PHT Power Rankings: NHL’s best coaching jobs this season

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There is not a single aspect of the NHL that is more difficult to evaluate and analyze than coaching.

Want to know how difficult it is and how bad we tend to be at it?

Just look at the past, oh let’s say, 10 Jack Adams Award winners and see how many of them are still with the team they won it with, or how many of them were fired within a year or two of winning it. It is stunning how many of them are gone within two years.

Either they forgot how to coach in that time since winning, or we picked the wrong winners.

The coach of the year usually goes to a coach whose team exceeded expectations and snuck into the playoffs, likely on the back of a superhuman performance by a goalie that carried the team. Pick a Coach of the Year winner and then take a look at how the starting goalie performed throughout the season. There is going to be a fairly strong correlation.

This season the coach of the year award has seemingly been a one-horse race involving New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz, only lately getting a little bit of pressure from Rick Tocchet in Arizona.

Given the circumstances around those two teams it is understandable.

But have those two coaches actually been the best coaches in the league this year and done the best job? Maybe, but maybe not.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the eight best coaching jobs in the NHL this season, and there are a couple of names at the top you might not be thinking of at the moment. We are not looking for the coach that has benefitted the most from a goalie, or a coach whose teams marginally exceeded expectations.

We are looking for the coaches that have done the best job in the NHL.

You probably will not like it, but hear us out.

1. Craig Berube, St. Louis Blues. When the Blues fired Mike Yeo in mid-November they looked like a team that was going nowhere. They had been shutout in three of their previous four games, had only won seven of their first 19, and just had absolutely nothing going for them. They were completely mediocre across the board, and in some cases, completely stunk. Offensively, defensively, goaltending. All of it. It was a dreadful looking team that seemed doomed to a forgettable, wasted season.

Enter Berube and new starting goalie Jordan Binnington.

The easy thing here is to assume that Binnington’s play is key factor driving the Blues’ turnaround, and to a point, he is. He has helped fix what was a black hole in net and is putting together an incredible rookie season. But it’s not just him, and this can not be emphasized enough.

There is real improvement within the rest of the team since the coaching change.

First, some numbers looking at Mike Yeo’s final 53 games behind the Blues’ bench and Berube’s first 53 games.

The overall possession numbers are better. The shot attempt numbers dropped significantly. Their ability to control scoring chances improved. All of that together, plus a solidified goaltending position, has dramatically improved the record.

If you look at the numbers in the context of this season alone the numbers are even more striking.

That is real, team-wide improvement that isn’t just related to the goaltending change.

Keep in mind that Berube also did not have Alex Pietrangelo for 10 games in December and spent two months without David Perron, one of the team’s leading scorers, from mid-January until mid-March. He is also coaching without Vladimir Tarasenko at the moment.

They are simply a totally different team under Berube, and not be a small amount, either.

2. Bruce Cassidy, Boston Bruins. This is not the NHL’s deepest roster, and we already know this. We already know this because we have been saying “what about their depth?” for two seasons now.

Keep that in mind and then consider how many games some of their top players — the players that have to carry the most weight for this team because they do not have a ton of depth — have missed this season.

Patrice Bergeron has missed 15 games.
David Pastrnak has missed 15 games.
Charlie McAvoy has missed 26 games.
Jake DeBrusk has missed 13 games.
Zdeno Chara is 41 years old and has missed 18 games.
Torey Krug has missed 12 games.

There are more, but these are the big ones.

It would stand to reason that a team that was already thin on depth, and playing in a division with two of the best teams in the league, might struggle a bit.

Not even close. Entering Monday the Bruins have the NHL’s third best record, are a top-five possession team, and probably already giving Toronto Maple Leafs fans nightmares about their inevitable first-round playoff matchup. Cassidy is not getting enough credit for the job he has done this season. Not by a long shot.

3. Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning. Cooper is the coach that simply can not win the coach of the year award because his team is too good, which is just plain dumb. As if it’s easy to just win 55 of your first 72 games no matter how much talent you have at your disposal.

He didn’t have his starting goalie for a month and went 12-3-0 with Louis Domingue playing every game (and not playing all that well, I might add) during that stretch. Insane.

