is nothing short of miraculous that he's kept the Senators in sixth place or better despite a list of injuries that would have sent most teams tumbling to the basement. Carlyle has had to deal with some injuries to the Leafs but nothing like this. Lost for the season were the Sens' most important offensive players – centre Jason Spezza and defenceman Erik Karlsson – while another top-six forward, Milan Michalek, and goaltender Craig Anderson were gone for long stretches.