NHL: Elite coaches can make all the difference

As Mike Babcock gave the obituary for his Detroit Red Wings at the hands of the Predators in April 2012, he noted the series was not close.

Detroit, the dominant NHL franchise of the last 20 years, had lost in five games. Consequently, Babcock vowed to fix the problems.

“One thing about it is we’re going to have lots of time and we’ll be able to get figured out what we need to do because I don’t think we’re very interested in scratching and clawing to make the playoffs,” Babcock said. “That’s kind of never been the approach we’ve had.”

The Red Wings might have had to scratch and claw to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for what was their 22nd straight berth, but it does seem as if they figured out what they needed to, as Babcock said. Good coaches do that.

As the second round of the playoffs opens today, the Red Wings remain standing. In the first round, they were something of a surprise winner in seven games over Anaheim, which finished the regular season with the league’s third-most points. If one can draw any conclusions from the first round, it is that coaching matters. A lot.

First, coaching showed how it mattered in terms of which teams qualified for the playoffs. Half of the 16 teams that qualified boasted coaches who had previously won the Stanley Cup. Two of the eight series pitted coaches against each other who had won the Cup: St. Louis (Ken Hitchcock) against Los Angeles (Darryl Sutter) and Toronto (Randy Carlyle) against Boston (Claude Julien).

Perhaps not coincidentally, those were the only two series in which a team with a coach who had won the Cup lost. At the start of the second round, six of the eight remaining coaches have won the Cup. To make the point a bit finer, in the three first-round series that extended to seven games on Sunday and Monday, all three winners were coached by men who have won the Cup: the Rangers’ John Tortorella over Washington’s rookie head coach Adam Oates, Julien over Carlyle and Babcock over Anaheim’s Bruce Boudreau.

The world being a complex place, other mitigating factors were, of course, at work in these series victories. Say, the goaltending of the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, the epic meltdown of the young Maple Leafs and that greatest of intangibles, experienced players — notably, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg willing the Red Wings to victory.

This is not to say that Oates, who did a superb job to turn around Washington’s season in a short amount of time and win the Southeast Division, or Boudreau might not win the Cup someday. That is also not to say that San Jose’s Todd McLellan and Ottawa’s Paul MacLean — who deserves to win the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year in a runaway vote — might not win the Cup someday either, as both excel at what they do.

(Incidentally — or perhaps not — both McLellan and MacLean were assistants on Babcock’s 2008 Cup champion Red Wings, making them about as close as one can possibly get to a Cup-winning head coach without actually being that.)

And with all due respect to McLellan and MacLean, it looks increasingly as if the coach of the 2013 Stanley Cup champions will be a two-time winner. I would love to see the Las Vegas oddsmakers take on the chances of the field — Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, the Rangers, Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins — of winning the Cup against that of San Jose and Ottawa combined. Would the Sharks and Senators have 100-to-1 odds? 200-to-1? Lower still?

Who will be the two-time Cup-winner be: the prohibitive favorites in Chicago’s Joel Quenneville or Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma? Or will one of the lower-seeded, gutsier teams pull it out behind a guileful coaching effort? None of the six Cup-winning coaches would probably ever admit it, but historical legacies are at stake. Having your name engraved on the Cup for the second time could be as good of a guarantee as exists in terms of election to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

On a day when Dallas parted ways with coach Glen Gulutzan after two seasons, some might complain if some other past Cup winners who are not head coaches get a look. There’s only a few of them who are not already employed in the NHL as head coaches or, possibly, too old — those being Marc Crawford, Larry Robinson (currently the associate coach in San Jose) and Jacques Lemaire, the last of which is most likely retired for good.

So, before complaints arise about the recycling of coaches, consider that at least for this season, a coach’s track record counts. More than you might think.