THE JACK ADAMS IS FEELING BLUE
Jackets’ Tortorella, Leafs’ Babcock are unlikely favourites for coaching award
What’s more impressive: The coach who has taken a mostly noname lineup from fourth-worst to second-best in the NHL or the coach who has sped up a rebuild by guiding a roster of rookies into a playoff spot?
Is John Tortorella of the Columbus Blue Jackets or the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mike Babcock the early favourite to win the Jack Adams Award? And, midway through the season, do these head coaches even have any competition?
“(Babcock) and Tortorella would be neck and neck because of the dramatic improvements that both those teams have made,” Maple Leafs play-by-play voice Joe Bowen said. “The Leafs’ rebuild, almost everybody said it was three years away. And as bad as Columbus was a year ago, to have them rattle off that winning streak and be as good as they are at this point is pretty dramatic.”
Said Blue Jackets’ colour commentator Jody Shelley: “It’s Torts. It’s a slam dunk, no question.”
Although Bowen and Shelley might be biased, their opinions are worth considering given the NHL Broadcasters’ Association is responsible for voting for the Jack Adams Award, given to the league’s most outstanding coach.
Even a neutral observer can see they aren’t far off. While the Washington Capitals’ Barry Trotz won the award last year and currently has his team back in first place in the NHL, the coach of the year award doesn’t always go to the coach with the best team — rather, it goes to the coach of the best team with the least amount to work with.
Think of it as the most improved team award. That could explain why Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman only won it twice, despite winning nine Stanley Cups as a head coach. It also explains why Babcock and Tortorella are the front-runners for this year’s award, with the Minnesota Wild’s Bruce Boudreau and Edmonton Oilers’ Todd McLellan also likely to get consideration.
“Those are the obvious guys,” TSN play-by-play voice Chris Cuthbert said. “I’m trying to think of one more guy that you would put in that group, but I’m having trouble. Barry Trotz won it last year and all of a sudden they’re the best team in the league, and is he coaching any different than a year ago? In fact, maybe he’s pulling in the reins a little bit to make sure they are (peaking at a) better time than a year ago.”
The problem for Trotz is that we expected this out of the Capitals. No one expected this from Toronto or Columbus — not after the Leafs finished last overall a year ago and the Blue Jackets ended up 27th. Heading into this season, there was no reason to believe either team would avoid the basement again. In fact, many expected Tortorella would have been fired by now.
Instead, the same coach who could not win a game with the best American-born players at the World Cup of Hockey in September took over a group of lesser lights and went undefeated in December. The Blue Jackets are tied atop the league with a plus-46 goal differential and rank third in goals per game and goals against. And yet they are led offensively by a sixth-round draft pick (Cam Atkinson) who has never scored more than 53 points and a 19-year-old rookie (Zach Weresnski) on defence.
“Torts has done a tremendous job there,” Wild colour commentator Tom Reid said. “And I have to give him a lot of credit, because I think he’s changed his ways a little bit. Those two guys have to be the front-runners, with what’s happening now. Bob Kurtz (Wild radio announcer) and I were talking yesterday and we were saying, ‘Look at Toronto. They’re going to make the playoffs.’”
The Leafs, who are third in the Atlantic Division, have gone about their success differently. Their best players are their youngest players, with No. 1 pick Auston Matthews tied for first in the league in rookie scoring with 21 goals, 37 points, and Mitch Marner right behind at 35 points. Unlike Columbus, Toronto is a bubble team. But with only two regulation losses in their last 14 games, the Leafs are trending upward.
“Babcock didn’t get a lot of experience in handling young talent in Detroit, so he’s showing a side to his coaching that we didn’t see before,” Cuthbert said.
“Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s another element that we didn’t know enough about with Babcock, because he’s always kind of inherited what was close to a finished product. From Marner to Matthews to challenging some veteran guys, it’s been pretty impressive.”
And then there is Edmonton’s McLellan, who a year ago was coaching the second-worst team in the league and now has the Oilers steered toward their first playoff appearance in more than a decade, and Boudreau, who in his first year in Minnesota has turned a bubble team into a Stanley Cup contender.
“It’s amazing how much further along they are this year from last year, and not just in points but how they play on the ice,” Reid said of the Western Conference-leading Wild. “He’s given the Wild a completely different feel behind the bench.”
Of course, there’s still half a season to play. At this time last year, no one had Mike Sullivan as a Jack Adams Award candidate because he was only a month into coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins. And, as everyone in Toronto understands all too well, a lot can still go wrong.
“Hopefully,” Bowen said, “there won’t be another 18-wheeler going off the cliff.”