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A quieter moment for Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville, as he watches Game 5 from the bench.
Every year, one of the NHL Awards that has the most buzz surrounding it is the Jack Adams Award, given to the coach “adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success.” Last season, Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues won after taking his team from a perennial afterthought to nearly winning the President’s Trophy in just one year, and helping young players like Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk to become potential Norris contenders on the blue line.
In this compacted season, however, there are so many storylines worthy of Adams consideration that it’s hard to keep track. You have Joel Quenneville’s red hot start with the Chicago Blackhawks, as they are well out in front in their last season in the Central Division. Bruce Boudreau’s Anaheim Ducks are nipping at the Hawks’ heels in the Western Conference despite Chicago’s points streak. Michel Therrien’s Montreal Canadiens have seemingly come out of nowhere to compete with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins atop the Eastern Conference. Finally, there is Ottawa boss Paul MacLean, who has somehow navigated injuries to just about every top player on his team to keep the Senators in the thick of the playoff hunt.
So which one of these men should be considered the favorite for the Adams? The answer is anything but simple.
For starters, we could look at how each team is doing in the standings relative to last year. Here is a chart tracking the performance of the previous nine winners of the award, with Dave Tippett being the class of the field with his 28 point improvement with the Phoenix Coyotes in 2010:
There are a few anomalies here and there, like Dan Bylsma’s five point improvement in 2011, but for the most part, the average point gain is around 20 points. Often, that’s good enough to either vault a team into the playoffs or from the bottom rung of the playoff seeds into a divisional championship, so it at least gives us an idea of the kind of improvement that generally gains the attention of Adams voters.
It’s a little bit harder to quantify points improvement this season for a couple of reasons. First off, the teams are only going to play 48 games rather than 82, so the point totals themselves will be skewed. In addition, we are just barely past the halfway mark of the campaign, so there is still time for teams to fall off their current points per game (PPG) paces, so even if we were to multiply that figure by 82 games to simulate a real season, the numbers will be pretty out of whack.
To wit, here are the four coaches in serious contention for the Adams this year:
Needless to say, it’s unlikely that the three big gainers could sustain their pace. The Ducks, over an 82 game season, would not gain 55 points on last year. That’s nearly double what Tippett’s Coyotes gained over the course of a year, and the cold streaks that are inevitable over the course of a long season would correct that. In addition, the Canadiens would have a tough time improving by 45 points, and even though they started the season like gangbusters, the Blackhawks aren’t going to rack up 144 points in today’s parity-rich NHL.
Even still, the numbers do give us a nice look at which team improved the most among the bunch. Boudreau will be rightly considered a prime contender for the award, but the real frontrunner shouldn’t be him, Quenneville, or even MacLean. It should be Therrien.
Cam Charron of NHLNumbers.com does a great job of helping explain why this should be the case. Each week, he provides a rundown on two statistics designed to show which teams are getting lucky and which ones are legitimately good. These two statistics are PDO, which measures a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage at even strength, and Fenwick Close %, which measures how much time in a game a given team has the puck.
In Charron’s own words, a PDO over 1.020 is “unsustainable”, which implies that a good amount of luck is involved. In addition, his criterion for Fenwick Close % is that “any team with a rate over 50% is pretty good and should make the playoffs in an 82-game season unless something goes horribly wrong.”
In the Ducks’ case, they are both incredibly lucky and bad at puck possession. This season, the Ducks have a PDO of 1.047, highest in the league but also completely unsustainable if statistical metrics are to be believed. In addition, their Fenwick Close% is 45.97%, well below the 50% threshold that denotes success in the category.
By comparison, the Blackhawks have a PDO of 1.027. That’s still higher than what’s generally considered sustainable, but their Fenwick Close % of 55.27% offers a much greater clue into what’s making them successful. The Canadiens also have a 1.027 PDO, and a 53.36% Fenwick Close.
If all these numbers are making your head spin a bit, we’ll try to boil it down. The Ducks aren’t possessing the puck nearly enough to allow their insanely high conversion rate on shots (a league high 11.5%) to continue, and so their scoring prowess will go down at some point. By contrast, the Canadiens and Blackhawks are shooting at a much more normal level, which indicates sustainability, and they possess the puck often enough to withstand any big hit to those numbers.
In a two horse race between Therrien and Quenneville, the edge should be given to Montreal’s head man. His Canadiens team was the laughingstock of the league when they were unable to reach an agreement with defenseman PK Subban before the season started, but ever since they got him locked up, they have been playing some truly incredible hockey.
If they can continue to do so, especially with the Bruins and Penguins breathing down their necks, then Therrien can finally live down getting fired by Pittsburgh just months before they ended up winning the Cup under Dan Bylsma, and secure his team one of the better turnarounds in league history.