We don’t know or see everything that a coach does so there is some inferring required and that leaves me with a few guidelines that I have for picking the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year in the NHL.
The team needs to exceed expectations. If we set team expectations as a guideline for the level of talent on the roster, it is awfully difficult to get credit as the coach if the team does not fare better than expected. That does not mean that teams at the top of the standings can’t yield a coach of the year. If those teams are even more dominant than preseason expectations, then those coaches should be in the discussion.
If there is adversity to overcome, often significant injuries, then there is some added level of difficulty for the coaches to navigate. If everything is smooth sailing throughout the season there is probably some credit due to the coach, too, for steering the ship but it is more impressive if the coach needs to steer that ship through choppy waters.
More recently, I have leaned into the notion that the team needs to have strong underlying statistics, winning shot and expected goal counts, because there is some tactical soundness to putting a team in position to consistently create more chances. That could be related to Xs and Os or player deployment but both should factor into whether a team is moving the puck in the right direction. Whether those chances ultimately go in the net may not be a function of coaching.
Finally, and this might be the most important piece: beware the coach whose goaltending was outstanding because that has a major impact on the standings but is not necessarily a point in favor of an NHL head coach.
This doesn’t have to be an exercise in finding the coach with the worst team or worst goaltending but there are obvious advantages in place for the coach who does not have talent deficiencies.
With that out of the way, here are the coaches that I would have on my Jack Adams ballot for the 2021 season.
1. Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina
This has been a steady build over the past couple of seasons in Carolina and the team burst through this season as a bona fide Stanley Cup contender. They have the best record (36-12-8) in the Central Division. The Hurricanes had a few notable injuries, to winger Teuvo Teravainen and starting goaltender Petr Mrazek, but the injury to Mrazek opened the door for Alex Nedeljkovic to get into the goaltending mix for the Hurricanes and Nedeljkovic was great, which in some ways hurts Brind’Amour’s case. The Hurricanes controlled 55.0% of shot attempts and 54.4% of expected goals at 5-on-5 and that consistency of winning shot battles has been behind the Brind’Amour Hurricanes from the outset.
2. Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh
While I was relatively high on the Penguins in the preseason that was not a universal opinion so the fact that they are on top of the East Division does deserve credit, particularly when it happens during a season in which Evgeni Malkin, Jared McCann, Kasperi Kapanen, and Brandon Tanev each missed at least a dozen games. The goaltending has gotten better as the season progressed but, overall, the tandem of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have been around league average and given the Penguins’ injuries, and the fact that GM Jim Rutherford quit during the season, Sullivan has overcome some hurdles. Pittsburgh’s underlying numbers were only okay, controlling 51.2% of score-adjusted shot attempts and 49.9% of expected goals, with stronger performance defensively than offensively. The biggest factor in the Penguins being above average this season was that their power play was great once again.
3. Joel Quenneville, Florida
While the Panthers front office will get credit for all of their offseason changes, bringing in Carter Verhaeghe, Patric Hornqvist, Alexander Wennberg, Anthony Duclair, Gustav Forsling, Radko Gudas, Markus Nutivaara, ultimately, Coach Q had to make all the pieces fit and most did. They added Sam Bennett and Brandon Montour at the trade deadline and they have assimilated, too. Maybe the biggest decision for Quenneville is that he has not been afraid to give Chris Driedger more action in net as he outperforms Sergei Bobrovsky, who has a $70 million contract. Even with Bobrovsky not playing well, the Panthers have still finished in second place (37-14-5) in the Central, one point behind Carolina and they did so while controlling 54.3% of shot attempts and 54.6% of expected goals.
4. Barry Trotz, N.Y. Islanders
As usual, at least in recent seasons, the Islanders have exceeded expectations again. They are strong defensively which tends to be more system-related and they are weak offensively. The goaltending duo of Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin was excellent and while strong goaltending might be considered a ding against a coach’s credentials, if it’s a team with a strong defensive profile, maybe that coach does not need to be punished too severely for it. All told, Trotz is worthy of consideration, as he has been on an annual basis for most of the past decade.
