by PuckStopsHere on 03/23/10 at 11:31 AM ET
Early this season I picked Jacques Lemaire of the New Jersey Devils as the coach of the year favorite. While he has done a good job with the Devils, who have had key injuries to their defence (Paul Martin) and have an aging superstar goalie in Martin Brodeur, who is no longer as good as he once was, the Devils are not on pace to gathering as many points this year as they did last year. I think a better coach of the year choice is Dave Tippett from the surprising Phoenix Coyotes.
It is easier to gage Tippett’s success with his team because of how badly things fell apart last year. When Phoenix Coyotes financial troubles began to make news, the team fell quickly from what looked like a playoff spot to 13th place in the West Conference. Previous coach Wayne Gretzky was entirely unable to stop the fall. Phoenix was clearly a good team who had failed because the coaching staff had failed to keep the team focused when the going got tough.
When a team’s biggest problem is coaching related, replacing the coach will tend to fix it. Coaching had not been the problem in New Jersey. Brent Sutter (last year’s coach) finished fifth in the Jack Adams voting with three first place selections (obviously nobody considered Gretzky a coach of the year candidate). When a good coach steps into a well coached team, it isn’t obvious that they will improve. Coaching is not as important as other issues (offence, defence, goaltending) and if the other issues falter, a better coaching performance could exist while the team falls in the standings. That is why I dislike the commonly used method to select a coach of the year by picking the coach of the most improved team.
Nevertheless, this year I am picking the coach of the year as coach of the most improved team because the improvement is clearly coaching related and it is quite remarkable that this Phoenix team is leading their division (though I imagine it is a fluke that will likely not hold up to the end of the year). Phoenix has the talent to be a lower seed in the playoffs (a team that starts the playoffs on the road), but they are exceeding that level and they are doing it in a franchise with a remarkable level of off-ice distractions. These distractions derailed the team last year and remarkably have not this season.
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