Saturday, May 31, 2008

Awards -- The Jack Adams Award

Since the awards presentations will be made in a couple of weeks, we thought we’d start weighing in on the candidates and our picks for several of them. We’ll start with the Jack Adams Award…

An annual award presented by the National Hockey League Broadcasters' Association to the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success. The winner is selected in a poll among members of the NHL Broadcasters' Association at the end of the regular season.

The finalists for this year include:

Mike Babcock, Detroit Red Wings

Bruce Boudreau, Washington Capitals

Guy Carbonneau, Montreal Canadiens

There are many ways to exhibit coaching excellence in the context of the Adams award, and the three finalists exhibit different forms of it. There is the coach who, with superior talent, keeps his team focused, happy, and productive, so as to make the most of that talent. That is Mike Babcock. There is the coach who led a non-playoff team in his first year behind the bench, but who has a lot of young talent at his disposal. He has to manage his operation in the most storied franchise in the sport in front of perhaps its most rabid fan following, leading them to the top spot in the conference. Guy Carbonneau is that coach. There is the coach of a team that was given up for dead before all the leaves had fallen from the trees last autumn, but led them back on an improbable run to the playoffs. Bruce Boudreau was the author of that accomplishment.

Long ago, when we were taking courses in management, the art of “management” was described as being able to put your people in the best position to succeed and achieve your organization’s goals. And what is coaching, but “management” of a specialized order? The “art” here would be to put your players in the best position possible to succeed and to win. In other words, to maximize the skills each player brings to the contest.

In that respect, it would be hard to overlook one coach, whose ability to evaluate and maximize his player’s skills stands in such stark contrast to his immediate predecessor. There is a “then and now” aspect to his performance that was a stunning as it was unexpected. The team he took over – comprised of considerable talent, if raw and inexperienced – was underperforming, even by the meek standards set by pundits who had the team on the playoff margin at best, being a lottery pick at worst.

They were dead last in the league.

And, they were boring in achieving that dubious distinction. Despite having some of the best young offensive talent in the game, they were averaging 2.2 goals per contest. They seemed to have resigned themselves to playing to their description as a poor defensive team, giving up 3.1 goals a game. After a three-game winning streak to start the season, they were on a 3-14-1 slide, during which they lost six games by at least three goals, while scoring two or fewer goals 12 times and getting shutout twice.

That was then. The front office decided a change was in order and summoned a long-time minor league coach (successful minor league coach, we hasten to add) to try to right the ship. Well, what happened? The club – under new management behind the bench – went 37-17-7 to finish the season and wrap up an unprecedented rags-to-riches finish, becoming the only team in NHL history to go from 14th or 15th in their conference during the season – they were 15th when the new coach took over and 14th at the season’s 41-game midpoint – to a playoff spot, winning their division in the process with the second-highest point total earned in the Eastern Conference since the Thanksgiving holiday break.

What did it? A complete overhaul of philosophy and approach. The club has some precocious offensive talent?...well, use it! The star player was 14-9-23, even, in 21 games before the coach arrived, 51-38-89, +28 in 61 games after. The heralded rookie?...1-8-9, -5, in 21 games before the coach arrived; 13-46-59, +18, in 61 games after. The defenseman with a nose for the net the coach had in the minors?...3-4-7, -8, in 21 games before; 15-33-48, +13, after. The result?...The team went from scoring 2.2 goals a game in the first 21 games to scoring 3.1 a game in the last 61 – a 40 percent improvement.

And the more aggressive offense had its effect at the other end of the ice as well. Keeping the puck on their own sticks left less time for the opposition to have it on theirs…the result was to drop the goals allowed per game average from 3.1 to 2.7 (1.9 since the trading deadline).

There isn’t a member of this trio of finalists who is undeserving of consideration. In fact, one might add a few other deserving coaches that did not make the finalist cut, despite a few of them no longer serving in that capacity – Ron Wilson in San Jose, Claude Julien in Boston, Joel Quenneville in Colorado, Michel Therrien in Pittsburgh, Craig MacTavish in Edmonton, Denis Savard in Chicago. It is a crowded field of fine candidates.