We have tried to turn the MVP into an award that a player can’t win if their team is too good (they don’t need you!) or not good enough (they lost with you they can lose without you!) and only seems to go to the best player on a mediocre team that sneaks into the playoffs as first-round cannon fodder for a Stanley Cup contender.

The Jack Adams Award has become the exact same thing. We only give it to the coach of a team that was bad the year before and then barely made the playoffs, whether it was the coaching that got them there or not.

Here is a secret: Great teams can have great coaches, too. The Lightning are a great team with a great coach.

4. Pete DeBoer, San Jose Sharks. Like Cooper, another coach that probably won’t get enough credit because of the talent on his team.

Here is the argument for him: The Sharks have the second-worst team save percentage in the NHL at .893. That is an appallingly abysmal number. It is such a fantastically bad performance by the duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell that this team has no business being anywhere near the top of its division and the top of the Western Conference standings.

They are the only team in the NHL that currently occupies a playoff spot and sits lower than 20th in team save percentage.

Here is where the other teams ranked 20th or lower (in order) sit in the league-wide standings.

19th
21st
26th
29th
30th
31st
17th
23rd
22nd
28th
4th (this is the Sharks)
20th

Goaltending this bad is supposed to be impossible to win with. I know the Sharks have a lot of talent, but they’re not the only team in this tier with a talent on their roster, and goaltending has sunk all of them.

Oh, and the Sharks have also been without Erik Karlsson for a significant chunk of the season. And they are still steamrolling teams and one point back of the top spot in the Western Conference … with no goaltending to speak of.

DeBoer is like … the bizarro Jack Adams winner. Instead of being a coach whose team has climbed to the top of the standings on the back of his goalie he has climbed to the top in spite of his goalies.

5. Rick Tocchet, Arizona Coyotes. If I were a betting man I would say that if the Coyotes make the playoffs that Tocchet is going to win the coach of the year award, and probably by a wide margin. This is what Jack Adams Award votes live for. The Coyotes were the worst team in the Western Conference a year ago, have missed the playoffs six years in a row, and have been absolutely decimated by injuries all season, crippling what was already a thin roster. Heck, even losing just starting goalie Antti Raanta could have been enough to ruin their season, even without all of the others.

But here they are, holding a playoff position in mid-March and seemingly in the driver’s seat to take a Wild Card spot. Darcy Kuemper deserves the bulk of the credit for that, but the injury situation has definitely been a huge hurdle, and it would have been really easy for this team to just pack it in and self destruct. They haven’t, and the coaching staff deserves credit for that.

[Related: Coyotes’ GM on dealing with injuries, Tocchet’s influence]

6. Barry Trotz, New York Islanders. Trotz deserves a ton of credit for taking over what looked to be a sinking ship of a franchise at the start of the season and, quite frankly, not allowing it to completely sink.

They missed the playoffs a year ago, lost their best player to free agency, entered the season with three of their top-four returning forwards in contract years, and there really wasn’t any reason for anyone to believe in this team. So far, they have proved a lot of people wrong and made a pretty stunning turn around to go from one of the worst defensive teams of the modern era to what is, currently, the best defensive team in the league when it comes to preventing goals.

That is worth a lot.

But this goes back to what we talked about up at the top. How much of that is the coaching of Trotz, and how much of that is the result of the Islanders’ two goalies producing the league’s best save percentage? And if that is the result of coaching, how much of that is Trotz and how much of it is the work of goalie coaches Piero Greco and Mitch Korn? I am not saying that Trotz hasn’t had a positive influence on the team, because he almost certainly has. He is a great coach and his resume in the league speaks to that. I just don’t know that he or the Islanders would be having this kind of season without stunning play of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.

They are the true difference-makers this season.

7. Bill Peters, Calgary Flames. In most years Peters would be the type of coach that would be a slam-dunk Jack Adams winner. A first-year coach, taking over a non-playoff team a year ago, and driving them to the top of the Conference standings. But with teams like the Islanders and Coyotes exceeding expectations, Berube helping to turn around the Blues, the Hurricanes becoming relevant again, he just seems like he is going to be lost in the shuffle. It is unfortunate because his team has been legitimately good, and I almost wonder if this is what the Hurricanes would have looked like the past few years with a couple of more finishers and some decent goaltending on their roster.

8. Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina Hurricanes. There is definitely a different vibe around this team, and not just because of the storm surge celebrations that are driving some people mad.

It just finally feels like everything is starting to click for a team that always had promising young talent but could never really put it together.

The thing about the Hurricanes’ climb up the standings is there’s not really much difference in their actual performance from an analytics standpoint.

They have always been one of the best possession teams in the league, and they still are.

They have always been one of the best shot suppression teams in the league, and they still are.

The two things that always sunk them were goaltending and not enough forwards that could actually finish. The big change this season is that Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney came out of nowhere to give them competent goaltending they needed to actually look like the good defensive team they have always been, and they found a couple of forwards with real finishing ability in prized rookie Andrei Svechnikov and Nino Neiderreiter, who they stole from the Minnesota Wild.

Brind’Amour has done a great job, but even with all of the losing in recent years there was still a strong foundation in place. They just needed the right move or two to bring it all together.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Bishop’s shutout streak for Stars enhancing Vezina Trophy case

There are two big points on the line Thursday night in Minnesota when the Wild host the Dallas Stars. Both are pursuing playoff spots in the Western Conference, but the Wild will face a tall task in trying to score on Ben Bishop, who’s been unbeatable of late.

Bishop has shutouts in each of his last three starts and hasn’t surrendered a goal since late in the second period of the Stars’ March 2 win over the St. Louis Blues. His shutout streak is currently 204:20, the second-longest in franchise history behind Eddie Belfour’s 219:26, which was set in 2000. He’s also the third goaltender in franchise history to record three straight shutouts, joining Belfour’s 2000 run and Cesare Maniago who did it in 1967.

“It’s just one of those things,” Bishop said after Tuesday’s win Buffalo. “I’ll take it. The wins are what’s important. Obviously the shutouts are nice but it’s not why we play the game. The guys are doing a great job in front of me, big blocks at important times, big penalty kills, and then a couple of posts. Things are going my way right now, just try to ride the high as long you can.”

Bishop’s play has NBCSN’s own Brian Boucher, who owns the NHL record for longest shutout streak at 332:01, a little nervous:

What this run for Bishop has also done is move the 32-year-old netminder into the Vezina Trophy discussion. He’s now tied for second in the league with six shutouts, tied for first among goaltenders with 35 appearances with a .935 even strength save percentage, and tied for third among goaltenders with 1,500 minutes played with a .869 high-danger save percentage (via Natural Stat Trick).

Another stat for Bishop’s Vezina resume? He’s third in the league with a plus-15.32 goals saved above average, which measures how many goals a goaltender has saved compared to a league-average netminder.

“There’s just a calmness to him, of when he’s stopping pucks and when he’s handling pucks, that you know when he’s really on top of his game,” said Stars head coach Jim Montgomery.

After falling short as a finalist in 2014 and 2016, could 2019 be Bishop’s year to take home hardware? At the moment, there are a good number of contenders with Frederik Andersen, Marc-Andre Fleury, Robin Lehner, and Andrei Vasilevskiy as some of the names in the mix. It will have to come down to who impressed the league’s 31 general managers the most when it’s time to vote.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: NHL addresses slur; Tough night for bubble teams

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NHL addresses outburst from Maple Leafs – Lightning game

The Lightning throttled the Maple Leafs 6-2 on Monday, to the point that the Toronto crowd was booing. But that might not have been the ugliest moment of that loss.

It’s unclear who was responsible for the outburst, but Twitter account @TheLeafsIMO pointed out (warning: NSFW language) that a homophobic slur was picked up by a live mic late in the second period of the game.

The NHL released a brief statement on the matter, so we’ll see if anything else comes from this.

The Leafs also commented:

Bubble blunders

Out East, the Blue Jackets were blanked by the Islanders, while the Hurricanes took care of business. The Wild couldn’t muster a goal against the Sharks, which ended up being easier to stomach because the Coyotes and Avalanche didn’t fare much better. In a lot of cases, the bubble teams that didn’t play had the best experiences on Monday.

