One coach who brought his team back from the brink. One coach who led his team to unexpected heights. And one coach whose team blew the competition away. Those are your Jack Adams Award finalists, with the NHL announcing Friday that St. Louis Blues' Craig Berube, New York Islanders' Barry Trotz and Tampa Bay Lightning's Jon Cooper finishing top-three in voting for the honor.
But with three unique candidates up for the hardware, who wins? It's a three-horse race, but likely comes down to two coaches:
THE CASE FOR BERUBE
He was seemingly the closest thing the NHL had to a miracle worker. When Berube stepped behind St. Louis’ bench on Nov. 19, the Blues were dead-last in the Western Conference. All the talk surrounding the coaching gig in St. Louis was that Berube, who replaced Mike Yeo, was nothing more than a short-term fill-in, that the Blues would be chasing one of the established bench bosses on the open market. Some pointed in the direction of Joel Quenneville, who at the time had only recently been relieved by the Chicago Blackhawks and wasn’t yet hired by the Florida Panthers.
Turns out the best coach for the job may have been the one St. Louis put in charge, though. Across the 63 games he was behind the Blues’ bench, he transformed the team’s on-ice performance. Their possession rates at 5-on-5 rose significantly, including Corsi percentage (5.3 percent), shots percentage (4.4 percent), scoring chances percentage (6.1 percent), high-danger chance percentage (9.3 percent) and goals for percentage (10.1 percent). Process led to results, too, as St. Louis went 38-19-6 under Berube, posting a .651 points percentage, leaps and bounds better than the .447 points percentage the Blues had posted under Yeo.
Not that the post-season matters in the voting, either, but that Berube’s Blues powered themselves from the basement and into the playoffs and then past the Winnipeg Jets, who some considered one of the two or three top contenders to win the Stanley Cup this season, is another feather in his cap this season. He’s done a tremendous job, and this is a well-warranted honor.
THE CASE FOR COOPER
There’s a lot that can be said about this season’s Lightning. Tampa Bay had the league’s highest scoring player, Nikita Kucherov, who posted 128 points and snapped the post-lockout scoring record. The Bolts led the league in scoring, firing home 319 goals and eclipsing the next-highest scoring attack by 30 goals. And it’s not as though it was all run-and-gun and no defending for Cooper’s group. The Lightning finished with 221 goals against, tied for the seventh-fewest in the NHL, a mark that was helped along by the Vezina Trophy caliber goaltending of Andrei Vasilevskiy.
But Cooper’s candidacy comes down to one number: 62. That’s how many wins he led Tampa Bay to this season, tying the NHL record set by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings. The Bolts won the Presidents’ Trophy by a remarkable 21 points, basically wrapping up the trophy – unofficially – by, what, January? It was the kind of single-season performance that won’t be forgotten any time soon, and not least of all because of the way it ended so shockingly in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Sometimes, there’s a hesitancy to simply hand the Jack Adams to a good coach on a good team, but Cooper’s accomplishments this season with the Lightning were so rare that he has to be given serious consideration.
THE CASE FOR TROTZ
What more can be said about the work Trotz did this season that hasn’t already been said hundreds of times? When he took over in New York this season – fresh off of a Stanley Cup victory in Washington, no less – the expectation was that he would be able to help the Islanders turn in a respectable season, but most believed that he was in for a long, arduous process with a rebuilding club. What no one expected, and probably not even Trotz, was the kind of overnight turnaround that he helped orchestrate.
Though a commitment to defensive play and a lower-scoring, less freewheeling system, the Islanders turned in a 103-point season, this on the heels of losing their superstar captain, John Tavares, and failing to make any big splashes in free agency. Offense wasn’t New York’s strong suit, as they finished 22nd in the NHL with 223 goals, but Trotz’s Islanders were a tight-checking team that allowed a league-low 191 goals against.
There is some truth to that old ‘show me a good goaltender, I’ll show you a good coach’ adage, too. Robin Lehner was exceptional this season, finishing the campaign as a Vezina finalist, and Thomas Greiss was almost equally as good as his crease compatriot. However, Trotz’s systems in New York did his goaltenders some favors, as did Trotz’s relationship with Mitch Korn, which lured the goalie coach away from the Capitals and over to the Islanders where he could work wonders with Lehner and Greiss.
WHO WAS SNUBBED?
There are only two coaches who could possibly be considered true snubs here, and even that’s a stretch. That said, Flames bench boss Bill Peters did an excellent job in Calgary this season after arriving last summer, turning that group into a high-scoring possession team that was stingy defensively. The Flames won the Pacific Division one year after missing the post-season altogether, and a number of players thrived under Peters’ system. Likewise, Peters’ replacement in Carolina, Rod Brind’Amour, should have gotten more love for the work he did with the Hurricanes. As a rookie coach, he led the franchise to its first playoff berth in a decade and one of the best second-half records in the entire NHL.
Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet deserves praise, too, but his team failing to make the post-season sealed his fate as a candidate, fair or not.
It comes down to Cooper and Trotz. For as much as Berube did, he turned around a roster most expected to have success this season. As for Trotz, he led a group from perceived disaster to home-ice advantage in the first round of the post-season, while Cooper led the Lightning to an NHL record. If we had to guess, it’s Trotz’s trophy based on the perceived overachievement, but it seemy likely to be a razor-thin margin between the coaches.