Scott Kane/Icon SMI)
Candidates abound for the Jack Adams Award early in the season, but the field is always pared as the the season progresses. This season, for example, Minnesota Wild head coach Mike Yeo looked to be a lock for the award until a mid-season collapse by the Wild took him out of the running. On the other hand, one of our three finalists didn’t even start the season behind a team’s bench, to give you an idea of how fickle this game can be.
Dave Tippett, Phoenix Coyotes – There’s no doubt that Tippett deserves to be in this conversation again. If you looked at the Coyotes roster at the beginning of the season, you saw a team that made no major additions to their roster, but had one major subtraction – that of their starting goalie, Ilya Bryzgalov. Tippett took a team of youngsters, aging veterans and enigmatic players and turned what looked to be a gigantic question mark in Phoenix into a gigantic exclamation point. Under Tippett’s tutelage, Ray Whitney did his best Teemu Selanne impression and had his best season since the 2008-09 campaign; Radim Vrbata looked like a bona fide superstar en route to a career year; and their replacement for Bryzgalov, Mike Smith, quickly made Phoenix fans forget about Bryz, finally living up to the promise that was seen in him when he was in Dallas six seasons ago. A lot of times, it appears as if the team makes the coach look better, but there’s no doubt that this was a case of the coach making the team exponentially better.
Kevin Dineen, Florida Panthers – As with Tippett, this is a case of a coach making the team that plays for him better with his motivation and with his system. The Panthers’ big spending off-season was seen by many as a mistake, as Dale Tallon gave big contracts (or bigger than most thought they deserved) to players like Tomas Fleischmann, Ed Jovanovski, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky and Sean Bergenheim, while bringing in another big contract in the form of Brian Campbell. On the surface, the team looked to be a bunch of role players and castoffs from other organizations, yet Dineen did something that no coach has been able to do with the Panthers in over a decade – make the playoffs. The fact that Dineen also helped mold players like Jason Garrison and Dmitry Kulikov into very serviceable NHL defensemen is just icing on top of a very nice looking cake of achievements for Dineen this season.
But, the award goes to…
Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis Blues –
There is just one team this season that you can point to their bench and definitively say, “This guy is why they’re as good as they are,” and that team is the St. Louis Blues. Under Davis Payne, the Blues stumbled out to a 6-7-0 start and looked to be en route to another disappointing season. Instead, the Blues took a big gamble and brought in Hitchcock, who only remained employed by the Blue Jackets by the grace of Scott Howson after losing the locker room in a big way in his last season behind the Jackets’ bench. There was a big question as to whether or not Hitch would be able to get through to the young Blues team as he wasn’t able to get through to the Jackets’ youth. But that question was answered when the Blues notched points in 17 of their first 20 games under Hitchcock. He helped mold the Blues into a balanced, Hitchcock-esque team that scored big goals when needed and that got big game goaltending from their netminders – evidenced by the fact that their backup goaltender was invited to the NHL All-Star Game this season. Going 43-15-11 with a team that many had written off after the first ten games of the season is no small feat, but Hitchcock did just that and led the Blues to their first division crown since the 1999-00 season.