However, there is one coach whose performance is extraordinary, owing to the circumstances of his arrival – taking over a team that was perhaps days from its season being all but over in November and guiding it to the playoffs, who stands slightly above the others. While we would not have an argument with any of the other finalists winning, if we had a vote (and we’ll admit to bias), we’d pick…

Bruce Boudreau, Washington Capitals

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Donald Brashear

Next up for the wingers…

Donald Brashear

Theme: My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose.”

OK, the quote comes from the late actress Bette Davis, but was there any tougher character on the screen? As for Donald Brashear, we think he – and his fellow practitioners around the league – plays the toughest role of all in hockey, that of “enforcer.” Whether one is in favor of or is against fighting in the sport, it holds a unique – and some believe useful – place in the sport. We won’t opine on that.

What is beyond doubt, though, is that Donald Brashear remains one of the true heavyweights in the NHL. And does that give players like Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom a little more freedom to do what they do? We suspect it does, and in that respect, Brashear plays an important role on this team, regardless of how many points he might put up or what his plus-minus might be.

For the record, here are Brashear’s ten-game splits…

Brashear is not expected to generate a lot of offense, but on a team that looked to generate more offensive pressure than perhaps any of its recent predecessors, Brashear did not generate much. Points-wise, it was his lowest total (nine) in more than a decade (eight, in 1995-96, with Montreal). In terms of the less well-quoted statistics, Brashear was the biggest hitter on the team (0.21 hits per minute played). He also led the club in fighting majors (12).

But if physical play is to be a player’s contribution, there is a fine line between supplying that physical edge and taking undue, undisciplined liberties. On a couple of occasions, Brashear crossed that line this year, most notably in the late stages of a game on March 8th in Boston. It was already a chippy game, following as it did the 10-2 whupping the Caps laid on the Bruins five days earlier. Brashear has already been involved in the second fight of the game only 14 seconds into the contest (Matt Bradley kicked things off at the five second mark). But late, the Caps were nursing a 1-0 lead when Brashear took a double minor for high-sticking, then compounded the problem by taking a roughing call. The Caps surrendered two goals on the extended five-on-three, and the Caps lost what might have been their most heartbreaking game of the year (had they not reached the playoffs), 2-1. That was a situation one would not have expected a veteran like Brashear to have a meltdown of that magnitude.

After that sequence, Brashear’s ice time was not reduced appreciably, and to his credit he played a much more disciplined game in the season’s final stretch. While he didn’t drop the gloves in those last dozen games he played after the Boston incident, he took only two inconsequential interference minors in those games (both games won by the Caps).

Brashear provides a measure of freedom for others to do what they do best. Perhaps the price to be paid for that is that from time to time, his style will be more a detriment than a positive. For the most part, Brashear was on that side of the line. And for that, he gets…


From Mickey to the Gong Show, by way of...Melrose Place?

In 1984, after a 13-4 drubbing of the New Jersey Devils, the Edmonton Oilers' Wayne Greztky was famously quoted as follows, regarding the Devils...

"They're putting a Mickey-Mouse operation on the ice. It's ruining hockey."

A decade later, the Devils shed their mouse ears and won a Stanley Cup title.

Well, now a couple of others icons from entertainment history have been called to mind to describe another NHL team. James Mirtle evokes "Melrose Place" in describing unfolding events in Tampa as the Lightning go through a change in ownership, one which appears set to replace Coach John Tortorella with Barry Melrose -- yes, that Barry Melrose -- who last coached in the NHL when Gump Worsley was playing in goal (well, it just seems that way).

Meanwhile, Eric Duhatchek wonders if the situation won't turn into a "gong show" that will leave Vincent Lecavalier pondering the wisdom of signing on to a long-term contract extension with the Lightning.

Damian Cristodero lays out some of the particulars in this morning's St. Petersburg Times. There was one part of his article that caught our eye with respect to team management...

