Ron Wilson and Early-Season Candidates for the Jack Adams Award
We are now a quarter of the way through the 2011-12 NHL season, and it is becoming easier to tell which teams will be Stanley Cup contenders and which ones are already setting their tee times for April.
Part of what goes into making a team successful or a pretender is the head coach. They are the ones forced to make lineup adjustments in case of injuries and make sure top talent is utilized in the right way. If they can't measure up, they will be the first to go when a team fails; just ask Bruce Boudreau, Paul Maurice and Randy Carlyle.
The seven coaches in this slideshow have helped their teams to early-season success and can be considered early favorites for the Jack Adams Award, which is presented to the NHL's most outstanding coach every June.
As always, if you feel I forgot someone or that a coach mentioned here shouldn't be in consideration, please let me know what you think.
All stats presented are as of the end of games on Tuesday, Dec. 6.
Joel Quenneville, Chicago Blackhawks
Quenneville is in his fourth season with the Blackhawks and is two seasons removed from a Stanley Cup; the 2010 championship was Chicago's first title in 49 years.
Last season, the team was decimated by salary cap issues, which forced the offseason trades of many key players from the Cup run. The Hawks finished eighth in the Western Conference and nearly came back from a 3-0 series deficit against the Vancouver Canucks in the conference quarterfinals, but lost in overtime of Game 7.
This year, Chicago appears to be back to form and is currently leading the Central Division with a record of 16-8-4, which is also good for second in the conference. They are third in the league with 3.21 goals scored per game and 11th with a 19 percent success rate on the power play.
Captain Jonathan Toews is first in the NHL with 17 goals and second with 32 points. Patrick Kane is first in the league with 22 assists and fifth with 30 points. Meanwhile, veteran forward Andrew Brunette, acquired in the offseason, is tied for first on the Hawks with four power-play goals.
On defense, Duncan Keith leads all Chicago defensemen with 19 points. However, the team defense as a whole is weak, ranked 21st in the league with 3.21 goals surrendered per game.
Corey Crawford has continued his solid postseason play by starting 2011-12 with a 12-7-2 record to rank sixth in the league in wins. He also has a .896 save percentage and 3.00 GAA, but his numbers should begin to improve, as he's won three out of his last four starts.
The Hawks are back in the position they were in during their Stanley Cup season, but since they made the postseason last year, it may not be enough to get Quenneville in serious talks for the Jack Adams.
Glen Gulutzan, Dallas Stars
Gulutzan is in his first year as an NHL head coach. He spent the last two seasons with the Texas Stars, Dallas' American Hockey League affiliate. In 2009-10, he took Texas to the Calder Cup Finals after posting a record of 46-27-7 for 99 points and second place in the AHL's West Division.
The AHL Stars also went to the playoffs last season after going 47-29-10 for 92 points. However, they lost in the West Division Semifinals.
Gultuzan was given the responsibility of trying to turn around a Dallas team that has not been to the playoffs since 2008, and so far, he is doing a good job with what he has to work with. As of Tuesday night, the Stars had a record of 15-10-1 for 31 points and seventh in the Western Conference, as well as second place in the Pacific Division. They have come back to Earth since an early-season hot start, but they are still in good position to make the postseason.
Although Dallas is in the middle of the pack in every key category, they still have some solid talent on their roster. For example, wingers Loui Eriksson and Eric Nystrom are tied for the team lead with 10 goals apiece, while Jamie Benn is the scoring leader with 23 points. Veteran defenseman Sheldon Souray leads the Stars' defensive corps with 13 points.
Kari Lehtonen is currently out of the lineup with an injury, but he was putting up a good record before going down. He had a 13-4-1 mark with a .926 save percentage and 2.34 GAA.
The Stars will have to hope Andrew Raycroft can turn things around in Lehtonen's absence. Raycroft has struggled and is 2-6 in eight games with a .906 save percentage and a 3.19 GAA.