 Three Stars

1. Petr Mrazek

There were three shutouts on Monday, and two of them were good enough to earn spots in the top three (sorry, Martin Jones, but yours wasn’t quite as impressive at 24 saves).

Mrazek continues to be red-hot for the Hurricanes, as he stopped a whopping 38 shots on goal to blank the Avalanche in a matchup between two teams that are fighting for berths in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs in their respective conferences.

Mrazek’s now on a six-game winning streak that includes two shutouts. While his full season stats aren’t all that impressive, he’s putting together the sort of stretch run that should keep him on the radars of NHL teams — probably including his current one in Carolina.

This save could be high on his “resume.”

2. Brendan Perlini

OK, I’ll admit that, in a vacuum, Leon Draisaitl had the more impressive three-point night. Edmonton needed all three of his points (one goal, two assists) to win in overtime, including his OTGWG. There’s also an argument for Andrei Svechnikov, who was part of all three of Carolina’s goals (two goals, one assist) with one of those points being an empty-net goal.

Perlini gets the edge because of context.

For one thing, it’s sweet enough to score against your former team after they traded you, but to make it a hat trick? That’s downright saucy.

It also greatly increases the Coyotes’ chances of missing the playoffs. Gotta respect that level of spite.

3. Thomas Greiss

You may prefer Svechnikov, Draisaitl, or a few other players in this spot, but Greiss generated a 31-save shutout against a desperate Blue Jackets team that – despite recent scoring struggles – boasts quite an arsenal of scorers.

Greiss and Robin Lehner continue to give the Islanders absolutely fantastic goaltending, keeping the door open for a possible division title, or at least a round of home-ice advantage.

Highlight of the Night

As bad as things were for Toronto, this Auston Matthews goal was nifty:

Factoids

  • To give you an idea of how long it’s been since the Hurricanes’ franchise earned a regulation road win against the Avalanche’s franchise, realize that when it happened in 1994, it was the Hartford Whalers beating the Quebec Nordiques. Yeah.
  • The Lightning keep piling up impressive accolades. The latest is that they became just the seventh team in NHL history to reach 110 standings points in 70 games or fewer. They’re also the first to do so since the Red Wings managed 110 in 69 games in 1995-96.
  • The Islanders have nine shutouts this season, one goose egg shy of tying the franchise record of 10 from 1975-76.

Scores

TBL 6 – TOR 2
NYI 2 – CBJ 0
PHI 3 – OTT 2
SJS 3 – MIN 0
CHI 7 – ARI 1
CAR 3 – COL 0
EDM 3 – NYR 2 (OT)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Four stunning numbers as NHL season enters stretch run

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Every month we take a look at some stunning numbers around the NHL.

What is standing out to us lately?

Let’s take a look…

The Islanders’ worst-to-first turnaround

The 2017-18 New York Islanders were one of the worst defensive teams of the modern era. This is not really opinion, either. It is an objective fact no matter what set of numbers you looked at.

But let’s just for now focus on goals against, the ultimate number when it comes to measuring defense.

A year ago the Islanders were giving up 3.57 goals per game, a mark that was the fourth-worst of any team in the salary cap era. The only three teams that gave up more goals were the 2005-06 Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, and the 2006-07 Philadelphia Flyers. Those three teams were also three of the worst overall teams of the salary cap era. They stunk. All of them.

Fast forward to this year, and with 15 games remaining in the season the Islanders are on track to be the top team in the league when it comes to goals against, giving up just 2.36 goals per game. That number is also among the top-40 of all teams that have played in the NHL since the start of the 2005-06 season.

Maybe it’s the Barry Trotz effect. Maybe it’s two goalies in Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss having career years at the exact same time. Maybe it’s a combination of the two. No matter what the reason, it is a stunning turnaround to see a franchise, with largely the same personnel on the backend, go from one of the worst defensive teams in in the NHL in a generation to one of the best in just one season.

The Blackhawks and Senators have replaced the Islanders 

While the Islanders have rocketed to the top of the league when it comes to goal prevention, the Chicago Blackhawks and Ottawa Senators have taken their place among the worst of the worst in this era.

The Blackhawks have been especially bad, entering the weekend having allowed 3.78 goals per game, tied with the ’05-06 Penguins for the worst mark in the league since 2005-06.

