The nice thing about the All-Star break is that it allows us writers to sit back and take stock of the NHL season thus far.
In my eyes the top four coaching performances of the 2010-11 NHL Season have been the competition between the Philadelphia Flyers and Vancouver Canucks for the President’s Trophy; the resurrection of the Tampa Bay Lightning; and the stealth-like resurgence of the Detroit Red Wings.
The fact that the Flyers are atop the Eastern Conference and are vying with the Canucks for the President’s Trophy is ample proof that their Stanley Cup finals appearance last year was no fluke. The Flyers are displaying the characteristics which have placed Peter Laviolette among the top fifty hockey coaches of all time: a powerful offense; solid power-play capability; a dangerous transition game, and plenty of physicality. Even though defenseman Chris Pronger was sidelined by injury the fact that the Flyers were still able to maintain their number one seed status is proof of their depth and resiliency.
For the record the Flyers have never won the President’s Trophy and the last time they had the best regular season record in the NHL was during the 1984-85 season when Mike Keenan was their head coach.
The Canucks have never won the President’s Trophy either. The fact that they are contenders for the trophy represents a major leap forward in their development under Alain Vigneault. Even if they don’t win the trophy they have made great strides as a team but the main challenge remains their placement in the Stanley Cup finals — a feat which has eluded Vigneault his entire coaching career and the Canucks franchise since 1994.
If Tampa Bay head coach Guy Boucher doesn’t become a nominee for the Jack Adams trophy then there is something very wrong with the selection process. Boucher in his rookie season as an NHL coach has engineered a 15-point turnaround and the team is now leads the Southeast Division over the Washington Capitals who won the President’s Trophy last year. Tampa has gotten enormous firepower from wunderkind Steven Stamkos and the venerable Martin St. Louis.
Boucher has made the Lightning a team of the future with nowhere to go but up. The Lightning will make the playoffs this season but if there is a major flaw in their makeup it is their weak defense. The Lightning are ranked 25th in defense in the NHL and that doesn’t make their odds for advancement in the Stanley Cup playoffs that good but the fact that they have a shot at the playoffs is a tribute to Boucher’s leadership. I suspect that five years from now I will probably be profiling Boucher’s entrance into the top 50 of the greatest hockey coaches of all time.
Another great comeback which has gone underneath the hockey radar has been the resurgence of Mike Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings. Last season the Wings struggled with age and injuries in what proved to be Babcock’s worst performance since the 2003-04 NHL Season.
One would expect this season to have been a rebuilding year for the Wings. Instead Babcock and the Wings have confounded everyone by playing their usual magnificent brand of hockey. The Wings are practically doddering in terms of age (three quarters of the team is 30 or older) and yet they’ve turned back the clock and have been one of the most consistently strong teams in the NHL since the season has started.
In the past I have repeatedly sung Babcock’s praises but when you look at Babcock’s ability to overcome adversity and get his players to achieve optimum performance it represents a reaffirmation—in my mind—of my previous assertions that Mike Babcock is the best NHL coach of the 21st century.
Last October I profiled five coaches who had a shot at cracking the top 50: Boston’s Claude Julien, Carolina’s Paul Maurice, Nashville’s Barry Trotz, Anaheim’s Randy Carlyle, and Washington’s Bruce Boudreau. Of the five Julien, Trotz and Carlyle have the best shot at achieving that goal; with Boudreau with an outside shot and Maurice struggling.
Julien’s Bruins have been vying with Jacques Martin’s Habs for the Northeast Divisional lead. Julien has an excellent chance of becoming the best defensive coach in the NHL during the 2010′s. His Bruins have the best defense in the NHL. In their last two meetings with the Flyers, the Bruins have avenged their playoff loss with the Flyers and if any team has a shot at knocking off the Flyers in the 2011 playoffs I would put money on the Bruins.
It’s is Trotz’s misfortune to be coaching in the same division as Babcock. I suspect that Nashville will not eclipse the Wings for the Central divisional title, but Trotz has a strong shot at entering the top-fifty ranks. As I stated in October Nashville’s goal has to be either a divisional title or at least making it to the second round of the playoffs — which they’ve never done.
The Capitals have been streaky this season and it’s disturbing that they’ve allowed the upstart Lightning to take away the Southeast division lead from them. In a season which demands that the Caps take their game to the next level — a Stanley Cup finals appearance — the fact that they haven’t put the Lightning away at this stage of the season is a disturbing sign in my eyes. If the Caps don’t win the divisional title then Boudreau will not crack the top 50 this year.
Carlyle’s Ducks started off slowly but gained momentum in November and again after Christmas. Right now they are the number four seed in the Western Conference and they are playing better now than what they were doing at the same spot last season.
The two greatest coaching disappointments of this season thus far are Lindy Ruff in Buffalo and Ron Wilson in Toronto. At the start of the season Ruff’s Sabres were in last place after winning the division last season but after Christmas they have slashed their way above the .500 level and are four points out of playoff contention but the fact that they’ve collapsed after making such great progress this season before bodes ill for Ruff’s coaching reputation.
The reason why Ruff’s Sabres are no longer in last place in the Northeast Division is because Wilson’s Toronto Maple Leafs reverted back to their basement level after starting off the season with such great promise. For the record the Leafs have never suffered three consecutive last place finishes in their entire franchise history. If the Leafs finish last again it will be a first for the team and quite possibly the last of Wilson as Toronto’s coach.
The most fluid divisional race has been in the Pacific Division of the Western Conference. From the start all five teams have either led the division or have skirted close to the lead and right now all five teams have winning records. Marc Crawford’s Dallas Stars have a five point lead over Anaheim.
Crawford (like Babcock) has made a stealthy improvement as well. Last season his Stars barely finished over .500 and failed to make the playoffs. This is Crawford’s sophomore year with the Stars and they are now the third seed in the Western Conference and the team to beat in the Pacific Division.
What’s interesting about Dallas’ improvement is that they are not even in the top ten in offense even though Crawford is one of the finest offensive coaches in the NHL.
Terry Murray’s LA Kings for a long time were Crawford’s stiffest competition in the early going of this season but suffered a letdown after Christmas. However the Kings have rebounded with a three-game winning streak at the All-Star break. Murray has gotten great defensive work from goalie Jonathan Quick and defensemen Jack Johnson and Drew Doughty. The Kings are a young team with a great upside and they haven’t yet reached their full potential.
And in the category of unique historical moments in hockey I would like to point out that Jacques Lemaire’s return to coaching the hapless New Jersey Devils represents his third separate term as Devils head coach. Lemaire now joins an elite group: only five other coaches in hockey history have had three separate tenures as head coach with the same team. Dick Irvin Sr. did it with the Chicago Blackhawks; Art Ross had three terms with the Bruins as did Harry Sinden; Emile Francis had three stints with the New York Rangers; Glen Sather did so with the Edmonton Oilers; and Al Arbour also had three stints with the New York Islanders.
Funny thing is that’s not even an NHL record. Since 1917 only one NHL coach has had four separate coaching stints with the same team: Bob Pulford did it with the Chicago Blackhawks.