Every season when the annual awards are being voted upon, big debates spring up about who should win what, usually with a big dose of homerism to go along with it. In the past, I would really get into those, but over the last few seasons I’ve come to find them to be more of an annoyance than anything. The awards themselves are not really the annoyance actually, it’s more the sometimes ridiculous levels the debates around them reach and the fact that so often, the voters seem in large part to do their voting based upon reputation or trendy picks more than anything else.
Recently, I was discussing some of the flaws in the breakout system (defensive zone exits) the Montreal Canadiens use with Mathieu Roy (@Le_Matheux on Twitter) and he told me that Habs’ coach Michel Therrien was getting some mention as a potential Jack Adams Award nominee. This led us into a discussion of how misguided we thought the voting for that award was and spurred me to do a little more digging.
The Jack Adams Award is voted on by the members of the NHL Broadcasters Association and is meant to reward the coach who has contributed the most to his team’s success. Everyone knows that coaching is important and it’s nice to give awards like this, but to think this award actually has anything to do with coaching is largely inaccurate. Frankly, they could easily change this award to something like “we really didn’t think your team would be in a position to make the playoffs this season” or “wow a player on your team had a great year” and it would go to the same people.
Looking at the winners of the award over the past several seasons, some interesting trends appear. Below is the change in Goal Differential from the season prior to the season the coach won the award. Apart from Buffalo and Ottawa, the change in the G+/- was largely positive.
The team’s Points Percentage over the seasons prior to the award shows that many of the teams had a down season with a big turnaround the following year. Pittsburgh is the exception to this trend. Minnesota had only been in the league for two seasons prior to Jacques Lemaire winning it in 2002-2003 and Tampa Bay was a newer franchise as well before John Tortorella won in 2003-2004. The other teams all start off at 50% or above within 4 seasons prior to their coach winning the award. It would appear that a team returning to dominance for lack of a better phrase gets the attention of the voters.
So what about these teams improved to lead to the increase in points percentage?
Some of the teams improved their possession metrics the season their coach won the Jack Adams Award.
The larger markers indicate the season the award was won. The other markers indicate the team’s shots for and against per 60 in the seasons leading up to it. Arizona, Boston, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Washington put up their best shot suppression numbers during the 5 year span leading up to their coaches winning. Vancouver did improve their numbers. Colorado’s possession numbers had improved in the few seasons leading up to Patrick Roy’s hiring; however, his first season, the year he won, saw a major backslide Minnesota gave up shots against at the highest rate in their short history the year Jacques Lemaire won. Buffalo also gave up shots at their highest rate during the 5 year time leading up to Lindy Ruff winning. Ottawa increased their offensive attack, but still allowed a high rate of shots against.
Until very recently, these possession metrics were not often used by broadcasters and in many cases continue to be ignored. While we may be able to credit the voters with noticing better defensive play, it’s not likely that they consulted statistics like shots for and against when deciding how to vote. They may have looked at goals and points, but often it seems like these awards go to coaches whose teams have done better than people thought they would. The voters may see that many of the players were the same on the roster and attribute the improved play to coaching. If you are at all familiar with season to season variance in skater and goalie performance, you know that while coaching certainly has an influence, a player can have very good season even with poor coaching or systems.
One of the key stats I always believed to be largely responsible for coaches getting credit for the improved play of their teams is Save Percentage.
The graph above shows the team Sv% (all situations) for the 4 seasons prior to the coach winning the award and finally, the season he won. Washington, Buffalo and Tampa Bay show Sv% numbers that are very similar to the prior season.
When we remove the three teams that stayed relatively static in terms of Sv%, the picture becomes much clearer.
These eight teams all showed significant increases in Sv% the season their coach ended up winning the Jack Adams. Given that some of these teams showed no real improvement in systems related metrics, it’s pretty difficult to say that their coach had anything to do with the goalie’s improved performance. A good season of goaltending can cover up nearly any problem on a team. These increases in goaltending do account for some of the goal differential changes that we saw in the table at the top of the page.
Another thing that often bolsters a team in spite of whatever the coach may being doing and also goal differential is an impressive offensive season from one or more of their players. The charts below show how many players the team had score points on the season in that particular range. Using the Minnesota chart below, in 2002-03, the team had one player score between 60-69 points, four players score between 40-49 points, two players score between 30-39 points and four players score between 20-29 points.