It’s actually worse than that.

If you go as far back as the 1995-96 season the only team that allowed more goals per game was the 1999-00 Atlanta Thrashers at 3.82 per game.

The scary thing for the Blackhawks is that it’s hard to see this situation getting any better in the short-term as pretty much all over the major players on the blue line are signed through at least next season, or still under team control. They actually have some salary cap space to play with this offseason, but this is a very bad defensive team with some significant questions in goal given the health issues Corey Crawford has had the past two seasons.

Then we have the Senators.

We knew given everything that happened with this team over the past year regarding its rebuild was going to produce a terrible product on the ice. Consider those expectations reached. Everything about this team defensively is just … bad.

Their 3.74 goals against per game is among the worst in the NHL since 2005-06 (third worst, technically) while the 36.1 shots on goal they allow per game is the absolute worst in the league dating back to the 1993-94 season. It is an impossibly bad defensive team.

Leon Draisaitl is on pace for 50 goals

A lot has been made of the fact that the Edmonton Oilers are set to waste another peak year of Connor McDavid, and it remains as unbelievable as it was earlier in the season. He is going to be a 100-point scorer for the third year in a row, he is the most dominant offensive player in the league, and after this season they will have made the playoffs just one time in four years with him.

But it is not just him.

They are also wasting Leon Draisaitl who never seems to get much respect for his offensive ability.

For example, did you know that he is currently second in the league in goals scored with 41? And that he is currently on pace for 50 goals? Well, he is. And if he manages to pull it off and reach that mark it might be one of the quietest, overlooked 50-goal seasons in recent NHL history.

The Oilers have one player that is on pace for at least 110 points, a different player on pace for 50 goals, they are playing in one of the weakest Wester Conference fields in years, and they are still not even close to making the playoffs.

Stunning, indeed.

The Blues already have nine shutouts

This is a stunning number just because of how bad the Blues’ goaltending was early in the season. It was probably the single biggest reason they had such a slow start, but the emergence of Jordan Binnington has helped save their season.

He is 16-3-0 with a .929 save percentage so far, including five shutouts which is tied for the third-most in the league. He is one of five goalies in the league with at least five shutouts.

The other four have all played in at least 39 games. Binnington has only played 22. That is a shutout every 4.4 games.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Wednesday Night Hockey: Braden Holtby back on track

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Like most players, Braden Holtby has gone through some ups and downs this season. Nobody in Washington seemed to be panicking while their star netminder was slumping and there’s a simple reason for that. Last year, Holtby lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer for a while. In the end, not only was he able to get his job back, he also helped lead his team to their first Stanley Cup title.

The biggest difference between this year and last, is that Grubauer is no longer around to shoulder the load. No disrespect to Pheonix Copley, but he’s never shown the ability to keep his head above water for long stretches at the NHL level. He’s a respectable backup goalie. That’s it. So Holtby can’t afford to go into a prolonged slump.

So even though there didn’t appear to be any panic when Holtby struggled, there should be some sense of relief now that he’s  back on track. The 29-year-old has rattled off three victories in a row over the Senators, Islanders and Rangers. During those three contests, he’s allowed just five goals.

He’s also given up two goals or fewer in six of his last eight games.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

The Capitals aren’t in any danger of missing the postseason, but they’re currently in a tough battle for the Metropolitan Division crown. Last season, they battled the Pittsburgh Penguins for the division. This year, they’re in the same boat but with the Islanders instead of the Pens. As of right now, the Isles and Caps are tied at the top of the Metro with 83 points in 66 games. They’ve both won 34 games in regulation/overtime.

Robin Lehner‘s been terrific for the Isles, so Holtby will have to continue to perform at a high level if the Capitals are going to keep pace with New York.

“We had a ton of work to do then,” Holtby said of his team’s division battle with the Pens last year. “It’s no different this year. We’re still not close to where we want to be to give ourselves a chance to win again…Like last year we have to use every single game and every moment to improve ourselves. Our guys are looking forward to that challenge.”

The Capitals have to take care of business against a hot Flyers team tonight, but they’ll get one more crack on at the Islanders on the final day of the regular season. That might be the difference between being the top seed in the division and being second.

Kenny Albert (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.