Coaching in the NHL isn't about barking orders at players and expecting them to execute automatically. The best coaches don't just make demands of their players, but are able to explain to them why they're making those demands, and show how going along with them will help the team.
This season, no coaches did that better than Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues, Paul MacLean of the Ottawa Senators and John Tortorella of the New York Rangers, who have been voted as finalists for the 2012 Jack Adams Award.
The winner of the award, presented by the National Hockey League Broadcasters' Association to "the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success," will be announced at the 2012 NHL Awards Show on June 20 at the Encore Theater at Wynn Las Vegas.
Hitchcock arrived in St. Louis on Nov. 6, replacing Davis Payne. At the time, the team was 6-7-0 and 14th in the Western Conference. Hitchcock, a veteran of more than 1,000 games behind the bench, installed his defense-first style, got the entire roster to buy in, and the Blues roared to a 43-15-11 finish that saw them end up second in the Western Conference.
"I think what you see is what you get with him. He's an emotional coach and he's passionate, and for those reasons that's why he's such a good coach."
-- Rangers captain Ryan Callahan on John Tortorella
The Blues won their first Central Division title since the 1999-2000 season. They finished with 49 wins and 109 points, the most in either category since that season.
Blues President John Davidson told the Belleville News-Democrat that more than wins and losses, Hitchcock was able to help the team's young players define what kind of players they could be at the NHL level.
"Obviously we've done well," Davidson said, "but we have a much better understanding of our team and the future that we have. The experience of Ken was able to do that for us."
It's the fourth time Hitchcock has been a Jack Adams finalist; he finished second in 1997 and third in 1998 and 1999, all with Dallas.
Hitchcock said credit for his nomination should go to the family and friends who kept him focused following his firing by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"When you make the decision to coach as a living, there's times when you really need your family and friends," Hitchcock said. "And in the last year and a half, I really needed family and friends. First to keep me sane, to keep me occupied and to keep me interested to keep doing this wonderful job that we get. But there are times when you really need to lean on them, especially from a family standpoint and a friend standpoint. I really needed my family and my close friends, especially the ones in Columbus, because that's where we've lived full time. And then obviously Doug making the phone call and John supporting the phone call meant everything. Two good friends who were looking for a hockey coach."
MacLean arrived in Ottawa without Hitchcock's vast experience, but managed to have a similar impact on the Senators. The first-year coach took a team that had finished 13th in the Eastern Conference the season before and had them in first place in the Northeast Division as late as March 16. The team finished eighth in the East with 92 points, an 18-point improvement that was the fifth-best in the League, and the second-best by a rookie coach.
MacLean paid his dues as an assistant on Mike Babcock's staff in Anaheim and Detroit. He brought that knowledge with him to Ottawa, where he got the players to fully buy in to how he wanted them to play.
2012 NHL Awards Finalists
Calder Trophy (top rookie)
Henrique, Landeskog, Nugent-Hopkins
Selke Trophy (top defensive forward)
Backes, Bergeron, Datsyuk
Lady Byng Trophy (skill/sportsmanship)
Campbell, Eberle, Moulson
Masterton Trophy (perseverance, dedication)
Alfredsson, Lupul, Pacioretty
General Manager of the Year
Armstrong, Poile, Tallon
Vezina Trophy (top goaltender)
Lundqvist, Rinne, Quick
Norris Trophy (top defenseman)
Chara, Karlsson, Weber
Hart Trophy (MVP to his team)
Lundqvist, Malkin, Stamkos
Jack Adams Award (top head coach)
Hitchcock, MacLean, Tortorella
NHL Foundation Award (community service)
Fisher, Liles, Moulson
Senators forward Nick Foligno called MacLean a "player's coach." Teammate Jason Spezza agreed, but said it was because MacLean's own playing career -- he spent 11 seasons in the NHL with three teams -- gave him insight into what his players were going through.
"Just his general understanding from being a player, because he's played the game," Spezza said. "He knows the ups and downs that go with it and knows we can get frustrated at times and we know he can get frustrated. It sounds corny, but we've been all on the same page and together all year and I think that's what's made it successful for us."
Added Foligno: "You feel more like a team and feel like you're giving more input on how the game's going because we're the ones that go out there and play. We kind of have a different feel for the game than he does, so he understands that having played himself. It's been really good that way."
MacLean is the first Ottawa coach to finish in the top three in Jack Adams voting since Jacques Martin came in third in 2003. Martin, in 1999, is the only Senators to coach to win the award.
"It's a great thing, not only for me but for my coaching staff and the organization," MacLean told the team's website.
Tortorella guided the Rangers to their first Atlantic Division title and first-place finish in the Eastern Conference since the 1993-94 season, which ended with the club winning its most recent Stanley Cup.
The obstacles laid in front of the Rangers started even before the season. They spent 10 days in four countries in Europe, playing almost their entire preseason and their first two regular-season games overseas. Back in North America, they went to Western Canada for four games, and didn't play their first home game until Oct. 27 due to the renovation of Madison Square Garden. They had to work around the build-up to the 2012 Winter Classic, including the month-long round-the-clock presence of HBO's cameras for the "24/7" show. And they played the entire first half of the season without top defenseman Marc Staal.
Tortorella, though, accepted no excuses and never stopped pushing his players.
"He tries to get maximum effort out of his players," forward Marian Gaborik told NHL.com. "He demands a lot from his players, but he also knows he can get that, so that's a good thing."
"I think what you see is what you get with him," captain Ryan Callahan said. "He's an emotional coach and he's passionate, and for those reasons that's why he's such a good coach."
Tortorella, who won the Jack Adams in 2004, when he led Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup, is a finalist for the third time, but his first in four years with the Rangers. The last Rangers coach to be a Jack Adams finalist was Tom Renney, who finished third in 2006. No Rangers coach ever has won the award.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK