by PuckStopsHere on 12/29/13 at 05:42 PM ET
The Jack Adams Trophy for coach of the year is one of the more poorly decided NHL awards. It is often given to the coach of the biggest surprise team. The assumption being that improvement can only be due to coaching and not due to any other reason. The other assumption is that god coaching leads to improvement, when there are many reasons a team can fall in the standings despite good coaching.
A case in point that I want to look at is last year's Adams Trophy which was given to Paul MacLean of the Ottawa Senators. Ottawa improved in the standings from 8th in the East Conference to 7th despite injuries to their top forward, defenceman and goalie in Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson. Was there any reason to suggest that MacLean was the reason for this? Many other reasons existed. There was a shortened season due to the lockout. Random chance is more significant in a 48 game season than an 82 game one. Maybe Ottawa exceeded expectation due to good luck. Craig Anderson gave perhaps the best goaltending performance the Sens had ever had in their history. He played exactly half the games in the season and posted a .941 saves percentage and 1.69 GAA. These are numbers he could not repeat. So far this year, Anderson is posting a .901 saves percentage and a 3.26 GAA. Good goaltending is perhaps the most common way to make a coach look like a genius, when in fact it is goaltending. Key veteran leaders in Ottawa in Daniel Alfredsson and Sergei Gonchar have departed. There are lots of reasons that we can explain Ottawa's surprise last season and their struggles this season and none of them require the assumption that Paul MacLean was anywhere near the best coach in the league in 2013.
MacLean is the same coach in 2013/14 as he was last year and this year has been a struggle. Ottawa would miss the playoffs in the weaker East Conference if the season ended today. Ottawa is tenth in the conference with a 16-25 record. They have seven regulation tie points for 39 points. Probably Paul MacLean would not get any votes for the coach of the year if the season ended now. Is he not the same coach? Did he suddenly forget how to coach? Did he fluke out last year? Or - more likely - did he get credit for something he didn't actually achieve last year.
Paul MacLean is a solid enough NHL coach. He doesn't give a significant boost to any team. He doesn't hurt any team. That is true of almost every NHL coach and MacLean is no different. It is hard to evaluate coaching. Other proxies are used and other proxies often fail. Using the proxy of the biggest surprise team in 2013, Paul MacLean won a coach of the year award he didn't deserve.
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