Handicapping the Jack Adams Race

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Flyers

On July 15, the finalists for the Jack Adams Award were announced. Bruce Cassidy of the Bruins, John Tortorella of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and our very own Alain Vigneault of the Philadelphia Flyers.

In their own right, all three bench bosses are deserving. The NHL got this one right, and each coach has their own unique case for the coach of the year award. Cassidy was at the helm of the best team in hockey. Tortorella took a team that shouldn’t have been in contention, and brought them into the play-in round. AV took the Flyers from unknown expectations to the second best team in the Metropolitan division. Needless to say, this is a difficult decision to make.

Choosing a winner boils down to one thing, and that’s expectation versus reality. What was each team expected to do, and what did they actually achieve? Today we’re going to take a look at each coaches case for the Jack Adams Award, and whether they deserve it or not.

Bruce Cassidy – Boston

Bruce Cassidy sits at the helm of the best team in hockey. Up until the break, Boston was leading all teams with 100 points on the season. They head into the playoffs as the one-seed in the East, also having won the President’s Trophy. All this following a seven-game Stanley Cup Final against the St. Louis Blues last season, and Boston is right back in the thick of the Stanley Cup chase.

Coming into the 2019/20 season, Boston only really lost one “key” piece, Noel Acciari, and they replaced him with Par Lindholm and Brett Ritchie. With guys like Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak, and Rask in tact, the Bruins were about as sure of a bet as any to make another run towards Lord Stanley.

Regardless of the expectations, Cassidy delivered. He took a loaded team with expectations weighing heavily on their shoulders, and he lived up to those expectations. His team leads the NHL in goal differential (+53), goals against (174), and points percentage (.714). Their powerplay (25.2%) is ranked second in the NHL, and their penalty kill (84.3%) is ranked third.

So all these tremendous stat lines, achievements, what have you, why haven’t they just awarded the Jack Adams to Bruce Cassidy yet? The problem, for this writer at least, lies with the fact that Boston was supposed to be good, so this is expected. Maybe not to the extent in which the Bruins have been this good, but a high level of success was expected. Imagine goalies getting a ribbon for every save they make during a game. Sounds silly, doesn’t it?

This shouldn’t negate the accomplishments of the Boston Bruins and Bruce Cassidy by any means. What the team has done to this point is phenomenal. However, Boston was a team that had just made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, and was returning 95% of their roster from last season. If you didn’t see a season like this coming, chances are you’re having a tough time reading this article, because you’re blind.

John Tortorella – Columbus

Torts’ case for the Jack Adams just may be the strongest of all three coaches nominated. Tortorella lost Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Matt Duchene, and still ended up in the nine-seed of the play-in round for the 2019/20 playoffs. The biggest question mark turned into one of their biggest strengths during the 19/20 season. Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins were hardly Sergei Bobrovsky, but they sure had a season to remember. Merzlikins won eight straight games from the middle of January to the beginning of February, including five shutouts. Even battling injuries, Korpisalo was steady in net, posting a 19-12-5 record.

Here is where Tortorella’s case takes a hit or two. Columbus was 28th in the NHL in goals for, but gave up the fourth least amount of goals in the league. The Blue Jacket’s powerplay (16.4%) is 27th best in the NHL, but their penalty kill (81.7%) is good for 12th in the league. Columbus also sits at 23rd in the NHL when it comes to goal differential (-7). The team stats aren’t overwhelmingly bad, but on the flip side, they won’t knock your socks off.

Before the beginning of the season, SI.com published an article previewing the season and projecting where each team would finish in their respective divisions. The staff had Columbus finishing dead-last in the Metropolitan Division. That’s how low expectations were for this Columbus squad. Sure, they were sixth in the division, but the Metro was stacked this season with only 11 points separating the Washington Capitals (1) from the New York Rangers (7). Putting just how good the Metro was into perspective, Columbus (6) would have been the fourth seed in the Atlantic Division, losing the tie breaker to Toronto. They’d be fourth in the Central Division of the Western Conference, and third in the Pacific Division.