5. Dean Evason, Minnesota
The Minnesota Wild came into the season without an established first line center and that kept expectations modest. Their preseason points over/under was 61.5, just ahead of the New York Rangers and just behind the Winnipeg Jets. With one game remaining, the Wild are 15 points and counting ahead of a Rangers team that has completed its schedule and 14 points ahead of a Jets team with one game left to play. So they have exceeded expectations to be sure. A lot of the credit gets heaped upon star rookie Kirill Kaprizov, and he’s been great, but the Wild are still a team that controls 46.7% of shot attempts and 51.6% of expected goals so while there might be some value to be found in the Wild’s ability to have the highest differential in the league between expected goals and Corsi, they are the only team in bottom 10 of score-adjusted Corsi to be headed to the playoffs.
Peter DeBoer, Vegas
DeBoer’s candidacy is a little boring. His team was expected to be great. They have been great and, currently 39-14-2, are looking at finishing with the league’s best record and best goal differential (+61). Robin Lehner missed a good chunk of the season but that allowed Marc-Andre Fleury to step in and have one of his best seasons. Alex Pietrangelo missed 15 games due to injury, but these are not huge hurdles to overcome, especially for a team with a strong roster. That is probably going to keep DeBoer from winning, even if the Golden Knights finish on top of the league standings.
Others: Jared Bednar, Sheldon Keefe, and Jon Cooper all had teams that were expected to be contenders and they have performed at that level. It can be hard to exceed expectations when expectations are already high.
NHL POWER RANKINGS
1. COLORADO AVALANCHE (38-13-4)
SVA CF%: 60.0 SVA xGF%: 60.4
When they are at their best, the Avalanche are playing on another level. In the modern stats era, since 2007-2008, the best team in terms of score and venue-adjusted on-ice shot metrics was the 2007-2008 Detroit Red Wings, with 59.7 CF% and 56.8 xGF%. This year’s Avs? 60.0 CF%, 59.8 xGF%.
Injuries: LW Brandon Saad (lower body), C Nathan MacKinnon (lower body)
2. BOSTON BRUINS (33-16-7)
SVA CF%: 54.9 SVA xGF%: 54.2
Since acquiring Taylor Hall and Mike Reilly at the trade deadline, the Bruins are outscoring opponents 44-23 (65.7%) during 5-on-5 play.
Injuries: D Jakub Zboril (upper body), RW Ondrej Kase (upper body)
3. VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS (40-14-2)
SVA CF%: 54.3 SVA xGF%: 53.6
All season long it has seemed like the Avalanche and Golden Knights have been on a collision course, two premier Cup contenders playing in the same division. Vegas does have the advantage of better goaltending depth and maybe that will come into play.
Injuries: LW Max Pacioretty (undisclosed)
4. CAROLINA HURRICANES (36-12-8)
SVA CF%: 55.0 SVA xGF%: 54.4
Dominant at evens with an excellent power play and strong penalty killing, the Hurricanes are not a plucky underdog feel-good story. They are legit contenders and should be for years to come.
Injuries: D Jaccob Slavin (lower body)
5. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (36-17-3)
SVA CF%: 53.2 SVA xGF%: 54.0
The defending champs are going to be a handful if they are healthy. Nikita Kucherov missed the whole season. Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman have been injured late in the season, too. If they are all good to go, the Lightning will be a tough out. If they are still sidelined, Tampa Bay will have a hard time getting through the first round.
Injuries: RW Barclay Goodrow (upper body), C/RW Steven Stamkos (lower body), RW Nikita Kucherov (hip).
6. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (35-13-7)
SVA CF%: 52.2 SVA xGF%: 56.2
The top team in the North, the Maple Leafs are bona fide Cup contenders who have one regulation loss in the past 11 games.
Injuries: D Zach Bogosian (shoulder)
7. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (37-16-3)
SVA CF%: 51.2 SVA xGF%: 49.9
In mid-February, the Penguins were 7-6-1. They have gone 30-10-2 since even though they have had to play through a bunch of injuries.
Injuries: D Mike Matheson (upper body)
8. FLORIDA PANTHERS (37-14-5)
SVA CF%: 54.3 SVA xGF%: 54.6
A remarkable season considering all of the changes in Florida from last offseason and it leads to the Panthers getting a shot at the Lightning in a first round Battle of Florida.
