Some of the usual names pop up in the race for the Jack Adams Award for the top coach as we start the new year, but there are some new ones as well. Here’s a look at our top five plus some honorable mentions.
1. John Tortorella, New York Rangers
Notwithstanding Tortorella’s off-base suggestion that on-ice officials were conspiring against the New York Rangers in Monday’s Winter Classic (which he subsequently apologized for), the heart-on-his-sleeve coach has been at his best this season with a New York Rangers squad that had lots of excuses for underachieving. In spite of starting with games in Europe and then embarking on a long road trip while renovations to Madison Square Garden were completed, and then dealing with the presence of HBO cameras for most of the last month, Tortorella has kept his team on track. With their win in the Winter Classic, the Rangers moved into the top spot in the Eastern Conference percentage points ahead of defending Stanley Cup champion Boston. Tortorella has been adept at getting the most out of a lineup that has also been without top defenseman Marc Staal for the first three months of the season. The team ranks second in the league in goals allowed per game. His use of Brad Richards has been exemplary, as he didn’t force a marriage between the top free-agent signing of last summer and star winger Marian Gaborik, and both have prospered, just not with each other.
2. Alain Vigneault, Vancouver Canucks
Vigneault, like Tortorella, has kept his team on track despite distractions and a slow start that threatened to derail the season early on. The Canucks have ridden out some rough patches from starting netminder Roberto Luongo while Ryan Kesler seems more himself after offseason shoulder surgery. The Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, are at or near the top of the NHL scoring list, and in spite of last season’s gut-wrenching loss in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, the Canucks once again seem determined to assume top spot in the Western Conference, if not the entire league.
3. Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis Blues
There is no disputing the impact the former Cup-winning coach has had in St. Louis. Since taking over, the Blues are 16-5-5 and sit two points back of Detroit and three back of the Western Conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks as the NHL approaches the midpoint of the season. The Blues have rebounded from a bit of a sideways turn before the new year and continue to be the best team in the conference in terms of goals allowed per game. The race in the Central Division (Nashville is just three points back of St. Louis) is going to be a dog fight, and coming out on top might mean the difference between a long playoff run and a short one.
4. Claude Julien, Boston Bruins
Everyone knows about the Stanley Cup hangover. Everyone knows the Bruins seem immune to it. And credit goes to Julien, who is essentially coaching the same lineup that plowed to the team’s first Stanley Cup victory since ’72, for getting his team back to an elite level of play. Tyler Seguin has blossomed under Julien -- remember the criticism Julien got back in the playoffs for not using the top prospect enough? -- and Brad Marchand has emerged as a top point-producing pest. The Bruins are a runaway leader with a plus-55 mark in goal differential. And along with the Rangers, the Bruins look to be the most complete team top to bottom in the Eastern Conference and that includes the work done by Julien.
5. Mike Babcock, Detroit Red Wings
The Wings have the top plus/minus in the Western Conference, at plus-40, and are almost unbeatable at home, where they are 15-2-1. They’ll get a healthy dose of home cooking in the second half of the season, which is bad news for St. Louis and Chicago , etc. and while the team needs to be better on the road (it is 10-11-0 away from Joe Louis Arena), is there anyone who doesn’t think the Wings have the tools to still be playing come May and June? The fact that the demanding Babcock is still getting maximum point production out of his team after continued forays deep into the playoffs in recent years suggests he’s still got it going on.