The biggest knock on Tortorella has to be the fact that if this were a normal year, Columbus would be on the outside looking in at a playoff spot. In a normal season, they wouldn’t have even made a wildcard spot. Given, different times call for different circumstances, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that Columbus wasn’t a top-eight team in the Eastern Conference this year. Had the playoffs stayed at 16 teams, the Blue Jackets would find themselves hitting the links early this season.

It’s hard to ignore, however, just how much the Blue Jackets, and therefore John Tortorella, have overcome this season. Losing a franchise goaltender, a now-Hart Trophy nominee in Artemi Panarin, and solid two-way forward in Matt Duchene, Columbus could have packed it in and played for that high draft pick. Kudos to Torts for having the chutzpah to say “Hell no!” to that idea, and flat-out go for it.

Alain Vigneault – Philadelphia

AV, the martini-mixing, penalty kill-fixing, ok I can only go so far with this…

Plain and simple, nobody knew what to think of the Flyers heading into the 2019/20 season. There were so many mixed reviews, nobody knew what was about to unfold. They were left somewhere between Stanley Cup champions, and complete disappointments. Thank god it was a lot closer to the former…

Entering the 2019/20 season with a clean slate, Vigneault laid it all out there in his famous line, “Be a f*cking Flyer.” Between jumbling line combos, to calling up endless 4C options, it took some time but AV found his footing in a big way. The Flyers ended up finishing the shortened 2019/20 campaign in second place in the Metropolitan Division, and with the sixth most points in the NHL. Not too bad for a team with no known direction to begin the season.

The Flyers have the fourth best goal differential (+36) in the NHL, while allowing the tenth least amount of goals and scoring the sixth most goals league-wide. That’s a far-cry from where the team was last season. Their penalty kill has improved drastically as well, from 78.5% and 26th last season to 81.8% and 11th in the NHL this season. The powerplay improved as well, jumping from 23rd in the NHL last season (17.1%) to 14th now, converting at a 20.8% clip.

Only bolstering Vigneault’s chances, the injuries that he has had to deal with. Nolan Patrick was supposed to be a big part of this Flyers team this season, but hasn’t played a single game due to a migraine disorder. Oskar Lindblom’s Ewing’s Sarcoma diagnosis also posed quite the dilemma for AV when it comes to his lineup decisions. Two key cogs for this Flyers machine out for the foreseeable future, and AV kept it not just running, but thriving.

Head-to-Head-to-Head

Surely, Flyers fans would be happy if this award was judged by the head-to-head records. The Flyers swept the Blue Jackets this season and took two of three games against Boston. Unfortunately, that’s now how this works at all.

Whether it weighs on the judges minds or not, the fact remains that one coach stands above the rest when it comes to what he achieved in comparison to the expectations at the beginning of the season. To break this down, let’s use some golf terminology.

Bruce Cassidy – Cassidy had tremendous expectations, and met them. He exceeded them, but the fact remains that expectations were already pretty high to begin with.

  • Par

John Tortorella – Torts took a depleted Columbus team and made them into contenders. The problem is, contenders this season aren’t the same as contenders during a normal season. From being predicted to finishing dead last, to making the play-in round, Torts exceeded expectations in a decently big way.

  • Birdie

Alain Vigneault – AV took a team with such vague expectations, and turned them into the second best team in a stacked Metropolitan Division, and the sixth best team in the NHL. There’s not much more to say to really hammer home that point.

  • Eagle

Laugh all you want at the golf analogies, but when you really think about it, it is all about what is expected (par), and reality. Boston expected to be a top team, and that’s just what they are. Columbus expected to be pretty bad, and they ended up being decent. Philadelphia had no clue what to expect, and they’re the sixth best team in the entire NHL.

All three of these coaches deserve the nod they got, no doubt about it. There’s viable arguments to be made for each to win the Jack Adams Award as well. However, there’s one clear-cut option who deserves it, and if you say anyone but Alain Vigneault, you’re only lying to yourself.

Mandatory Credit – © Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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