Gulutzan is doing a fine job as a first-year NHL coach and could be in Jack Adams talks if the Stars stay in postseason position. However, there are other coaches on this list who have a better shot at taking home the prize.
Tom Renney, Edmonton Oilers
Renney is currently in his second season with the Oilers. Last season, Edmonton floundered and finished with a disappointing 25-45-12 record to rank last in the Western Conference.
So far, things are a bit different for the young, emerging Oilers.
Although they were in ninth place in the West on Tuesday, they are just one point away from the last playoff spot with a record of 13-11-3 for 29 points. The Los Angeles Kings, who currently hold the eighth seed, have 30 points.
Renney has improved the Oilers to the point where they are in the top half of the league in key statistical categories. Among their accomplishments are the fifth-ranked power play (20.4 percent) and 2.52 goals allowed per game, which is 12th in the league.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has proven he will be a star for years to come, as he currently leads the Oilers and all NHL rookies with 12 goals and 29 points. He is eighth overall in the NHL in scoring. Just behind Nugent-Hopkins on the score sheet is Jordan Eberle, who has 28 points so far this season.
On defense, Theo Peckham leads Edmonton with a plus-eight rating.
Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin has been one of the biggest surprises of 2011-12. The 38-year-old currently has a 9-6-3 record and is sixth in the league with a .932 save percentage and fifth with a 2.00 GAA. He has not had a winning season since he played for the Blackhawks in the 2008-09 campaign.
Renney is getting the most out of the Oilers' youngsters and has gotten a comeback year out of Khabibulin. If Edmonton keeps at their current pace, Renney has a good chance at being one of the three finalists for the Jack Adams.
Kevin Dineen, Florida Panthers
Dineen, like Glen Gulutzan, is in his first year as an NHL head coach. He spent the last six seasons with the Portland Pirates of the AHL, winning the AHL Coach of the Year award in 2005-06 after guiding the Pirates to a 53-19-5-3 record. Portland also made the playoffs every year but one under Dineen's guidance.
He was hired in the offseason to try and get the Panthers to the postseason for the first time since 2000 and reverse their fortunes after they finished last in the Southeast Division in 2010 and 2011.
So far, he has been effective. The Panthers are third in the Eastern Conference and lead the Southeast with a record of 15-8-4 for 34 points. He has improved the offense and the defense, as they are 11th in the league with 2.85 goals scored per game and 2.44 goals given up.
Although Stephen Weiss has been a standout as always with 29 points (eighth in the NHL), several of Dale Tallon's new additions have made an impact. Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg are tied for the team goal-scoring lead with 12 tallies each. Fleischmann is also tied with Weiss with a plus-15 rating to rank first on the Panthers.
On defense, Jason Garrison is poised for a breakout year, as he currently has 13 points and a plus-12 rating. He has also scored four power-play goals.
Jose Theodore, a goaltender who has spent recent years of his career as a backup, is having a strong year as well. His record stands at 10-5-3 with a .924 save percentage and a 2.28 GAA.
If Florida makes the postseason this year, it will be hard to imagine any other coach walking away with the Jack Adams.
Or will it?
Mike Yeo, Minnesota Wild
Yeo is the third first-year NHL head coach in this bunch. He comes to Minnesota after coaching the Houston Aeros, the Wild's AHL affiliate, in 2010-11.
In his first and only year in Houston, the Aeros went to the Calder Cup Finals after finishing 46-28-6 for second in the West Division. However, they lost the Cup to the Binghamton Senators in six games.
The Wild have not made the playoffs since 2008 and were 12th in the Western Conference last year with a record of 39-35-8 for 86 points.
So far this year, they have stunned the league by storming out to first in the conference, the Northwest Division and the league with an 18-7-3 mark for 39 points.
Although the Wild are 25th in the league with 2.39 goals scored per game, they are third with 2.14 goals surrendered and have the 10th-ranked penalty kill (84.6 percent).
