Each year, the Jack Adams Award is given to the NHL coach “adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success.” The winner is selected via a poll of the members of the NHL Broadcasters Association at the end of the regular season, but that step doesn’t seem necessary this year.
Let’s just skip all of that pomp and circumstance -- the award has to go to Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan, right?
How can any of the other 29 men that hold his position around the league step ahead of him after the job that he’s done this season? He’s proven to be one of the best managers of ego in the league; that’s shown in how he’s handled his superstars and goaltenders.
He’s also shown an innate ability to keep his eye on the right ball, to use one of his own comments.
When a guy needs to get going, he doesn’t call him out in the media or in front of teammates. He pulls him aside on the ice before, during or following practice, as he recently did with Nick Bonino.
Bonino responded with four goals and six points over a five-game span.
He’s also been able to get results no matter who is in his lineup. That alone elevates him above his peers.
The coach who used the words “just play” to lead his team to the Stanley Cup a season ago, is applying them again, but differently. The mantra kept his team away from post-whistle shenanigans then, but now is used to keep the team playing its system, regardless of personnel.
Sullivan's team has been decimated by injuries. One player returns, another has to leave, but the wins continue to mount. Even without seven regulars now out of the lineup.
Injuries to Patric Hornqvist (concussion), Matt Cullen (lower-body) and Carl Hagelin (lower-body) have all been named over the past three days. Hagelin is set to miss the next four weeks at minimum.
That trio joins Kris Letang (upper-body), Trevor Daley (knee surgery), Olli Maatta (left hand surgery) and Bryan Rust (upper-body) on the shelf.
These injuries have forced Wilkes-Barre/Scranton mainstays Carter Rowney, Oskar Sundqvist, and Cameron Gaunce into the lineup. Sullivan was forced to dress seven defensemen in the Penguins’ 3-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday.
Even after all of those maladies, Sullivan’s Penguins have won five straight games to tie their second-longest streak of the season. That run has them within one point of the Metropolitan Division and NHL leading Washington Capitals in the standings.
Yes, the same Capitals who were anointed Stanley Cup favorites by just about every hockey pundit around North America after they acquired defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk ahead of the trade deadline. The expert opinion was that the high-flying team would be unbeatable with its new addition, though they have yet to play a postseason game and are riding a three-game losing streak.
I guess that’s why championships -- and the top regular-season record -- are earned, not appointed.
This isn’t the first time Sullivan has had to deal with significant losses to his lineup.
He started the season without both Sidney Crosby and Matt Murray. Both players were and are among the most important on his roster.
He led his team to a 3-2-1 record without Crosby and he saw Marc-Andre Fleury backstop them to a 6-3-1 record without Murray.
Sullivan has also been forced into lineups without Evgeni Malkin, Conor Sheary and Justin Schultz. Overall, players have missed a combined 178 games with injuries this season, 104 combined over the past 31 games.
How’d Sullivan do over that grueling span? He’s guided his team to a 20-8-3 record and he did it without some of the most talented and productive players in the league.
The impressive thing about all of the roster juggling is that Sullivan continues to find ways to put the players who are healthy in positions to succeed. He’s elevated guys like Jake Guentzel and watched him score 10 goals and 19 points in 30 games. His deployment of Chad Ruhwedel has him poised to become an NHL regular after years of waiting for another opportunity to climb out of the AHL and he’s gotten meaningful minutes out of guys like Gaunce, Sundqvist and Josh Archibald.
Yes, other coaches around the league are doing great things. Guys like Todd McLellan in Edmonton, Mike Babcock in Toronto and Glen Gulutzen in Calgary are overachieving with young teams, while others are thriving with a big assist from their general managers.
Bruce Boudreau is pressing lots of correct buttons in Minnesota with the Wild, but his team is largely the one he started with, aside from the additions of Martin Hanzal and Ryan White at the trade deadline. General manager Chuck Fletcher is a big credit for that.
John Tortorella has gotten amazing results in Columbus with the Blue Jackets -- including the 16-game win streak in the middle of the season -- but they are reaping the rewards of a talented roster built by general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.
No coach has dealt with the adversity and loss of star power that Sullivan has had to face this season and that jumps him to the front of the line for the Jack Adams Award. That will still be the case even if he doesn’t finish atop the Metropolitan Division, but something tells me that his guys will ‘keep their eye on the right ball’ and ‘just play’ themselves past the Capitals.