Minnesota’s scoring was rather lean during the season prior to 2002-2003. The team’s goal differential changed positively by 63 goals the following season on the back of 40 plus point seasons from four players and a 60 plus point season as well. Combined with the increase in Sv% on the season, the Wild made the playoffs and Lemaire won the Jack Adams.
Tampa Bay’s Sv% may not have changed much from 2002-03 to 2003-04, but their goal differential increased by 47 goals and it is not hard to see why from the chart above.
Buffalo’s goal differential actually negatively changed during Ruff’s Jack Adams season. As noted above, the team’s Sv% did not change much. The team did make the playoffs and eventually lost in the Conference Finals.
This graph suggests that some of Vancouver’s best scorers had an off season prior to Vigneault’s Adams season. Their return to form the next season combined with a bounce back in Sv% led to much better results for the team.
Scoring and shot suppression (as evidenced in the Shots For and Against graph supra) led Washington to a better season in 2007-08 and earned Boudreau coaching accolades.
Between a resurgent season in goal and excellent scoring seasons from multiple players, it’s not hard to explain Boston’s dramatic improvement in goal differential from 2007-08 to Julien’s Jack Adams winning season.
Arizona has not been known for a wealth of scoring and Tippett’s winning season was no different. Better goaltending and shot suppression helped Arizona have success and frankly, of the winners reviewed herein, Tippett may be the most deserving of the award given what he had to work with in 2009-2010.
I’ve always viewed Bylsma’s Jack Adams award as a belated one. What he did his first season in Pittsburgh, turning the team from a poor possession team into one that made such strides that it was able to beat the Detroit Red Wings (who were hands down the best team in the league and had been for a while) was far more impressive than what he was able to do in 2010-11. The award to Bylsma that season has always struck me as a consolation prize for having to go without the team’s best scorers. Obviously, that’s no easy task, but when you look at the wealth of scoring Pittsburgh had in the seasons prior, this just rings of a “Oh hey, you actually do more coaching than just putting Crosby on the ice” type of recognition.
Hitchcock took the reins in St. Louis after the season had started and implemented the impressive defensive system that continues to lead the Blues into the postseason. Referring back to the Shots Rate graph, St. Louis already had a good thing going in terms of defensive systems, but a poor goaltending season harpooned an otherwise solid offensive performance prior to Hitchcock’s hiring. Scoring went down a bit in 2011-2012 but goaltending improved thus leading to a better season for the Blues.
Because of the lockout in 2012-13, Ottawa (above) and Colorado (below) have odd looking scoring graphs. Regardless, with MacLean at the helm, Ottawa was in good position to make the playoffs and most of that work was done without the best player on the team. Not a lot about how the team played in terms of possession actually changed other than getting a bit more aggressive on the offensive side. Many saw Ottawa’s response to losing one of their leaders and their “pesky” habit of coming back in games as a credit to MacLean’s coaching and he was given the Jack Adams award.
Patrick Roy caused quite a stir in the NHL when he took over behind the bench for Colorado. The team has publicly admitted that it does not believe in statistics based analytics and last season rode a PDO (Sv% + sh%) based wave into the first round of the playoffs. The team spent most of the season in the basement in terms of possession metrics, but a tremendous goaltending performance in addition to strong scoring seasons from their dynamic forwards got the job done during the regular season. Many big name analysts thought the Avs would be a force to be reckoned with this season, but the statistics savvy analysts predicted a major regression, which has been seen this season.
Roy’s Adams award strikes me as one of the more obvious “hype” picks of this group, although when you think back on the season long narratives pushed each year, most of these picks follow suit. That, to me, is one of the biggest problems with this award. While it is intended to rewarding coaching for the impact it has on the team, it seems to be given out more on the basis of an attractive or fun story line.
If this award were actually given to the best coaches, Mike Babcock, Darryl Sutter, Joel Quenneville and a few others would be competing with each other every season to see who could throw another one on the pile in his garage. I suppose that is probably a boring way to go about things, but it is far more accurate than the current way the award is handed out. The long and short of it is this: the NHL’s voted upon annual awards often lack any real credibility. If the league and the fans are okay with that, so be it, but in its current form, it seems an empty honor.