"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."
Claude Julien, Boston Bruins
Todd McLellan, San Jose Sharks
Andy Murray, St. Louis Blues
Well, we’re covered here. The three conventional categories of coaches who get nominated are represented. We have the coach of a team that was seen by many at the start of the year as a very talented club that could challenge for the President’s Cup and the Stanley Cup (McLellan). We have the coach of a team that didn’t get a lot of attention as a championship contender, but which leaped to the top of the heap early and stayed there all year, confounding critics with a mix of talent and devotion to hard work and discipline (Julien). And, we have the coach of the plucky, if talent-starved team that starts slowly (seven games under .500 as late as January 2nd), then catches fire and jumps into the playoff eight (Murray).
There isn’t the compelling story this year that there was last year, one that carried Capitals Head Coach Bruce Boudreau to this award. The picks this year are rather conventional and, to a degree, familiar. Murray has been a head coach for all or part of nine seasons in the NHL, Julien for six seasons, and while McLellan just completed his first season behind an NHL bench, he spent three years as an assistant with the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings.
The award citation states that the award is given to the coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success. One might be impressed by Claude Julien’s success with a team that some didn’t think would make it to the playoffs this year, but while the Bruins did finish with a 24-point jump over their 2007-2008 finish, last year the Bruins finished the second half of the year 21-13-8 – a 100 point pace. And while this team had a bit of roster turnover, there wasn't a lot, and it was healthier, too (20 players played in at least half the games, 18 played more than 60).
McLellan had the hardest path to his nomination. He was new to a team that: a) had talent, and b) had been a chronic playoff disappointment. Even though this is an award for regular season accomplishment, there was a “so what” air hovering over any success the Sharks might have – it was expected. And in that sense, if the Sharks slipped a notch or two, it could have been seen as a product of McLellan’s talent, or in this case, lack of it. That San Jose shot out of the blocks ((8-2-0 after ten games, 16-3-1 after 20, 25-3-2 after 30) put to rest any notion that McLellan would somehow squander the Sharks’ talent or that he couldn’t cope with expectations.
For Murray, it was his highest win total of his career (41), and it was accomplished with a team that lost top defenseman Erik Johnson on the eve of the regular season and with a collection of players who might otherwise be thought of as being something less than star quality. It was a team that struggled at even strength (19 players finished on the minus side of the ledger, and the Blues were 21st in 5-on-5 play), but did finish in the top ten in power play (8th) and penalty killing (3rd), suggesting a strong work ethic and an ability by Murray to get the most out of this squad.
But for sheer contribution by a coach, there was a coach who engineered a remarkable turn around with a team under the spotlight. He took over a team in mid-season (actually, with 25 games to play) and at risk of missing the playoffs, despite being a pre-season Stanley Cup favorite. He took over a team lacking direction, looking like a team with mismatched style to talent, an also-ran with a 27-25-5 record, and led that team – largely with the same underachieving personnel – to an 18-3-4 finish and a playoff berth.
As for the award, we expect that the winner will be...
Julien would certainly be a worthy recipient. But even though he’s not a finalist, if we had a vote…