Don't be fooled by the low numbers on offense, though. Dany Heatley, acquired from the San Jose Sharks in a summer blockbuster deal, is tied with four other players (Matt Cullen, Kyle Brodziak, Devin Setoguchi and Cal Clutterbuck) for the team goal-scoring lead with eight goals on the season. Captain Mikko Koivu leads Minnesota with 23 points.
Jared Spurgeon, playing his second year in the NHL, leads Wild defensemen with 10 points.
In goal, both Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding have played well. Harding recently got injured, but before his setback, he had a record of 7-2-1 with a .932 save percentage and a 2.14 GAA. Meanwhile, Backstrom is 10-5-2 with a .929 save percentage and a 2.15 GAA.
So far, the NHL has overlooked the Wild's success. Yeo deserves to be in Jack Adams talks, but he could lose out to a coach on a more high-profile team, even if he doesn't necessarily deserve to miss out on the award.
John Tortorella, New York Rangers
The hard-nosed Tortorella is in his third full season with the Rangers. He took over the team in 2008-09 after Tom Renney was fired in February of that year.
Tortorella has gotten the Rangers to the playoffs in 2009 and 2011, but they have lost in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Washington Capitals each time.
After finishing eighth in the East in 2010-11 with a 44-33-5 mark for 93 points, the Rangers are currently in a much better position. At the end of Tuesday's games, they had posted a record of 15-6-3 for 33 points to place fourth in the East and second in the Atlantic Division.
New York has a top-10 offense and defense, as they are 10th in the NHL with 2.92 goals scored per game and fifth with 2.21 goals against. Their penalty kill is just outside the top 10, as the unit is 11th with an 84.6 percent success rate.
Brad Richards has proven his worth on his nine-year contract so far, as he currently leads the team with 23 points. Also, Marian Gaborik has managed to stay healthy to date and leads the Rangers with 13 goals (he is also ninth in the NHL in that category).
Ryan McDonagh continues to impress in his second NHL season, as he currently is first among New York defensemen with 13 points and a plus-11 rating.
Henrik Lundqvist is again the team's backbone in goal. After posting 30 wins in each of his first six seasons, he has an 11-5-3 record and is ninth in the league in wins and save percentage (.931). He also has a 2.51 GAA.
Tortorella, in my opinion, is dealing with the same obstacle as Quenneville. The Rangers were in last year's postseason and on paper, were expected to be better this year. They are certainly doing well, but is it enough of a turnaround for Jack Adams honors?
Maybe, maybe not.
Ron Wilson, Toronto Maple Leafs
Wilson is in his fourth season as the Maple Leafs head coach and is trying to get his team to the playoffs for the first since 2004.
Last year, the Leafs were 10th in the Eastern Conference and fourth in the Northeast Division with a record of 37-34-11 for 85 points. It was a small improvement from being last in the Northeast in 2009 and 2010.
But this year Toronto is off to a 15-10-3 start for sixth in the East and second in the Northeast. It's possible that their early-season success may actually stick until April. They have the fifth-best offense, scoring 3.07 goals per game, and they have a 22.1 percent success rate on the power play (second).
On offense, Phil Kessel is having one of his best seasons yet. He is first in the league with 17 goals and 35 points. Not far behind is Joffrey Lupul, third in the NHL with 32 points and ninth with 13 goals. Lupul is also tied with Luke Schenn for a plus-13 rating, which leads the Maple Leafs.
In addition, Schenn is third among Leafs defensemen with 10 points.
James Reimer, recently back in the lineup after dealing with a concussion, is continuing to prove he is the Leafs' goalie of the future. He has a 4-1-2 record with a .902 save percentage and a 2.81 GAA. Those numbers can get better when he finds his form again and if the Leafs keep performing well.
Jonas Gustavsson should not be overlooked, either. He shouldered the load when Reimer was out and has a 9-5 record. Although his save percentage (.901) and GAA (3.13) aren't impressive, he should be commended for stepping up in Reimer's absence and maintaining a winning record.
Should the Leafs make the postseason, Wilson will be among one of the top three coaches for the Jack Adams, and he has a good shot at winning.