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.

The Buzzer: Big night for Coyotes — and Kucherov

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Three Stars

1. Nikita Kucherov

Let’s keep this one pretty simple, because we went deep on where Kucherov’s 115 points ranks in recent history here.

Narrowing the focus to Kucherov scoring two goals and two assists for four points in Thursday’s game is impressive enough. Kucherov grabbed the game-winning goal in this one, his second GWG in his last three games (both of those decisive goals came against Detroit, by the way).

Kucherov had a +1 rating in that tight win against the Red Wings, firing five shots on goal and ending up with just under 21 minutes (20:58) in that game. Masterful work by the clear frontrunner for the Hart Trophy.

2. Vinnie Hinostroza

While he’s been streaky in 2018-19, nights like these provide useful reminders of why a lot of stats-minded people were excited about Hinostroza’s potential after he was traded from Chicago.

For the first time in his career, the 24-year-old generated a hat trick, and Hinostroza added the flourish of making it a natural hat trick. Despite a modest 13:43 in ice time in Arizona’s win against Anaheim, Hinostroza fired eight SOG on his way to that hat trick.

Hinostroza now has 15 goals and 34 points in 61 games this season, and four goals in his last two contests. With the Wild losing in regulation and the Coyotes winning big, the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs suddenly look remarkably likely for Arizona.

They’re also only four points behind Vegas for third place in the Pacific, although that’s a big hurdle to leap with the Golden Knights also holding a game in hand.

3. Anders Nilsson

There were some very strong goalie performances beyond Nilsson on Thursday, with Darcy Kuemper stopping 37 out of 38 shots, Thomas Greiss making 33 out of 34 saves, and Casey DeSmith managing a 26-save shutout. There were also other worthy scoring performances, particularly by Brett Connolly (two goals, one assist) and Mark Scheifele (one goal, two assists).

But Nilsson managed an impressive 35-save shutout, boosting his 2018-19 save percentage from .908 to .915. He did so against a strong Blues team, too.

It doesn’t really do the lowly Senators a whole lot of good, but it might improve Nilsson’s chances of staying in the NHL in 2019-20, whether he remains with Ottawa or lands somewhere else.

Highlight of the Night

This got its own post, but it’s tough to top Zdeno Chara being strong enough to send Scheifele’s stick soaring, only for Scheifele to score a goal. Good times.

By the way, the lowlight was really a highlight, too, as Tyler Seguin was a good sport in absorbing grief for missing on an empty net. That got its own post as well.

Factoids

Scores

PIT 5 – BUF 0
NYI 2 – MTL 1
WAS 5 – PHI 2
OTT 2 – STL 0
TBL 5 – DET 4
DAL 4 – MIN 1
WIN 4 – BOS 3
ARI 6 – ANA 1
NSH 3 – LAK 1
FLA 4 – SJS 2

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.

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.

Islanders hand Blue Jackets painful, frustrating loss

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The Columbus Blue Jackets added some major firepower during the trade deadline, but for the most part, those additions haven’t really paid off.

Columbus fired 31 shots on goal on Monday, but none of them beat Thomas Greiss, as the New York Islanders won 2-0. This marks the second time in three games that the Blue Jackets have been shut out, and the third time they’ve been blanked since the trade deadline.

Again, it’s tough to knock the general effort levels of the Blue Jackets.

Matt Duchene‘s likely going to absorb more jokes about being a “curse,” and with just an assist in his last six games, he hasn’t necessarily been the shot-in-the-arm Columbus was expecting. Still, he fired four SOG in this game alone, so it’s not as though Duchene was just going through the motions.

This wasn’t a case of Sergei Bobrovsky dropping the ball, either. He only allowed a booming Ryan Pulock goal in this one, as the other Islanders goal was an empty-netter.

Unfortunately, moral victories are only going to carry so much weight for Columbus right now.

While the Islanders moved within two points of the top spot in the Metro Division, the Blue Jackets failed to increase their breathing room in front of the idle Montreal Canadiens for the East’s second wild-card spot. They’ll finish Monday in playoff position, but the margin for error looks razor-thin:

WC 2: Blue Jackets: 38-28-3, 79 points, 69 games played, 37 regulation/OT wins

Ninth: Canadiens: 36-36-7, 79 points, 34 ROW

(The Flyers aren’t totally out of things with 76 points in 69 GP, while the Hurricanes and Penguins stand two points ahead of Columbus for the third Metro spot and first wild-card position, respectively.)

It’s not totally fair to throw the Blue Jackets under the bus here. For the most part, they’re putting forth the types of efforts that eventually pay off with wins, or at least “charity points.” Yet, that’s the downside when it comes to going for broke, particularly in the compressed time schedule of trade deadline time. Things can go sideways in a small sample size of games, which means that you run the risk of falling victim to great performances, such as Greiss’ shutout on Monday.

The Blue Jackets aren’t hopeless, but deep down, they have to be feeling pretty nervous.

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.