Report Card for Each NHL Playoff Team's Head Coach

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMay 24, 2013

Report Card for Each NHL Playoff Team's Head Coach

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    When teams reach the playoffs and then try to move on from round to round, they're usually only as good—or bad—as their head coach.

    Usually.

    But some of the teams in this season's conference semifinals have great coaches, yet they've struggled and are facing potential elimination (can anyone say Blackhawks?).

    Let's take a look at the conference semifinals and see which coaches have made the grade—and which ones have come up short.

Joel Quenneville, Blackhawks

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    Joel Quenneville coached the Blackhawks to the best record in the regular season, setting numerous team and league records along the way.

    And after the Hawks easily got past the Minnesota Wild 4-1 in the Western Conference quarterfinals, the Blackhawks had to wait to see who their second-round opponent would be.

    While the Anaheim Ducks held a 3-2 series lead in their first round match against the Detroit Red Wings, the Blackhawks and their fans wanted to see a Chicago-Detroit conference semifinal series.

    First, because the teams are long-time rivals, but more importantly, this would be the last time the two teams would face each other in the playoffs—with the exception of future Stanley Cup Finals—because the Red Wings are shifting from the Western to Eastern Conference next season.

    You almost have to wonder, with the way things have turned out thus far, if maybe the Hawks would have had a better chance with the Ducks, in hindsight.

    Detroit took a commanding 3-1 series lead with a 2-0 shutout Thursday and can move on to the conference finals with a win in Game 5 at Chicago.

    Quenneville has made several tactical errors in this series that have put his team where its at now.

    First, he's stuck with Corey Crawford in goal for too long. Crawford has played all nine postseason games, as well as the last two regular season contests. Watching him in Games 2 through 4, it's pretty obvious he's tired.

    And even though he still has a stellar 1.73 GAA, Crawford could be the worst goalie going in the last three games.

    One of the Blackhawks' biggest strengths this season has been ability to alternate between goalies. But that hasn't been the case in the playoffs, as Quenneville has stuck with Crawford instead of putting Ray Emery back in the net.

    Emery missed the last few games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs with a lower body injury.

    But a now-healthy Emery has been riding the bench, not having played since April 24, and the Hawks have slipped to a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series. With Crawford having lost the last three games, Quenneville should go against conventional wisdom of sticking with the same goalie throughout the playoffs and put Emery in the net for Saturday's potentially series-deciding Game 5 back in Chicago.

    For whatever reason, Emery seems to get more out of his teammates than Crawford, and will give a team that needs a big lift just that. Let's hope Quenneville makes a change that should have been made at least one, if not two games before.

    Two other things that have seen Quenneville's grade slip substantially:

    1. He kept Viktor Stalberg out of the lineup for the first two games against the Red Wings. While not the most prolific scorer, Stalberg makes the Hawks better in the lineup than out. Stalberg's absence in the first two games vs. Detroit can be pointed to as a significant reason why the Hawks have struggled.

    2. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews has all but disappeared in the playoffs. He tied with Patrick Kane for the team-scoring lead during the regular season, with each player scoring 23 goals apiece. But Toews hasn't been able to buy a goal in the postseason.

    Even though his lack of scoring wasn't that crucial in the first-round domination of the Wild, his continued lack of reaching the net against the Wings has been as much of a key to the Hawks' 3-1 series deficit as the poor play of Crawford has been.

    Toews has admittedly been frustrated—a highly uncharacteristic three penalties in Thursday's game prove that. That's why Quenneville needs his team to shovel the puck to Toews as much as possible in Game 5, not only to get his confidence back, but also to have him do what he does best, namely, scoring. It's now or never, if he's going to break out of his slump, he has to do it in Game 5. Otherwise, there may not be a Game 6.

    One last thing: besides Toews' frustration, the Hawks have managed just two goals in their last three games against the Red Wings. While you have to give Detroit a lot of credit for great defense and outstanding play by goalie Jimmy Howard, one has to wonder what happened to the high-scoring juggernaut that was the Blackhawks during the regular season.

    And, for that matter, can they find that scoring prowess in Game 5, or slink silently into oblivion?

    GRADE THUS FAR: C-minus

Claude Julien, Bruins

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    Thus far, Bruins coach Claude Julien has had one of the best performing teams during the playoffs. After a tough seven-game series against Toronto, the Bruins have absolutely dominated the Rangers.

    Sure, the Rangers won in overtime on Thursday on a great feed from Rick Nash to Chris Kreider for the game-winner, but Boston still has a commanding 3-1 lead in the best of seven series.

    Even with Thursday's loss in OT, the Bruins likely won't lose their cool or be flustered. Julien has made some great decisions and juggled things when he needed to.

    Unless the Rangers pull off one of the biggest upsets in playoff history, it's looking more and more like it'll be Julien's Bruins against the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals.

    GRADE THUS FAR: A

Mike Babcock, Red Wings

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    Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has instilled a never-say-die attitude in his team during the playoffs.

    Even when they were down 3-2 in the opening series vs. the Anaheim Ducks, Babcock convinced the Red Wings that they were still the far superior team—and then they went out and proved just that, winning the final two games to advance to the second round against the Blackhawks.