Injuries: D Aaron Ekblad (leg)
9. WASHINGTON CAPITALS (36-15-5)
SVA CF%: 51.4 SVA xGF%: 52.2
This is a fairly typical Capitals team, strong enough at evens, and devastating on the power play, but Alex Ovechkin also missed time down the stretch and that never happens. Will he be good to go on another postseason run?
10. NASHVILLE PREDATORS (31-23-2)
SVA CF%: 49.5 SVA xGF%: 49.5
The Predators were going nowhwere fast this season until Juuse Saros flipped the switch and turned into the best goaltender in the league. They don’t have a great statistical profile but a hot goalie can cause some problems in the postseason.
Injuries: RW Viktor Arvidsson (upper body)
11. NEW YORK ISLANDERS (32-17-7)
SVA CF%: 49.3 SVA xGF%: 52.4
The Islanders play a sound enough defensive game with strong goaltending. Will that be enough to advance in the postseason even if the goals don’t come so easily?
Injuries: LW Anders Lee (knee)
12. MINNESOTA WILD (35-14-5)
SVA CF%: 46.7 SVA xGF%: 51.6
A solid enough team that got a shot of electricity from rookie winger Kirill Kaprizov, the Wild are competent and deserving of their playoff spot but may not have a high enough ceiling to be a real contender.
13. EDMONTON OILERS (34-18-2)
SVA CF%: 49.3 SVA xGF%: 49.9
When you have the best player in the game, there is always a chance and Connor McDavid had a Gretzky-like (era-adjusted) season for the Oilers. If they are going to make noise in the playoffs, though, they will need 39-year-old goaltender Mike Smith to keep playing at a high level; this was Smith’s best season since 2011-2012.
Injuries: RW Kailer Yamamoto (undisclosed), RW Zack Kassian (lower body)
14. MONTREAL CANADIENS (24-21-10)
SVA CF%: 54.3 SVA xGF%: 52.8
It doesn’t appear that the decision to replace Claude Julien with Dominique Ducharme had the desired effect as the Habs limped into a playoff spot. If Brendan Gallagher returns and Carey Price is healthy and in vintage form, maybe they have a chance but, given how Price played this season, how could that be expected?
Injuries: C Phillip Danault (concussion), D Shea Weber (upper body), LW Jonathan Drouin (personal)
15. DALLAS STARS (23-19-14)
SVA CF%: 52.7 SVA xGF%: 53.9
Last year’s Stanley Cup finalists went through a lot, with a COVID outbreak to start the season, a power outage in Texas and then injuries – Ben Bishop missed the entire season, Tyler Seguin returned in the final week – and even so they were still a good team that probably deserved a playoff spot but their record (7-14) after 60 minutes sealed their fate.
16. WINNIPEG JETS (29-23-3)
SVA CF%: 48.5 SVA xGF%: 46.7
Heading into the playoffs with two wins in the past 11 games, the Jets are obviously missing Nikolaj Ehlers but their problems run deeper than that as a team that is consistently getting outshot and out-chanced by the opposition.
Injuries: RW Nikolaj Ehlers (upper body)
17. ST. LOUIS BLUES (25-20-9)
SVA CF%: 47.9 SVA xGF%: 46.5
After a strong start to the season, the Blues went through a long stretch of poor play in the middle of the season before rallying late to secure their spot in the playoffs. They have enough recent championship pedigree that they might be lively underdogs but they are definitely underdogs.
Injuries: RW Vladimir Tarasenko (lower body), D Vince Dunn (upper body)
18. NEW YORK RANGERS (27-23-6)
SVA CF%: 47.5 SVA xGF%: 48.3
The Rangers cleaning house, firing the president, GM, and coach following a season in which they were pretty much right on preseason expectations does not make a lot of sense. They have a roster and organizational depth that is poised to be a playoff team as soon as next season.
19. CALGARY FLAMES (23-26-3)
SVA CF%: 52.6 SVA xGF%: 53.0
Still have four games left against the Vancouver Canucks but, overall, the Flames were a disappointment this season no matter who was coaching. Their 12-14 record under Darryl Sutter didn’t exactly pay immediate dividends so there are probably going to be some big changes coming this summer.
20. ARIZONA COYOTES (24-26-6)
SVA CF%: 48.0 SVA xGF%: 48.0
Surprisingly competitive for a good portion of the season then won five of 17 games down the stretch to fade from contention. Likely aiming to go younger and cheaper for the future.
21. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (25-23-8)
SVA CF%: 50.8 SVA xGF%: 49.7
Had a 14-9-3 record in mid-March, a reasonably competitive club, before a 9-0 loss to the New York Rangers sent them into a tailspin and subpar goaltending dragged them down.
22. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (24-25-7)
SVA CF%: 45.1 SVA xGF%: 43.3
Surprisingly competitive for the first half of the season, with goaltender Kevin Lankinen stepping in and providing the goaltending that they needed, Chicago faded as they couldn’t rely on goaltending to bail them out.
23. LOS ANGELES KINGS (21-26-7)
SVA CF%: 47.5 SVA xGF%: 45.5
Veterans Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Dustin Brown turned in strong seasons but most of the supporting cast isn’t quite ready and the Kings struggled, again, when Jonathan Quick was in net.
24. VANCOUVER CANUCKS (21-27-3)
SVA CF%: 45.6 SVA xGF%: 44.8
Elias Pettersson struggled early and then was starting to come around before getting injured and missing the second half of the season. The bigger challenge is figuring out how to take this cap-strapped team and turn it into a contender.
25. OTTAWA SENATORS (23-28-5)
SVA CF%: 47.7 SVA xGF%: 47.3
It’s not like the Senators were a great team but they were competitive and played their kids so Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, and Tim Stutzle all got valuable reps. They still need more proven talent and better goaltending but it’s fair to be at least somewhat hopeful for the Senators’ future.
26. SAN JOSE SHARKS (21-27-7)
SVA CF%: 47.5 SVA xGF%: 49.8
PPG/60: 5.32 PPGA/60: 6.81
The Sharks have perilously little depth, as one might expect when they tie up $26.5 million in cap space for defensemen Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
27. NEW JERSEY DEVILS (19-30-7)
SVA CF%: 49.9 SVA xGF%: 48.8
It was essentially a tryout season for a lot of Devils, as they weren’t going to contend for a playoff spot in the East, particularly as the team crashed following a COVID outbreak so they used the opportunity to see what they might have for the future. It’s still a work in progress.
28. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS (18-26-12)
SVA CF%: 45.9 SVA xGF%: 45.6
The Jack Roslovic Trade worked out okay for Columbus, much better than the Patrik Laine Trade, but they had a hard time scoring and goaltender Joonas Korpisalo could not duplicate last season’s bubble performance. Head coach John Tortorella has moved on as a new outlook is required; it might have been required a year ago but Columbus knocked off Toronto in a five-game playoff series which made it harder to make changes.
29. ANAHEIM DUCKS (17-30-9)
SVA CF%: 47.9 SVA xGF%: 45.0
The rebuilding effort might really be starting now, with center Trevor Zegras and defenseman Jamie Drysdale the cornerstone pieces for the future, but the roster otherwise is a mismatched group of too young, too old and, ultimately, not good enough.
30. DETROIT RED WINGS (19-27-10)
SVA CF%: 44.8 SVA xGF%: 45.0
Even though they were overmatched in terms of talent, the Red Wings were at least a competitive group in the second half of the season. The real question is how this rebuild takes shape. They have prospects and a bunch of draft picks but those players are going to be years away from making an impact. The good news is that Steve Yzerman seems to be making smart moves as they prepare for the future.
31. BUFFALO SABRES (15-34-7)
SVA CF%: 45.2 SVA xGF%: 45.2
Believe it or not, the Sabres were not destined to be awful this season. They were 4-4-2 with decent underlying numbers to start the year, numbers that might have suggested they could be competitive, but then they had a COVID breakout and won two of their next 24 games, with the only two wins coming against a New Jersey Devils team that had its own breakout. Star center Jack Eichel was limited to 16 games and sure appears to be ready for a fresh start somewhere else, which means some big decisions for new GM Kevyn Adams.
SVA CF% - Score-and-venue-adjusted Corsi percentage
SVA xGF% - Score-and-venue-adjusted expected goals percentage
PPG/60 - 5-on-4 goals per 60 minutes
PPGA/60 - 5-on-4 goals allowed per 60 minutes
· Stats via Natural Stat Trick