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Jon Cooper’s case for the Jack Adams Award

Is he the best coach in the NHL this year?

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Arizona Coyotes Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time of year when we’re all talking about the end of season awards for the NHL. When you have a team that has had the kind of season the Tampa Bay Lightning have put up, there will inevitably be players in the conversation. What’s less often in the conversation is the head coach.

Usually, teams that dominate in the NHL were generally expected to be one of the best teams at the beginning of the season. The Jack Adams award for the best head coach in the NHL though has often been an award of “Congratulations coach, your team was supposed to be bad, but you made it to the playoffs! Here’s your trophy!”

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper lost on what was arguably his best chance of winning the Jack Adams after the 2013-14 season when he finished second to Patrick Roy of the Colorado Avalanche. Like the Lightning, the Avalanche overachieved that season with the Avs overachieving just a little bit more for Roy to get the Jack Adams over Cooper.

Jack Adams Award History

The Jack Adams was established for the 1973-74 season as an award to be awarded to the coach “adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success.” The first winner of the award was Fred Shero of the Philadelphia Flyers. Pat burns holds the record with three awards and he did it with three different teams; the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Boston Bruins. Six other coaches have won the Jack Adams twice.

The Detroit red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues, and the Winnipeg Jets/Arizona Coyotes hold the record for the most Jack Adams Awards for their teams with four a piece. The Lightning have had a coach win the award once when John Tortorella won it in 2003-04.

One important point to make as well on the Jack Adams is that voting for it is done at the conclusion of the regular season. It is also voted on by the NHL Broadcasters Association. Success in the playoffs has no impact on the voting since the voting is done prior to the start of the playoffs.

When we look at the last 10 years worth of winners, we can see some trends in the voting.

  • 2018 - Gerard Gallant, Vegas Golden Knights. This one is pretty self explanatory. They were not expected to do well as a first year expansion team and were one of the best team’s in the NHL.
  • 2017 - John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets recorded just 76 points with Tortorella taking over after the first seven games the year prior. They finished 8th in the Metropolitan Division and were the 4th worst team in the NHL. In 2016-17, the team put up 108 points for 3rd in the Metropolitan Division and the fourth most points in the NHL.
  • 2016 - Barry Trotz, Washington Capitals. This one has the most similarity to Cooper this year. They finished the season with 120 points and won the President’s Trophy by 11 points.
  • 2015 - Bob Hartley, Calgary Flames. Another team that turned it around by going from 77 points under Hartley in 2013-14 to 97 points with him in 2014-15.
  • 2014 - Patrick Roy, Colorado Avalanche. As stated above, the Avalanche had a bigger turnaround that the Lightning and Roy was the winner of the Jack Adams.
  • 2013 - Paul MacLean, Ottawa Senators. With the lockout short-ended season, this one is a bit harder to categorize. The Senators finished 2nd in their division and 7th in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12. They finished 2012-13 fourth in their division and made it into the playoffs in the final wild card spot. Looking back at it even now, this one still seems a bit confusing.
  • 2012 - Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis Blues. The Blues made a big turnaround going from 87 points in 2010-11 and missing the playoffs to 109 points, 1st in the Central Division, and 2nd in the Western Conference after Hitchcock took over 13 games into the season.
  • 2011 - Dan Byslma, Pittsburgh Penguins. Like Barry Trotz in 2016, this is another one where the team was good and continued to be good the next season. The Penguins tied with the Flyers for the second most points in the Eastern Conference and tied for third overall in the NHL. They only improved by five points from the previous season.
  • 2010 - Dave Tippett, Phoenix Coyotes. The 2008-09 Coyotes picked up 79 points under Wayne Gretzky. Tippett replaced him the following season and led them to a 107 point season.
  • 2009 - Claude Julien, Boston Bruins. The Bruins went from 94 points in 2007-08 to 116 points and came up just short of the President’s trophy to finish 2nd in the NHL.

Out of the last ten awards, there are only two recipients that resemble Jon Cooper in having a good team and taking them a step further the following year. Julien in 2009 is also somewhat close as the Bruins took a big step forward. But they were also in the playoffs for the 2008 season whereas the over seven were outside the playoffs and moved into a playoff position to earn their coach the award.

This recent history of the Jack Adams Award plays against Jon Cooper’s chances. This is so especially with Barry Trotz turning the New York Islanders around despite losing franchise center John Tavares in free agency. The Lightning were already expected to be a Stanley Cup contender and one of the best teams in the NHL this year. To many voters, their position is only a confirmation of what they already thought of the Lightning.

On a bit of a side note, because of the way that the voting has been done, there are some exceedingly accomplished coaches in the NHL that have never won a Jack Adams. Mike Babcock won a Stanley Cup, two President’s Trophies, five 1st place division finishes, and went to the playoffs year after year with the Detroit Red Wings and has never won a Jack Adams.

Joel Quenneville had a strong run with the Chicago Blackhawks for years and has been considered one of the best coaches in the NHL, but has only won a Jack Adams once, back in 1999-00 when he was with the St. Louis Blues. Being a great coach isn’t a guarantee of ever winning a Jack Adams because of the tendency toward plucky underdog teams.

Exceeding Expectations

To follow on from that last argument for Trotz, I think it’s fair to look at how not only the Islanders outperformed expectations, but also how the Lightning fared as well. But how do we quantify that other than just opinions and general thoughts from the beginning of the season?

Well, thankfully Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic put together 14 different point predictions together into one graphic at the beginning of the season. These predictions included serious mathematical modeling, Vegas gambling odds, NHL 19 simulations, as well as general opinion guesses at point totals for the season.

The regular season isn’t quite done yet, so we can’t match it up and give definitive numbers quite yet. We still have another couple weeks of games to finalize things. What we can do however, is take the points percentages of each team up to this point and multiply it out by 82 games and get a guesstimate of where each team may fall when the dust of the regular season settles.

Points percentages are from after games played on 3/23/2019. Some numbers are rounded.

The average projected points for the New York Islanders was 81 points according to these 14 different projections. They had a range of 75 points to 88.6 points for a range of 13.6 points. The average range for all teams was 18.1 points. The Islanders have already put up 93 points and are on pace to finish with 102 points. That puts them set to beat their expectations by 21 points.

The Lightning on the other hand averaged a projection of 105.4 points with a range from 90.7 points to 112 points, a difference of 21.3 points. At their current points pace, the Lightning are projected to finish the year with 129 points. That puts the Lightning ahead of their expectations by 24 points.

No other team is beating their expectations by as much as the Lightning. The Calgary Flames are up on their projection by 18.5 points followed by the Montreal Canadiens at 15.6 points. To further show how well the combined projections did, only seven out of 31 teams are more than 10 points off from their projections in either directions. The other three teams went in the other direction with the Anaheim Ducks, New Jersey Devils, and Los Angeles Kings being 17.6, 19.2 points, and 23.6 points behind their projected points respectively.

So as much praise as Barry Trotz is getting for taking the New York Islanders further than were expected of them this year, the Lightning have exceeded expectations by even more. I think you’d also have to argue that with a team full of stars, Jon Cooper has had to work at managing ice time, expectations, and egos in the locker room.

The team is loaded with talented players, some of them playing a lower role than they might otherwise be playing on a lesser team. Not to mention continuing to motivate a team down the stretch that has had a playoff spot virtually locked since the new year. Cooper should get points for managing this situation well and still getting the best, and perhaps even better than their best, out of this roster.