Top five NHL coach of year candidates

Senators head coach Paul MacLean has turned a team some thought would finish last in the Eastern...

Senators head coach Paul MacLean has turned a team some thought would finish last in the Eastern Conference into one making a run at the playoffs. (BLAIR GABLE/Reuters file photo)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:54 PM ET

I don't know if there has been a season in a long time when there have been so many candidates worthy of consideration for the work they have done behind NHL benches. Whether it's a guy having unexpected results with a lightly-regarded team, a coach helping his team overcome injuries or a guy helping a strong team live up to expectations, there are plenty of coaches from which to choose.

Here are my five top candidates at this point:

1. Paul MacLean, Ottawa Senators. The Senators were picked to finish last in the Eastern Conference by a few folks and right now they are looking good for a playoff spot. Several youngsters, including Norris Trophy candidate Erik Karlsson, have improved under MacLean's tutelage. Communication has been the key. MacLean is always talking to everybody in the organization.

2. Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis Blues. The Blues have been among the best in the league since Hitchcock took over from Davis Payne in November. Without the benefit of a training camp, he's made the Blues a tough team to play against and has put his goaltenders in a position to excel. Once a crusty taskmaster, Hitchcock has softened his edges a little, to positive effect.

3. Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh Penguins. Last year's winner has done another solid job. He's missed Sidney Crosby for all but eight games and top defenceman Kris Letang has been on the shelf for 26 games with concussion issues. Despite missing his top forward and defenceman, Byslma has the Penguins in a position to have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

4. John Tortorella, New York Rangers. He has overseen the transition of the Rangers from a bloated, underachieving team of over-paid floaters into the Eastern Conference leaders. Now the Blueshirts have blue collars. Tortorella demands a lot and gets a lot out of his team. Having Henrik Lundqvist in net doesn't hurt, either, but he's put a hard-working team in front of him.

5. Glen Gulutzan, Dallas Stars. The rookie has come in and taken a team that had an uncertain ownership situation at the beginning of the year and not very high expectations in terms of their roster and gotten them to the top of the Pacific Division. At crunch time, he's got them on an 8-1-1 streak going into Friday's games.

SOMETHING SPECIAL

St. Louis Blues

Short-handed situations: 221 (13th in league)

Goals: 36

Percentage: 83.7

Rank: 9th

The Blues have made a climb to the top of the NHL rankings and a big part of it has been their penalty killing. The Blues have killed off 35 straight short-handed situations, taking them back to Valentine's Day. They're closing in on a month without giving up a power-play goal. The play of goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott have had a lot to do with it, of course. Barrett Jackman and Alex Pietrangelo are their shutdown defencemen, with a quartet of forwards -- Scott Nicol, David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Vladimir Sobotka -- pretty much evenly sharing the load up front. Patrik Berglund has loaned a (short) hand, too.

GO FIGURE

5

With the Florida Panthers in a good scrap to make the playoffs, that's the number of Panthers still in the NHL from the last time the Cats made the playoffs in 1999-2000. The survivors are Filip Kuba (Ottawa Senators), Dan Boyle (San Jose Sharks), Radek Dvorak (Dallas Stars), Jaroslav Spacek (Carolina Hurricanes) and Ray Whitney (Phoenix Coyotes).

21

The number of wins at home for the Winnipeg Jets this season. With a 21-10-4 record and six games left on their home schedule, they are in position to better the franchise record for home wins in a season. As the Atlanta Thrashers, they had a record 24 wins in the 2005-06 season.

3

With the firing of Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson, that is the number of current NHL coaches with at least 500 wins. Wilson is on hold now with 648 victories. Chicago's Joel Quenneville (615) took over top spot among active coaches, followed by St. Louis' Ken Hitchcock (570) and Buffalo's Lindy Ruff (557).

30

The number of goals scored by Montreal Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty. It's a good number, considering a year ago he had just suffered a broken neck and a concussion on that hit by Boston's Zdeno Chara. Pacioretty is just the Canadiens' fifth 30-goal scorer in the last 16 seasons and the first since Alex Kovalev in 2007-08.

AMBULANCE CHASING

It seems hard to believe, but Detroit Red Wings defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom has missed the last four games with a bruised ankle. That must be some kind of bruise when you consider Lidstrom hadn't missed a game in the previous two seasons. He has missed only only 14 games since the lockout. They are missing some other guys, too (like Pavel Datsyuk), but Lidstrom's absence has helped contribute to the Wings power play going 0-for-13 over the last three games. They were 2-2 in the four Lidstrom-less games going into Friday's game against the Los Angeles Kings.

GETTING TECHNICAL

Is is possible a goaltender can be too tall? At what point does a big guy just not have the agility to be effective? Ben Bishop of the Ottawa Senators is the tallest goaltender to play in the NHL at 6-foot-7. Talking to scouts, other goaltenders and goaltending coaches, there was concern about the size of a 5-hole on a big goaltender and the fact is, it just takes longer for a taller guy to collapse to the ice and close that 5-hole. Bishop said that's something he has worked on and improved. Senators coach Paul MacLean doesn't think a goaltender can be too big. "I look at (Bishop) and say, 'Where's the net?' That's not a bad thing."


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