By Steve Silverman
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Joel Quenneville, Darryl Sutter, Claude Julien and Mike Babcock have risen to the top of the coaching ranks in recent years and have all led their teams to Stanley Cup championships.
But don't expect any of them to make a run at the Jack Adams Award that goes to the NHL's coach of the year. While Babcock's Red Wings have been surprisingly strong this season, the top coaching jobs have been done in Nashville, Tampa Bay, Montreal, New York and New York this season.
Peter Laviolette, Jon Cooper, Michel Therrien, Jack Capuano and Alain Vigneault have all done outstanding jobs this season and should be the leading candidates for the Adams.
Of those five, Laviolette, Cooper and Capuano appear to have the inside track on the award. Therrien's Canadiens are tied with Cooper's Lightning at the top of the Atlantic Division, but Montreal has the league's best goaltender in Carey Price, perhaps its best defenseman in P.K. Subban and one of the league's best clutch scorers in Max Pacioretty. With their overall talent and quickness, much was expected of the Habs to begin with.
Vigneault is working hard to keep the Rangers in a strong position despite the recent loss of Henrik Lundqvist. Backup goalie Cam Talbot is adequate, and the Rangers have used their speed and creativity to play consistently as they are in the midst of a 6-1-1 run. But the Rangers were in the Stanley Cup Final last spring, and that means there are high expectations surrounding the team. Remaining in contention while Lundqvist is out is a solid achievement, but not enough to help Vigneault become a legitimate coach of the year candidate.
Laviolette is probably the front-runner at this point. After getting canned by the Philadelphia Flyers early in the 2013-14 season, David Poile hired him to change the culture of the Predators.
Not only has he helped turn the once-boring Predators into a high-octane, high-scoring team, he has helped them become the frontrunner for the President's Trophy. The Preds don't appear to be that much more talented than they were a year ago when they failed to make the playoffs, and that's perhaps the key reason that Laviolette will be tough to beat.
Additionally, Laviolette has kept the Predators on track even though they were without goalie Pekka Rinne for eight games in January and early February due to a sprained knee.
Capuano has helped the Islanders become a first-place team in the Metropolitan Division. General manager Garth Snow did Capuano a huge favor at the start of the season when he acquired Johnny Boychuk from Boston and Nick Leddy from Chicago to solidify the Islanders' defense.
Couple those acquisitions with the signing of goalie Jaroslav Halak to a four-year, $18 million contract during the offseason, and Capuano knew he had a team that was capable of playing with the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
He made that known to his players, and led by the redoubtable John Tavares, they have been at or near the top of the East all season. If Laviolette wasn't having such an off-the-charts season with the Preds, Capuano would be in the driver's seat for the award right now.
Cooper should not be overlooked for the job he has done with the Lightning, who were embarrassed by its first-round playoff sweep at the hands of Montreal last spring, and they have been playing sharp hockey all season.
While it's not surprising that Steven Stamkos has already topped the 30-goal mark, the Lightning are getting huge seasons from Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and former Ranger Ryan Callahan. Ben Bishop has established himself as one of the better goalies in the league, and the Lightning are in a good position to continue their fight for first place in the Atlantic.
Cooper has rebuilt the confidence that was torn from this team a season ago, and that should make him one of the top three coaches in the final analysis.
The old guard of coaches can just stand behind their own benches. This season belongs to Laviolette, Capuano and Cooper.
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