It's time for the NHL to hand out its annual awards and for the first time in a few years (yeah, we remember you, Jose) the Habs have a candidate for a major one. The last time a Habs' coach won the Jack Adams award as coach of the year was almost twenty years ago, when Pat Burns took it home in 1988-89. I think this year, Guy Carbonneau should bring the Jack back to Montreal.
Sure, Mike Babcock won the Stanley Cup. And Bruce Boudreau dragged his team from the cellar to the division title and a playoff berth in half a season. But, when you look at it objectively, Babcock was coaching a stacked, mature team in the Wings. And Boudreau had Ovechkin and the advantage of playing 32 games against the weakest division in hockey. Carbonneau had a team that wasn't supposed to make the playoffs, yet somehow managed to win the eastern conference and maintain an even keel all season.
Some of the credit has to go to Alex Kovalev, who, if the Hart were decided in its purest sense...for the player most valuable to his team...should have been a candidate. Kovalev rebounded from one of his worst seasons ever to lead the team offensively and in hard work. But, considering the fallout between Kovalev and the coach last year, with the bad Russian press and Kovy's demotion to the fourth line, it's kind of amazing the two managed to work things out this year. That's where Carbonneau comes in. Kovalev surely made the difference in his own game himself, but Carbonneau had the grace to be able to rise above their issues and give Kovalev another chance. A lot of coaches would have felt the need to impose their will on the reluctant star, but Carbo let it go and started over.
Credit for the team's success has to go too to the young players who found their game in the NHL and learned how to make a difference. They did the work, but Carbonneau gave them the ice-time and the chance to prove themselves. Ryan O'Byrne, Sergei and Andrei Kostitsyn and Josh Gorges all learned that if they perform, the coach will give them a chance. That's the kind of coach a young player respects and works for.
But if we're doling out credit, then the lion's share of kudos for the Habs' season has to go to Carbonneau. He learned, and he wasn't too proud to admit he learned, from his mistakes in his first year behind the bench. He's a very, very smart man who knows the game on an intimate level. I'm fairly sure he spent some time last summer analyzing what went wrong in the previous season. He must have realized he panicked when the team lost two or three games in a row. And that he spoke out of turn to the media about his players sometimes. And he mishandled the veterans on occasion. And was slow to make in-game adjustments when the other team had the advantage.
He obviously thought about those things last summer and he came to the team in his second season with an idea about how to fix his problems. He was noticably less mercurial with the refs. He didn't panic when the team lost a couple and start mouthing off to the media. He still flipped lines and goalies a little too quickly, but not with the same tinge of overreaction that he had in his first year behind the bench. And when he changed the lines, they invariably worked. He managed to convince his troops to buy into his system...he actually HAD a system...and he handled his veterans with honesty and realism, which they mostly accepted, even when they didn't like it. I thought his in-game adjustments were much more astute and effective this season as well.
Of course, this isn't to say Carbonneau was perfect last year. He made mistakes, like falling back into a defensive shell too often with a one-goal lead, putting questionable players on the ice in tight situations, and overplaying some...like Brisebois...when benching them might have helped more. How often did we shout at the TV "WHY is Smolinski out there on a 5-on3?" But the good decisions were more frequent than the mistakes.
And, isn't that the best you can ask of a coach? I think it is. If a coach makes more good decisions than bad ones, his team is going to win. And winning is the mark of a good coach. Carbonneau's team won a lot this year, and I think he deserves a nice shiny trophy to underline that fact. Now, if he can only figure out when to take a timeout...