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THN.com Blog: Coach of the year candidates

Blues coach Andy Murray has his team in the playoff hunt despite a dire outlook earlier this season.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Blues coach Andy Murray has his team in the playoff hunt despite a dire outlook earlier this season. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

With the NHL season winding down, awards banter has started to take up more airtime, print space and, as one THNer calls it, the infinite space that is the Internet. Seeing as the playoffs begin in about a week, I thought I’d fill some of that space with my thoughts on the Jack Adams Award.

There are a number of great candidates this season, more than in most years.

In the East it begins in Beantown, where Claude Julien has been battling for first overall this year. We picked the B’s to finish 10th in the East, just behind Tampa Bay, but they’re now the second-highest scoring team in the league and No. 1 overall in team defense. Players such as Milan Lucic, Dennis Wideman, David Krejci, Blake Wheeler, Phil Kessel, Matt Hunwick and Michael Ryder have all blossomed under coach Julien, while the entire roster had bought into his system.

In Washington, Bruce Boudreau has made sure his Capitals were not one-year wonders. In 2007-08 they won the weak Southeast Division, but tied for sixth in the conference record-wise. This year, they will have no worse than the third-best record in the conference and currently sit at No. 2.

In New Jersey, Brent Sutter has the Devils battling Washington for the No. 2 position – all with a non-descript defense corps and having been without the services of Martin Brodeur for the better part of four months. THN had the Devils finishing seventh before the season began.

Carolina coach Paul Maurice also has to be considered. The Canes are 32-17-5 since Maurice took over for Peter Laviolette Dec. 3, have lost only once in regulation since February and are looking like one of the scariest teams in the East heading into the post-season.

In the Western Conference, Todd McLellan has San Jose on the cusp of winning the Presidents’ Trophy. He has installed a more entertaining, offensive style, which has moved the Sharks up 13 spots in goals-per-game this season, while still being a tough team to score on; they’re third in goals-against per game.

In Chicago, the Blackhawks have experienced a resurgence off the ice, but without their on-ice success, that wouldn’t have been possible. And Joel Quenneville has played a big role. Granted, the horses were there before Quenneville, but Denis Savard wasn’t getting it done behind the bench. Quenneville has reined in a bunch of young, raw players – there are just five skaters older than 27 on the team – and turned them into, if not quite a contender in the West yet, at least a team to hitch your hopes to moving forward.

When a team makes the post-season for the first time in its history, the coach must be doing a good job. That’s the case in Columbus, where Ken Hitchcock has star Rick Nash buying into being the best player on the ice, which has allowed the entire team to buy into the coach’s system. Rookie goalie Steve Mason deserves a lot of the credit here, too, but Hitch has shown, once again, his teams play an efficient, responsible game. Columbus is another team to watch in the future.

But of all the candidates in both conferences, in my mind the race has come down to just two: Nashville’s Barry Trotz and St. Louis’ Andy Murray.

Trotz, once again, has the Predators in playoff contention, despite an underwhelming roster of no-names and reclamation projects. Really, is there any coach in the league who gets more out of what seems to be so little? The Preds are led in scoring by J-P Dumont, he of 15 goals and 60 points. Jason Arnott may reach 30 goals, but the only real good offensive season has come from defenseman Shea Weber, who is tied for second amongst NHL D-men with 22 goals. (His 51 points are good for eighth overall.)

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What has defined Nashville’s and, therefore, Trotz’s seasons of late is goaltending. Namely, blowing through at least one starting netminder a season. Coming out of the lockout, Tomas Vokoun was the No. 1 in Music City. One season later, he was essentially splitting games with Chris Mason and was then moved to Florida. In 2007-08 it was Mason’s turn to be supplanted – this time by Dan Ellis - and shipped off to, ironically, St. Louis, where he has since become the undisputed starter. This season, the twine torch has again been passed – or, more aptly, stolen – by Pekka Rinne, who, if it were not for the other Mason in Columbus, would be a good bet to win rookie of the year honors.

Weathering goaltending controversies year after year is not easy for any coach, especially one who is the only bench boss in team history and works in a middling NHL market for a middling ownership group. But somehow Trotz makes it work.

What Andy Murray has done with a young, undermanned St. Louis Blues squad this season is nothing short of spectacular – a pre-season THN poll actually named Murray as the coach most likely to be the first fired this season.

The Blues began the year with bad news when 2006 No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson went down for the season after a nasty golf cart accident. The injury woes continued with Andy McDonald and Paul Kariya hitting the infirmary soon after the season began. Promising youngster T.J. Oshie also missed significant time, as did defenseman Eric Brewer.

But Murray and the Blues muddled through and eventually a new group stepped to the fore: the kids. Led by Patrik Berglund, David Perron, David Backes and Oshie, St. Louis found some scoring. The youngsters’ maturation can only be attributed to Murray and with the aforementioned Chris Mason winning the goaltending battle over the now-demoted Manny Legace, the Blues are – amazingly in many people’s eyes – in the playoff hunt with three games to play.

The long and the short of it is that, despite all of the candidates around the league, whichever of the Preds or the Blues get into the playoffs – and only one will – their coach should win the Jack Adams. Because not only did we here at THN not have them as playoff-bound teams to start the season, not many others did, either. And between injury problems and goaltending controversies, both have done masterful jobs.

Trophy-worthy ones.

John Grigg is a copy editor and writer with The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his Tuesday blog and the Wednesday Top 10.

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