Officially, the Jack Adams Award goes to the NHL coached "adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success" – a definition that sometimes trips up the selectors – members of the NHL Broadcasters' Association. Often, voters who follow the exact definition of the award will inadvertently penalize the coach of a good team, presuming that coaches with good teams are supposed to succeed.
Mike Babcock of the Detroit Red Wings, who many consider to be the NHL's best overall coach, has never won the award – and the only time he came close, last year, he was the runner-up largely for guiding an injury-riddled team to a playoff spot. Scotty Bowman, who has more wins (1,244) than any other NHL coach, only won the Adams twice – in 1977 (Montreal) and 1996 (Detroit).
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, who is third on the all-time wins list with 751, has won the Adams once, in 2000, back in his St. Louis Blues' days. But Washington's Barry Trotz (598 career wins) has never won the award, nor has Todd McLellan, who earlier this seaason got to 300 victories faster than any other coach other than Bruce Boudreau.
Generally, the award lands in the lap of the coach that has overseen the most dramatic turnaround – and if that holds true, this season's field is essentially down to four candidates: Peter Laviolette in Nashville, Paul Maurice in Winnipeg, Jack Capuano on Long Island and Bob Hartley in Calgary. Nashville, Winnipeg and Calgary all missed the playoffs last season.
Most of the pre-season forecasts had the Flames, who finished 27th overall last season, in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes on the grounds that the Flames' turnaround had a long way to go before they became competitive.
Instead, the Flames were still clinging to a playoff spot heading into a crucial set of games Monday night. They were on the road in Dallas, while the team chasing them, the Los Angeles Kings, was playing the Blackhawks in Chicago.
If Calgary makes the playoffs this year, do Hartley's efforts trump the work Capuano did with the Islanders, elevating a 79-point team last season to a serious contender in the East? Or is Capuano's candidacy less compelling because of the supporting role played by his general manager, Garth Snow, who bolstered the team by acquiring goalie Jaroslav Halak and defensive stalwarts Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy in the off-season?
Winnipeg and Nashville both play in the deepest division in the NHL, which makes their year-over-year improvements all the more impressive. But Nashville was already an 88-point team under Trotz last year, and Trotz didn't have all-star goaltender Pekka Rinne at his disposal (except for more than a handful of games) because of a long-term injury. And Winnipeg's turnaround under Maurice really started in the second half last season, although his knack for guiding the team through injuries and goaltending uncertainty still makes him a strong candidate.
But based on the traditional voting pattern of the broadcasters, it's difficult to imagine the trophy wouldn't go to Hartley if the Flames get into the post-season. He has likely done more with less than any other NHL coach. He's made all the right calls in goal, riding whichever netminder is playing well at the moment, and his hunches have usually paid off. He's also getting unexpectedly good play out of Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell, two players with widely different backgrounds who are playing major minutes and making big contributions.
Even after the season-ending injury to their team captain and best player, Mark Giordano, Hartley has kept the vibe positive and the Flames have won enough to stay in the race – and likely will be in contention right until the end. Hartley has also helped rookie Johnny Gaudreau and second-year forward Sean Monahan both develop nicely. It's been a good run for Calgary.
"We've got a younger team, if you look at our top-scoring line there – two young kids with [Jiri] Hudler," said Russell. "So I think he does a great job of teaching. But at the same time, he expects you to play a certain way, and we've known that since the start of training camp. He's got a clear message, and I think as a player that's what you want. You don't want any games. You want to know where you stand and what it takes."
Russell believes there's a certain democracy at work in Calgary, where Hartley worries less about a players' pedigree, salary or draft status, and more about what he can do to help the team win. It's a scrupulously fair approach, but not one every team necessarily subscribes to. Some teams give their stars most of the power-play time or extra minutes for reasons that are not always apparent.
Hartley's faith in his roster is appreciated by the players, including left winger Lance Bouma, a third-round pick in the 2008 entry draft who missed almost an entire year (2012-13) because of a knee injury. Hartley uses him on a checking line, but Bouma has scored 16 even-strength goals this season – more even than Sidney Crosby. If you can extract 16 goals from a checker who is also one of the more fearless shot-blocking forwards in the NHL, that's an accomplishment.
"He puts you in position to succeed," explained Bouma. "With me personally, when I'm playing against other teams' top lines, he trusts me to get the puck out and make sure I'm doing the right things. That's huge for a player. Bob's done a good job of that this year – and that's all what you want as a player."