Mike Babcock and Todd McLellan got to guide a young, generational talent to personal and team success this past season, but John Tortorella made his case turning around last season’s woeful Blue Jackets team in a hurry.
Bruce Boudreau’s first season with the Minnesota Wild didn’t end the way anyone expected. Up against the St. Louis Blues in the first round, the Wild were nearly swept out of the post-season, but managed to hang on just long enough to lose in five games and head home for the summer following the opening round for the second year in a row. It was a disappointing end to what was, for much of the season, an outstanding campaign for the Wild.
In Boudreau’s first year, he pumped life into the offense and his attacking systems helped turn Minnesota into a club that had one of the deepest fleets of scorers in the league, led by Mikael Granlund’s breakout year. Defensively, the team was as strong as ever, with Ryan Suter again showing he was the cornerstone of the blueline while Jared Spurgeon turned heads with his acumen at both ends of the ice. And in goal, Devan Dubnyk put himself in the Vezina Trophy conversation with stellar play, despite the fact he dropped off significantly in the back half of the season.
The result of Boudreau’s first year in the State of Hockey was the highest point total in Wild history, a 49-win season and a second-place finish in the Central Division. It was the best campaign Minnesota has had in recent memory. Still not enough to earn Boudreau a spot among the finalists for the Jack Adams Award, though.
Despite the season Boudreau and the Wild had, when the three top vote-getters were announced Wednesday, ‘Gabby’ was absent from the trio. That may draw the ire of some in Minnesota who believe their coach was worthy of the nod, just as Dubnyk was worthy of finishing among the best in Vezina voting, but it seems the second-half drop off that the Wild went through was enough to remove Boudreau from the serious conversations about coach of the year.
Here are the three coaches who will battle it out for the award:
Mike Babcock, Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs made a statement when they inked Babcock to a massive, long-term contract that installed him behind the bench. The message was Toronto wanted arguably the best coach in the world to be at the helm of their franchise turnaround, and though the first season was tough to stomach at times, the processes were put in place and the steps taken to make this team a winner. Babcock turned a woeful Maple Leafs team into one that showed glimpses of a sound possession game and had a speed-driven attack. Babcock simply didn’t have the roster to make it work, though. That changed this season, however, and the results followed.
His Case: Toronto was supposed to have a five-year plan. After this season, though, it sure seems like it could be considered a four-year plan, and with the way the team performed in the post-season, maybe we’re talking a three-year plan come next season’s deadline. The Maple Leafs injected young talent into their lineup, the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander as the brightest of the fresh faces, and produced a winner. Babcock guided one of the youngest teams in the league through the ups and downs of a season and, when crunch time came, he pushed all the right buttons to get his team into the post-season. Babcock’s Maple Leafs had a 26-point improvement from the 2015-16 campaign. That was the third-greatest increase any team saw over the course of the past season.
John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets
Tortorella’s reputation usually clouds the fact that over the course of his career behind an NHL bench, he’s been quite successful. Tortorella has a Stanley Cup to his name back from his days with the Tampa Bay Lightning and has appeared in the Eastern Conference final since then during his time with the New York Rangers. Tortorella also is the owner of more than 500 wins — 530, to be exact — and has more victories to his name than any other American-born coach. Not only that, but in only two of his 14 full seasons behind an NHL bench has a Tortorella team had a points percentage below .500. He’s deserving of more credit, and he’s got a chance to get it this season if he locks up his second Jack Adams.
His Case: That note about the Maple Leafs, how only two teams had a better points increase this season? Well, one was the Blue Jackets, who saw their point total go up by a whopping 32 this season. And it’s funny Columbus saw a 32-point increase given that’s equal to 16 additional victories in a year where Tortorella led this Blue Jackets team on a magical 16-game winning streak. When Tortorella took over last season, there were signs Columbus could turn things around, but no one expected the reversal of fortunes to be this great. The Blue Jackets don’t have the star power of the other great teams in the Metropolitan Division, but Columbus certainly showed the ability to hang with the best of them under Tortorella’s guidance.
Todd McLellan, Edmonton Oilers
Some will say that McLellan has it easier than other coaches. After all, only months after his hiring, the Oilers selected Connor McDavid first overall and any team with a talent like that stands a chance at being successful. And it’s true that McLellan does have the gift of a superstar, but he still has to guide that undeniable talent through the first years of his career and ensure he succeeds. Given McDavid won the scoring title in his second season, we’re prone to saying that McLellan has succeeded in that area, just as he has in guiding other youngsters, such as Leon Draisaitl, into the NHL.
His Case: You know where this is going, right? The team with the greatest turnaround from 2015-16 to present, at least in terms of points, was the Oilers. McLellan’s group, sans McDavid for half the year, nearly wound up atop the draft lottery again last season when they finished last in the Western Conference. This time around, though, McLellan led the Oilers to a 103-point campaign, which is a 33-point increase, and back to the post-season for the first time since 2005-06. It was expected the Oilers would be better with McDavid for a full season, but few saw them improving this much. McLellan’s Oilers not only won, but they won more games than any Edmonton team in the past 30 years. That’s quite the accomplishment.
The Winner: Given that Matthews, Marner and Nylander produced so well as rookies and that McLellan had a full season of McDavid, who has arguably become the best offensive player in the league in two seasons, it’s hard not to lean in favor of Tortorella. That’s not to say Tortorella had nothing to work with in Columbus — Cam Atkinson, Sergei Bobrovsky and rookie Zach Werenski were all outstanding — but his group was arguably the weakest of the three coaches and finished with the fourth-best point total in the league.
Winning the Jack Adams would be significant for Tortorella due to the recognition, of course, but also incredibly notable in that it would be the second of his career. Only five other coaches have managed to win multiple Jack Adams: Scotty Bowman, Pat Burns, Pat Quinn, Jacques Lemaire and Jacques Demers. Of the bunch, Demers is the only one not in the Hall of Fame, though Lemaire was inducted as a player.
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