Barry Trotz is the frontrunner for the Jack Adams Award. Ask about anyone, too, and they’d say it’s his award to lose. After coaching the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup last season, Trotz has come into New York and turned the Islanders, an expected lottery team that lost its captain and franchise player and has missed the post-season in each of the past two seasons, into the Metropolitan Division’s top seed with two-thirds of the season in the books. The work he has done and continues to do is nothing short of spectacular.
That’s not to say Trotz was alone in the race, however. Pressed for a shortlist, Flames bench boss Bill Peters would inevitably be mentioned as a contender. Calgary’s season-over-season rise has been awfully impressive, albeit the Pacific Division leaders have far more horses — and had far greater expectations — than the Islanders. The Professional Hockey Writers' Association also seemed fond of Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who has put his team so far ahead in the Presidents’ Trophy race that it's nearing a formality that Tampa Bay will have the hardware on display next season.
Over the past several weeks, though, Blues bench boss Craig Berube has emerged as a challenger for the NHL’s top coaching honor. And with the way the St. Louis has charged up the standings, climbing from Western Conference bottom feeder to wild-card threat with an eye on a divisional playoff spot, it might just be that Peters and Cooper have seen themselves fall slightly behind in the Jack Adams race while Trotz could finally have some real competition as the clear-cut top candidate.
In a results-driven business, it’s no doubt that what has guided Berube into the Jack Adams conversation is St. Louis’ return to the playoff picture. At the time Berube took over from Mike Yeo, under whom the Blues spiralled out of control through the first several weeks of the campaign, St. Louis had just been shutout by the Los Angeles Kings and slipped to the bottom of the NHL standings. In the time since, however, the Blues have reversed their fortunes and risen not just into the top wild-card spot in the Western Conference but within two points of Dallas for the third and final Central Division berth with a game in hand on the Stars. That’s thanks in part, of course, to the head-shaking ineptitude of the entire bottom half of the conference, but it shouldn’t be overlooked that St. Louis has pieced together a better record than all but four Western clubs — the Flames, Winnipeg Jets, San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights — since Berube’s hiring.
That and that alone is what sees Berube vying for his place in the top coach conversation. What elevates his candidacy, though, is the way in which he’s transformed the on-ice product.
At the time Yeo was fired, St. Louis was one of the lowliest clubs in the league for a reason. The Blues ranked 24th in Corsi percentage (48 percent) at 5-on-5, 21st in shots percentage (49), 25th in scoring chances percentage (47.5) and 21st in high-danger chances percentage (48) upon his firing. They were caved in on a near nightly basis, watching the game unfold in front of them instead of taking contests into their own hands. And yes, the goaltending was miserable and the performances of Jake Allen and Chad Johnson did little to mask the deficiencies the Blues had shown. But it’s not as if St. Louis was giving their netminders all that much help under Yeo.
It’s remarkable, then, to consider how vastly different the Blues’ performance has been since Berube came aboard. On percentages alone, the upturn is breathtaking, particularly given St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong hasn’t made any significant changes to the roster. In 35 games under Berube, the Blues boast a 52.4 Corsi percentage, 53.7 shots percentage, 53.2 scoring chances percentage and incredible 59.5 scoring chances percentage at five-a-side. Measured against the rest of the league since the beginning of his tenure, Berube’s Blues rank seventh, fifth, seventh and first in those respective categories.
It’s not just that the 5-on-5 percentages have risen, though. It’s how they’ve risen. Per 60 minutes, St. Louis has managed five additional shot attempts for and nearly six fewer against. Likewise, the Blues have managed an extra 3.3 shots with 2.3 fewer against. The scoring chance have increased by 2.9 with 3.3 fewer against, while high-danger chances have increased by 2.3 per 60 minutes and decreased by 2.5 against. The offensive increases have resulted in a higher rate of 5-on-5 scoring and a marginally improved shooting percentage. And the better defensive insulation? That has turned the tide somewhat in the blue paint.
Allen’s numbers might be proof enough of that. While he had been by no means exceptional since Berube’s hiring, Allen has seen his all-strengths save percentage rise to .900 across 23 games from its former .895 in 14 appearances under Yeo. His 5-on-5 SP has increased from .896 to .913 since Berube came aboard, too, no doubt helped along by facing nearly 1.25 fewer shots and 2.5 fewer Grade ‘A’ opportunities against per 60 minutes.
However, the real standout in the crease since Berube’s hiring has been Jordan Binnington, who has positively flourished and was named the first star of the past week by the NHL. In 13 games, all played under Berube, Binnington has turned in a stunning .931 SP at all strengths to go along with two shutouts. And his 5-on-5 play has been brilliant. His .960 SP puts him first in the NHL among netminders with at least 500 minutes played since Nov. 20, and he has the highest goals-saved above average, 1.07, of any keeper over that span, as well.
It’s likely, though, that neither Allen or Binnington would be seeing the success they have over the past three months were it not for the limiting defense that Berube has instituted. His Blues give up fewer shot attempts at 5-on-5 than all but the Sharks and fewer shots against and fewer high-danger chances than all but the Wild.
So, while Trotz has turned a perceived basement team into a divisional leader, Berube has turned an actual last-place team — one that found itself there during this very season — into a club that could make its way into the post-season with serious potential to surprise. As the Blues continue their climb up the standings with each passing game, the Jack Adams race gets a bit tighter. And if this continues the rest of the way, the vote might be closer than some might think.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)