2015 coaching carousel pays off for Leafs, Oilers, Columbus

Mike Babcock, John Tortorella and Todd McLellan have plenty in common these days.

Not only are the three overseeing playoff-starved franchises surging as they enter the final week of the regular season, they are front-running NHL coach of the year Jack Adams Trophy candidates. It also happens the trio was part of a drastically spinning 2015 coaching carousel that’s had a transformative effect.

Former coach and GM-turned TV broadcaster Mike Milbury had difficulty recalling so many changes occurring — nine in all during the 2015 calendar year — and a majority of them paying off.

“I probably tend to think that most of the coaching changes don’t work,” Milbury said. “Typically, over the course of time, the players dictate the outcome most nights. But a coach can have an influence. And there’s no doubt all those guys are good coaches.”

Two years after leaving Detroit, Babcock has the youth-laden, Auston Matthews-led Toronto Maple Leafs in position to clinch their second playoff berth in 12 years.

In Edmonton, McLellan is overseeing a Connor McDavid-led Oilers team that has ended a 10-year playoff drought.

In Columbus, the relatively no-name Blue Jackets have set franchise records for wins and points under Tortorella, who replaced Todd Richards after the team’s 0-7 start to the 2015-16 season.

And let’s not forget two other members of the 2015 coaching-change class who have already made impacts.

Mike Sullivan, who replaced Mike Johnston in December, led the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup title last year. And Pittsburgh beat the Sharks, a one-time notorious playoff under-achieving team that reached the final for the first time under first-year coach Peter DeBoer.

Not all members of the 2015 coaching-change class have been as successful.

Buffalo’s rebuilding plan has stagnated under Dan Bylsma. New Jersey has taken a step back in their second year under John Hynes. So has Philadelphia, a year after making the playoffs under Dave Hakstol. And then there’s Jeff Blashill in Detroit, where the Red Wings’ will miss the playoffs for the first time in 26 years.

Before this season, the Maple Leafs, Oilers and Blue Jackets combined to make four playoff appearances since the NHL lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.

Milbury said Babcock, McLellan and Tortorella must share the credit with their front-office and scouting staffs for identifying and adding talent. Some luck was involved, too, with both Edmonton and Toronto winning the draft lottery to select McDavid and Matthews with the first pick in the previous two years, respectively.

Then again, the Oilers had an assortment of talent and failed under previous coaches before McLellan. And the Red Wings are not developing at the same pace under Blashill as they did under Babcock.

As for Tortorella, the transformation is more significant given how the veteran coach has softened his fiery reputation. There are fewer profanity-laced eruptions, and more philosophical discussions occurring in Columbus with Tortorella, who appears to be enjoying the opportunity to mold a young, workmanlike roster.

“He’s been his own worst enemy over the course of time, and I think yes, he’s softened,” Milbury said of Tortorella, who won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004. “He’s crafted a new persona and I think it’s better for him, better for the team and there’s less distraction around John Tortorella and more focus on his players.”

Babcock is Milbury’s coach of the year pick, though he doesn’t rule out a dark horse candidate in Chicago’s Joel Quenneville for having the Blackhawks clinch the Central Division following an offseason of more salary-cap forced changes.

A glance of who’s in the running for the NHL’s regular-season awards:

ADAMS

Should win: Babcock

In the running: Tortorella, McLellan, Quenneville

Question: Does Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper enter the conversation if the injury-depleted Lightning clinch a playoff berth?

HART (MVP)

Should win: McDavid.

In the running: Pittsburgh C Sidney Crosby, Boston LW Brad Marchand, Ottawa D Erik Karlsson.

Question: In a season featuring a transformative influx of youth, is it too soon to include Matthews?

NORRIS (Top defenseman)

Should win: Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson.

In the running: San Jose’s Brent Burns, Chicago’s Duncan Keith, Calgary’s Mark Giordano.

Question: How much credit does Justin Schultz earn for steadying a patchwork blue line in Pittsburgh?

VEZINA (Top goalie)

Should win: Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky.

In the running: Washington’s Braden Holtby, Montreal’s Carey Price, Edmonton’s Cam Talbot.

Question: Will Ottawa’s Craig Anderson earn consideration for balancing professional and personal responsibilities with his wife battling cancer?

CALDER (Rookie)

Should win: Matthews.

In the running: Winnipeg RW Patrik Laine, Columbus D Zach Werenski, Toronto C Mitch Marner

Question: There isn’t one.

SELKE (Top defensive forward)

Should win: Minnesota C Mikko Koivu,

In the running: Florida C Aleksander Barkov, Boston C Patrice Bergeron.

Question: How much credit does Chicago RW Marian Hossa get in an award traditionally dominated by centers?

WEIGHTY NUMBER

Doug Weight never envisioned his numbers would stand up for so long in Edmonton until McDavid, of course, came along. The 19-year NHL veteran and New York Islanders coach was the last Oilers player to reach 90 points, doing so in 2000-01. McDavid surpassed that mark with 94 points already. With four games left, McDavid has an outside chance of reaching 100 points. Weight is the last Edmonton player to do that with a 104-point season in 1995-96.

“He should take his foot off the gas,” Weight said with a smile.

LEADERS

Points, McDavid, 95; Goals, Crosby, 43; Power-play goals, Alex Ovechkin (Washington), Brayden Schenn (Philadelphia), Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 17; Game-winning goals, Rickard Rakell (Los Angeles), 10; Goalies wins, Holtby, Bobrovsky, 41.

GAME OF THE WEEK

There’s plenty on the line in the Atlantic Division standings on Thursday when Ottawa plays at Boston in a matchup of teams still seeking to clinch playoff spots.

 

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