"Much depends on how OK Hockey divides responsibilities. How much will [incoming owner Oren] Koules be involved in hockey operations, not to mention the St. Pete Times Forum? What will [co-owner Len] Barrie's job be? Bet that [GM Jay] Feaster, who is somewhat shielded with three years left on his deal, and team president Ron Campbell will be watching."

"OK hockey?" From the looks of things, that might be the best Lightning fans can hope for, perhaps for quite a while. The Caps were 6-2 against the Lightning this past year, including wins in the last five meetings. It is hard to envision the Lightning improving on that next year, given what their team might look like.

It might take a long time to build a winner...the Devils after Gretzky's Mickey Mouse comment, and even the Lightning, which won the Stanley Cup in 2004 after many years at the bottom of the league. But we might be getting a lesson in just how quickly it can fall apart. The Lightning can't be any worse next year than last, having already finished 30th, giving them the pleasure of drafting Steve Stamkos in a few weeks. But they can be just as bad...

Does John Tavares like the beach?

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Matt Bradley

We’re back with another winger to look at…

Matt Bradley

Theme: “…gives a lickin' and it keeps on stickin'"

That’s a take on the old Timex watch jingle, but it seems to suit Bradley, who is as representative of the term “energy forward” as you’re likely to find anywhere. In a strange way, Bradley is a reflection of the change in philosophy on the part of the Caps that came with the coaching change, although part of what Bradley’s effect might have been could also be a product of the absence of Chris Clark for most of the season. The indicator is ice time.

Here are Bradley’s ten-game splits…

But here are Bradley’s ten-game splits for ice time…

Bradley consistently received more and more ice time as the season progressed. Of particular note, Bradley played in 16 of 21 games through Thanksgiving, and only twice did he receive more than ten minutes of ice time (and one of those was in a blowout 7-1 win in Toronto). Bradley played in all 61 games after the Thanksgiving break, and in only 23 of them did he play less than ten minutes (nine of those coming in the first nine games after the break…and the coaching change).

And why the jump in time?...Well, Bradley hits things. A lot. Alex Ovechkin is acknowledged as a big hitter among forwards, especially skill forwards. However, Bradley more than holds his own in that department. Ovechkin registered 220 hits in 82 games while averaging 23:06 in ice time a game. Sparing you the math, that works out to 0.12 hits per minute of ice time. Bradley, with 126 hits in 77 games averaging 9:59 of ice time a game, averaged 0.16 hits per minute of ice time. If he’s out there, he’s going to punish something.

It isn’t as if he was a stiff on offense, either. While not ever likely to assume the role of a top-six forward, he had two game winning goals this year. It might not sound like a lot, but it was as many as Alexander Semin had…Viktor Kozlov, too. It doesn’t include his game-winning goal scored in the 12th round of the Gimmick, against Edmonton on January 17th.

Bradley’s performance this year is also indicative of the benefits of getting supplemental scoring. In 41 Caps wins this year, Bradley was 7-10-17, +14. In 36 losses, he registered only an assist and was -13.

There is another statistic for Bradley that is surprising, and it cleaves into two parts. For someone as rambunctious in his style as Bradley, one might have expected he have more than 74 penalty minutes in 77 games. 50 of those minutes came as a result of ten fighting majors, second to Donald Brashear’s 12 (the Caps were 5-4-1 in games in which Bradley dropped the gloves). Only 24 minutes were earned – 12 minor penalties – otherwise. That was as many minor penalties as Nicklas Backstrom had.

It would be fair to say of Bradley that he is one of those unsung guys that earns a living toiling in the trenches. We can’t know if he likes that role (no kid grows up dreaming of mucking in the corners, we suspect), but it is one he seems to have embraced – gives a lickin’, and keeps on stickin’. And the Caps appear to have embraced him as well, rewarding him with a three-year, $3 million contract extension. Given his role and his ability to play intelligently within the confines of it, Bradley deserves a decent grade for this year…