With the Buffalo Sabres eking their way into playoff contention, coach Ted Nolan has a shot, no matter how small it may be, at making this season Jack Adams Trophy worthy.
Traditionally, winners of the yearly award for best coach are those who are the bench boss of teams that finish atop the standings or make the playoffs while exceeding all expectations placed upon them. It’s in that last point that Nolan’s hope at his second Jack Adams becomes a reality.
Coming into the season, you couldn’t find many that expected Buffalo to finish in anything but last place. The roster is thin, the Sabres struggled all of last season to score goals, and didn't look like they were going to improve on a 21-win, 52-point season in which they failed to even get lucky at the draft lottery, losing the first overall pick to the Florida Panthers.
Shockingly, however, Nolan has this team moving in what can only be considered the right direction. After all, the Sabres finished in last place by a whopping 14 points last season. Simply by virtue of not being in dead last at this point in the season is a healthy dose of improvement over last year. Factor in that they’re more than halfway to last season’s win total with 51 games left on the schedule, and you’d have to think Sabres fans can at least take solace in that.
In the off-season, the team added Brian Gionta, who is from nearby Rochester, N.Y., to captain the team, as well as bringing in free agent forwards Cody McCormick and Matt Moulson. Moulson, a three time 30-goal scorer as John Tavares' linemate during his time with the New York Islanders, was brought aboard to provide some much needed offense. They replaced names like Cory Conacher, John Scott, and Matt D'Agostini.
GM Tim Murray also attempted to solidify the blueline, adding defenseman Josh Gorges via a trade with the Montreal Canadiens and inking Andrej Meszaros, Tyson Strachan, and Andre Benoit to bolster the backend.
As for the Jack Adams, the case can be made in that Nolan is patrolling the bench for a team that on paper should have no right winning games and, somehow, has turned them into a somewhat competitive group. Not only are the Sabres not in last place, you could argue he’s got them playing hockey better than at least a handful of teams in the league.
They've had a bit of good luck, as their current PDO, a measure of a team's shooting percentage plus save percentage that should float at about 1000, is slightly higher than the league average. It's more impressive that it's doing so considering they have the worst Corsi and Fenwick For percentages of any team at 5-on-5. But like last season's Jack Adams winner Patrick Roy, who saw his Colorado Avalanche have similar luck with awful possession numbers, it's about the results at the end of the season, not what the underlying numbers say.
What won’t help Nolan’s odds is that the lowest point total over a full season by a team whose coach won the Jack Adams is 78, which happened twice, coincidentally both in Detroit. Buffalo is on pace for 74 points. And, unlike Detroit coaches Jacques Demers in 1986-87 and Bobby Kromm in 1977-78, the Sabres are in a division they'll need to make up some serious ground in. As of Monday, Buffalo sits four points out of the final wild card spot.
The other hindrance for Nolan lies in the team’s overall record. Those 78-point Red Wings teams coached by Demers and Kromm became the only teams whose coach won the Jack Adams with a losing record – Demers’ Red Wings went 34-36-10, while Kromm’s squad finished 32-34-14. The only other coach to win with a record not above the .500 mark was Tom Watt in 1981-82, who coached the Winnipeg Jets to an 80-point, 33-33-14 record.
As it stands, the Sabres are three games back of .500. The team has already gone on two three-game winning streaks and they're on a four game winning streak right now, so putting up consecutive wins isn’t the concern. The concern is stopping consecutive losses. Four- and five-game losing streaks put the Sabres in their current hole, and Buffalo is still trying to dig its way out.
With Peter Laviolette leading the Nashville Predators to one of the league’s best records one season after the team missed the playoffs and Bob Hartley’s Calgary Flames playing a role similar to that of the Colorado Avalanche last season, Nolan’s window of opportunity for the Jack Adams is closing. However, the Flames are beginning to slip, and if he can push the Sabres hard enough to compete for a .500 record and squeak into the playoffs, it may just be enough for him to be the coach of the year.