To mark the midway point of the season, NHL.com is running its third installment of the Trophy Tracker series. Today, we look at the race for the Jack Adams Award, given annually to the top coach in the NHL as selected in a Professional Hockey Writers Association poll.
Rick Tocchet and the Arizona Coyotes are embracing the opportunity that's before them midway through the 2019-20 regular season.
The Coyotes were 21-16-4 after 41 games, tied with the Vancouver Canucks for second in a wide-open Pacific Division, two points behind the first-place Vegas Golden Knights. The numbers may not look great on the surface; Arizona was 23rd in the NHL with 2.72 goals per game, 10-10-1 at Gila River Arena, 10-9-2 since back-to-back shutouts Nov. 16 and 18, and 4-4-0 since acquiring forward Taylor Hall in a trade with the New Jersey Devils for three prospects and two draft picks Dec. 16.
Considering the Coyotes were 29-41-12 in 2017-18, Tocchet's first season as coach, and have missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs in seven consecutive seasons, there has been more than incremental progress in Arizona. After signs of blossoming last season, when the Coyotes finished four points out of the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference, they were in first in the Pacific as recently as Dec. 16.
Progress has been significant in Tocchet's third season, and he's been recognized by a panel of 18 NHL.com writers as the favorite for the Jack Adams Award midway through the 2019-20 season. The Coyotes are likely to compete for a playoff berth with further development of the young core, the return of goalie Darcy Kuemper, and all pieces coming together once Hall is settled in.
"That's the thing I like about this team, nobody is patting each other on the back," Tocchet said. "We're not satisfied. There's been points left out there; we feel we could have had a few more points. Saying that, it's going to get harder. There's teams that are playing better now. There's teams that are chasing us and it's going to be a dogfight. We have to realize that there's going to be more pain than ever to get to this next level.
"It's been a real positive first half for me, but the one thing I think is the players recognize that (they left some points on the table), which I like."
Look for Kuemper to steal his share of points once he's back from a lower-body injury sustained Dec. 20. He's 15-8-2 with a 2.17 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and two shutouts this season and 37-17-8 with a 2.10 GAA, .931 save percentage and seven shutouts since Jan. 1, 2019. Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and forward Clayton Keller have heated up after slow starts, and young forwards Christian Dvorak and Conor Garland continue to develop.
That's a pretty good track record since the Coyotes were 9-27-5 on Dec. 31, 2017, the middle of Tocchet's first season.
"We've played honest hockey and we've been rewarded," said defenseman Jason Demers, a member of the 2017-18 Coyotes. "(The rest of the season) is going to be exciting for all of the guys here. We're all excited to be where we are. You can feel the buzz around our team and it's a good feeling. Guys want to keep that feeling. It's fun to win. Everyone wants to win instead of lose. For us, it's just keeping that feeling going."
Tocchet had 61 points and earned eight first-place votes. Barry Trotz (New York Islanders) had 49 points (three first-place votes) and Mike Sullivan (Pittsburgh Penguins) had 47 (three). Jared Bednar (Colorado Avalanche) had two first-place votes, and Craig Berube (St. Louis Blues) and Todd Reirden (Washington Capitals) one each.
Voting totals (points awarded on a 5-4-3-2-1- basis): Rick Tocchet, Coyotes, 61 points (eight first-place votes); Barry Trotz, Islanders, 49 (three); Mike Sullivan, Penguins, 47 (three); Alain Vigneault, Philadelphia Flyers, 24; Jared Bednar, Avalanche, 21 (two); Paul Maurice, Winnipeg Jets, 17; Craig Berube, Blues, 15 (one); Dave Tippett, Edmonton Oilers, 9; Todd Reirden, Capitals; 9 (one); Joel Quenneville, Florida Panthers, 7; Bruce Cassidy, Boston Bruins, 6; Rod Brind'Amour, Carolina Hurricanes, 5
NHL.com independent correspondent Alan Robinson contributed to this story