    The Red Wings and Babcock are now in a similar situation in the conference semifinals against Chicago. After being hammered 4-1 in the series opener, the Red Wings have bounced back to win the next three games and take a commanding 3 to 1 series lead.

    If Detroit wins Game 5 at Chicago on Saturday, the Red Wings will advance to the Western Conference Finals, and the Blackhawks will have the ignominious reputation of seeing one of the greatest seasons in league history end in one of the greatest upsets in league history as well.

    To his credit, Babcock has stuck with goalie Jimmy Howard through thick and thin, never wavering in his support of and belief in Howard, who has continually risen to the occasion. Along with stellar play by the defensemen in front of him, it's no wonder Howard and the Red Wings are riding as high as they are right now.

    GRADE THUS FAR: A-minus

Darryl Sutter, Kings

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    Kings coach Darryl Sutter is a playoff veteran both as a player and head coach. He knows just about every little trick there is in the book of how to win and lose in the playoffs.

    Right now, Sutter's defending Stanley Cup champions appear headed to the Western Conference Finals after Thursday's 3-0 shutout of the San Jose Sharks, giving L.A. a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.

    The Kings need to finish the series in Game 6. They can’t give the Sharks a chance to get back into the mix and force a deciding Game 7.

    Sutter has been on both sides of that fence throughout his playing and coaching career and has done what he's needed to do to get his team to this point.

    Now it's up to his team to get themselves to the next point. The Kings have better overall scoring firepower and a better goalie in Jonathan Quick. If they can have one more game like they did Thursday, they'll be taking a huge step towards winning their second Cup title in a row.

    GRADE THUS FAR: A-minus

John Tortorella, Rangers

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    The New York Rangers needed seven games, but John Tortorella's team beat the favored Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs.

    That's where the good ended—at least until Thursday's game, when the Rangers won in overtime to stay alive after losing the first three games of the series, seemingly never in it from the opening faceoff.

    In Thursday's game, Tortorella finally did what he probably should have done after the first game or two in the series, namely, juggle lines and go more with players that have the best chance of giving the Rangers.

    But one OT win does define a series and the Rangers are still a long shot at best to make it to the third round. Barring a complete collapse by the Bruins in Game 5, the Rangers should enjoy Thursday's win while they can, because it could very well be their last of the season.

    One last thing: prior to Thursday's game, we would have given Tortorella a D-plus, but his grade and the Rangers fortunes took a slight jump upward after the win, so he deserved a slightly better marker.

    GRADE THUS FAR: C-minus

Dan Bylsma, Penguins

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    What can we say? This is Dan Bylsma and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Enough said.

    The Pens are 7-3 in the playoffs thus far and lead the Senators 3-1, and can wrap up their Eastern Conference semifinal series Friday night.

    Bylsma has overseen one of the hottest-scoring teams in the playoffs, with Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis both with seven goals apiece and a combined 24 points.

    Credit also has to be given to Evgeni Malkin (3 goals, 11 assists), Kris Letang (2 goals, 11 assists) and Jarome Iginla (4 goals, 8 assists), Chris Kunitz (4 goals, 5 assists).

    Unless something dramatic happens in the remainder of this series, we see the Pens advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

    And leading them from the bench is the guy who so far is arguably the best coach in the playoffs.

    GRADE THUS FAR: A-plus

Todd McLellan, Sharks

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    The Sharks made it look easy when they beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-0 in the first round, outscoring the Canucks 15-8 in series, including a pair of OT wins, including series-deciding game that sent Sharks on to second round.

    But against the Kings, head coach Todd McLellan's Sharks have struggled putting the puck in the net, managing just seven goals thus far in the first five games, including Thursday's 3-0 shutout loss.

    But to their credit, the Sharks did come back from an early 2-0 deficit in the series to win Games 3 and 4 before Thursday's blanking.

    If the Sharks are to come back and beat the defending Cup champs, a great deal of credit will obviously have to go to the players, but just as much credit—if not more—should go to McLellan.

    Still, after Thursday's loss, the Sharks—and McLellan's grade—just took a dip.

    GRADE THUS FAR: B-minus

Paul MacLean, Senators

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    Down three games to one to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Ottawa Senators' backs are against the wall, knowing that Game 5 on Friday could be their final game of the season.

    To his credit, Senators coach Paul MacLean has taken a team of underachievers at times and gotten them to the second round of the playoffs.

    MacLean already has one Stanley Cup championship under his belt, having served as Mike Babcock's top assistant coach when the Red Wings won it all in 2007.

    It was his success as Babcock's right-hand man that led to MacLean getting the Senators' top job two years ago.

    He's done a great job thus far, leading the Senators to the playoffs last season (lost in first round) and again this season (into second round).

    However, the Senators are seriously outmatched by the Penguins, particularly with the recent play of Sidney Crosby, and could have the toughest job of any team that's an underdog right now.

    If the Senators lose in Game 5 and are eliminated, MacLean has nothing to be ashamed of. He's taken a team used to being underachievers and made them a confident, successful club. If they've gotten this far now, imagine the likelihood of how much better they'll be next season.

    GRADE THUS FAR: B


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