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A Jack Adams for Mike Babcock

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What will it take for the Leafs’ head coach to be recognized as the best in the league?

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Jack Adams Award is an annual award presented by the National Hockey League Broadcasters' Association to the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success. The winner is selected in a poll among members of the NHL Broadcasters' Association at the end of the regular season.

You read that description and it might bring a little grin or smirk to your face. Every year a coach is dubbed the best in the league, but are they really? Is the man that walks up on to that stage in Las Vegas actually the best coach in the NHL?

I mean there has been a joke among NHL fans the last few years that the Jack Adams actually goes to the coach whose team surprised everyone. To quote Sportsnet’s Steve Dangle, it’s the “We thought you were going to be bad, but you weren’t” award. When you look at some of the victories, it’s hard not to think that is the case.

Patrick Roy won the award in 2014 after propelling the Colorado Avalanche to a 52-22-8 record. Colorado had previously missed the playoffs for three seasons including a 29th overall league finish the year before. At the same time, Mike Babcock coached a Detroit Red Wings team that was up to their necks in injuries, including ones to Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Jimmy Howard, and got them to the playoffs.

Last year’s awards had John Tortorella take home the trophy. The Columbus Blue Jackets set franchise records in both wins and points. Additionally, they were one win away from tying the record set by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1992-93 season for most wins in a row. It also helped that Sergei Bobrovsky was a beast that year taking his league leading .931 save percentage up to the stage with him to claim his second Vezina Trophy.

Although the Maple Leafs were 30th the year before, there weren’t many who believed they would be just as bad. Middle of the pack team? Probably. Playoff bubble team? Possibly, stranger things have happened. What few honestly believed was that Babcock could take a team who had seven rookies in their opening night roster, get them to play the right way through his system, and make the playoffs.

You could argue Babcock did something similar with the Red Wings back in 2014. Sure, Detroit was a playoff team the year before, but once the core went down, he had to coach up the young stars called up from the minors and turn them into NHL players.

The questions is this: what does Mike Babcock have to do to win himself a Jack Adams? Considering awards are based on what is done in the regular season, and the option of, “you were supposed to be bad, but you weren’t”, is out the window now, there’s only one thing he can do.

The Leafs were playing .700 hockey in their first 10 games of the season, by claiming 14 out of a possible 20 points. If they get to the end of the year at that pace, they’ll finish the regular season with 114 points. If that were to happen, the Leafs would set franchise records in regular season points and wins (currently 103 and 45 from 2003-04 respectively).

A record like that is the definition of easier said than done, but that, unfortunately, may be Babcock’s only chance. It’s possible the Leafs fall off a cliff this season, come back to dominate the Eastern Conference next year, and then Babs wins, but, who are we kidding, that won’t happen (aggressively knocks on wood).

Gerrard Gallant will probably win if the Vegas Golden Knights make the playoffs. Even if they don’t, the start the team has is making NHL history for expansion teams.

However, the narrative around who the best coach in the NHL is very dynamic. If Vegas lands safely back to earth Gallant may fall out of favour of the consideration and another could take his place.

Considering how poorly the Leafs have played in this short stretch, it may be difficult to consider Babcock the top coach in the league. However, it’s what he does to change things that might bring him back to that conversation.

Think back to what Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner were before Babcock was hired. Additionally, William Nylander’s trial runs on the fourth line last year have been one of many things that have turned him into the well-rounded player we see now. It’s hard not to think that the line blender we saw at practice Tuesday won’t be another alteration that works in the Leafs’ benefit.

Patrick Marleau looked pretty good in between James van Riemsdyk and Connor Brown didn’t he?

That said: Pat Burns was the last Toronto Maple Leafs head coach to win the Jack Adams, back in 1993. The Leafs finished with 99 points and a 44-29-11 record after having missed the playoffs the previous two years. Although it was a different time, the trend to decide a winner seems similar.

So, yes, It’ll take some sort of miraculous feat for Babcock to win. He could get the Drew Doughty treatment, but that wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying. To jog your memory a little, Doughty was metaphorically penciled in to be named the league’s best defenceman at the start of the 2015-16 season. He should’ve won the award the year before (2015) since he had more first place votes than Erik Karlsson. Although he deserved it, many consider Doughty’s 2016 Norris win a “righting of wrongs”, considering Karlsson was the better defenceman that year.

If you look at the voting for the Jack Adams, Babcock may suffer a familiar fate. He finished second in votes both times and the difference in number has been insane so the ship might’ve sailed for him to win.

But in the end, if you’re asking Leafs management, there’s only one trophy they truly care about. Babcock sat down with Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman last year ahead of the playoffs and summed up his beliefs perfectly.

The coach of the year is the guy who carries the silver thing... I never spend a whole lot of time thinking about the Jack Adams. I want to win the Stanley Cup. Period. That’s it.


Acknowledgements: All team records are from hockey-reference.com, Jack Adams description from nhl.com