With just a handful of games remaining in the 2021 regular season, the MassMutual East Division is still very much up for grabs, with four teams separated by five points (a number that drops to two points if everyone wins their games in hand on first-place Pittsburgh).
The Division boasts four of the League’s top eleven teams in terms of points percentage, and it’s unlikely that anyone has a clear edge in the upcoming two-round divisional playoff. The Capitals, for example, went 6-2-0 on the season against the Islanders, who have gone 5-2-0 against the Bruins, who posted a 5-3-0 record against the Penguins... who were 6-2-0 against the Caps.
By head-to-head results from the regular season, insofar as that matters, each team has one or more concerning match-up and at least one in which they’ve fared well.
Of course, come playoff time every match-up is concerning, and those regular season wins along with four dollars will get you a latte at Starbucks. We’ve talked a lot in the past about how the playoffs are a different animal, not because the competition is better (though it is) or because the players elevate their game (though they might), but because the amount of time coaching staffs can spend focused on their opponent is so drastically different (especially this year, given the condensed regular-season schedule).
During the reg seas, there's very limited practice time and almost no opponent-specific prep. This isn't the NFL, where you get a week. 5/— Japers’ Rink (@JapersRink) May 10, 2017
In the playoffs, however, it's a lot of team-specific prep. So it stands to reason that better coaches (and staffs) fare better. 7/— Japers’ Rink (@JapersRink) May 10, 2017
And if you’re a fan of the game-within-the-game that takes place between two head coaches, this year’s playoffs in the East should be a doozy. Let’s take a look at the four bench bosses:
- Bruce Cassidy (Boston): 2019-20 Jack Adams Award winner; 2019 Stanley Cup finalist; 2019-20 Presidents’ Trophy winner (Bruins); .678 points percentage with Boston over five seasons.
- Barry Trotz (New York): 2015-16 and 2018-19 Jack Adams Award winner. 2018 Stanley Cup Champion (as you may recall); 2015-16 and 2016-17 Presidents’ Trophy winner (Capitals); .622 points percentage with New York over three seasons after .677 points percentage with Washington over four seasons; third-most wins all-time.
- Mike Sullivan (Pittsburgh): 2015-16 and 2016-17 Stanley Cup Champion; .640 points percentage with Pittsburgh over six seasons.
- Peter Laviolette (Washington): 2005-06 Stanley Cup Champion; 2009-10 and 2016-17 Stanley Cup finalist; 2017-18 Presidents’ Trophy winner (Predators); .676 points percentage in first season with Washington after .616 points percentage with Nashville over six seasons (and a higher points percentage at each stop in his NHL career, from .546 with the Islanders to .570 with Carolina, .586 with Philadelphia and then Nashville and Washington); 14th-most wins all-time (second among American-born coaches).
Those are some seriously impressive resume. Together, these gentlemen represent one-third of the Jack Adams trophies that have been awarded to active coaches, one-third of the Cup wins, and four of the 11 Presidents’ Trophies, and they’re not exactly resting on their laurels - here’s a look at up-to-the-minute Elo ratings for NHL coaches (explainer here):
And in two weeks, the chess matches will begin. Adjustments and counter-adjustments will be made. Difficult roster decisions will be pored over. Referees will be worked, players will be motivated, media will be placated (or not), and so on. These are four of the best coaches in the business, and they’re about to prove it.