We're getting near that time of year again where it's not too early to prognosticate on postseason awards and where people stand as far as winning them. For the Red Wings, it looks like Jimmy Howard's injury is going to cut the legs off a potential Vezina nomination while Pavel Datsyuk's Selke case is likely going to be derailed by how little time he spends killing penalties. Detroit doesn't have a serious Norris candidate and the Hart goes to top scorers, so we can expect very little in the way of that.
But there's one award I think we've got a pretty good handle on. It's not a lock, but this might finally be the year that Mike Babcock wins the Jack Adams award for the coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success. For Babcock, there are a number of factors at play this season which may push him out of the also-rans and up to the top.
When looking at what the Jack Adams race has become, there are two front-runners and a few decent candidates. At the very top of the contenders race with Babcock is Peter Laviolette in Nashville. The Predators are drastically outperforming expectations in Laviolette's first year with the club. While a large portion of that has been attributable to the goaltending they've been getting, the Preds aren't exactly a smoke-and-mirrors contender like last year's Colorado Avalanche team that won Patrick Roy his Jack Adams Award on the strength of crazy luck. Nashville is legitimately a top-ten possession team who ALSO gets crazy-good goaltending.
Outside of Nashville, you've got Jack Capuano in charge of an Islanders team that's also outperforming expectations (although to a lesser extent). The Isles finished at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division last season and missed the playoffs by 14 points. This season they sit atop that same division with points and games in hand over rival Pittsburgh. The Isles are another of the league's top possession teams and they've managed to sit in their position despite getting goaltending in the bottom third of the league.
Bruce Boudreau and Jon Cooper round out the rest of the coaches who lead a team at or near the very top of their division who are going to get consideration. Boudreau's Ducks have a pretty good shot at the Presidents' Trophy, which will obviously help his chances while Cooper is at the helm of an exciting Tampa Bay squad.
The Dark Horses
Either Mike Johnston in Pittsburgh or Barry Trotz in Washington will get a bit of buzz for their teams playing well in those coaches' first year with their clubs. Joel Quenneville and Ken Hitchcock will always get consideration as well-known good coaches. Willie Desjardins has taken Vancouver from missing the playoffs back into contention to this point as well. Bob Hartley may be the lightest of the dark horse coaches for the way his Calgary Flames have played into playoff contention despite preseason predictions that this was going to be a lottery team.
As the season continues, any one of these guys could ride a hot streak by his team up to or near the top of the Jack Adams consideration, but as of right now, they're also-rans.
The Case Against Babcock
With Babcock, there's not really a case that he's not worthy of the award so much as there's a case that somebody else should get it. Peter Laviolette's team hits on all the major criteria for past award winners. The Predators' meteoric rise to the top of the Central Division is by far the most-surprising example of a team outperforming expectations and Laviolette has never won this award. In fact, the coach's loss by only one point (to Lindy Ruff) in the voting after taking the Hurricanes to their first ever Stanley Cup victory in 2006 is probably a big selling point as well.
Other than Laviolette, there isn't really another good case against Babcock. That's not to say bad cases won't impact the voting, but petty or stupid reasons shouldn't be taken seriously.
The Case for Babcock
One of the things that has always worked against Babcock (aside from the flippant nature of the voting) has been that he's been consistently put in charge of Red Wings teams that had expectations to be good. Living up to those expectations simply looks less-impressive to voters, even if major bits of context show that it should be. Babcock hasn't had to manage a meteoric rise for Detroit in the standings, because they haven't fallen out of the playoffs under him.
This year, he's got a team that was fully expected to miss the playoffs by a larger number of experts than have done so in previous years and his team is more than just scrambling to get into the dance. The Red Wings are showing signs of being an honest-to-goodness contender. The simple matter of the perspective people have of his team makes his performance look more-impressive.
Another benefit Babs has is that with more analytics being talked about regularly, the team's shot suppression has received a lot of coverage. I feel that this is an area where the coaching can receive a majority of the credit for results, and Babcock does seem to be getting a lot of credit here.
Finally, this is a year of only two really strong candidates. Babs was the runner-up to Patrick Roy last season, but Tampa's Jon Cooper was also another interesting candidate. Babcock has slowly been growing in reputation as the best coach to never have won this award. In a year like this, it's entirely possible that the "Lifetime Achievement" aspect of his' career weighs heavily enough to put Babcock over the top. It's also possible that the persistent media speculation calling him the league's most sought-after coach helps give him the boost he would need.
The Jack Adams, like many of the postseason awards, is decided by human voters. In the case of this particular award, it's the NHL Broadcasters Association. While I think the collective intelligence of NHL Broadcasters is much higher than they're given credit for by the fans, the nature of their job drives a bias here. Broadcasters are often called analysts, but primarily what they're paid to do is weave narratives, and they're certainly going to be affected by the consideration of which coach makes the best story for winning the Jack Adams.
Both Babcock and Laviolette have interesting narratives surrounding their success so far this season. A handful of other coaches have similar advantages as well. If this thing comes down to purely objective criteria, it's difficult to say Babcock won't win as long as trends continue as they have for the rest of the season. Lots can change between now and then, though.