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Pens' Therrien deserves top honor

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007
 

Any discussion of the NHL Coach of the Year Award -- otherwise known as the Jack Adams Award -- should last for about half a second, or however long it takes to utter these two words:

Michel Therrien.

There is no other choice, but you know it won't be that easy.

Therrien isn't the league's most popular coach, by any means. He doesn't do the old boys thing. Doesn't schmooze the media. You hope that doesn't hurt him when it comes time for members of the NHL Broadcasters' Association to vote, but you just don't know.

This much, you should know: The Penguins already have posted the fifth-largest one-year improvement in the NHL's 89-year history -- 40 points following Tuesday's win over the Washington Capitals -- and still have a chance to match the 1981-82 Winnipeg Jets for the third-largest jump at 48 points.

Following a loss to New Jersey last night, the New York Islanders (Ted Nolan) had improved by six points, but what's that compared to the Penguins' quantum leap?

Nobody predicted anything of the sort. The Hockey News and TSN -- Canada's version of ESPN -- picked the Penguins to finish 13th among 15 Eastern Conference teams. The Sporting News picked them last in the Atlantic Division, behind the Islanders.

Something called The Bellowing Moose - an anonymous columnist for NBCsports.com - called for Therrien's firing in early January. The mindless Moose labeled Therrien "the NHL's Archie Bunker, an ill-tempered, ill-mannered hothead with only a vague grasp of how to use the talent provided for him."

Talent, to be sure, is the main reason the Penguins are where they are. Sidney Crosby can make a coach look pretty good.

But not every coach knows how to utilize top-end talent.

Not every coach can funnel that talent toward winning.

Therrien's system allows for Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to express every ounce of their creativity while enabling the team at-large to win by any means necessary. The Penguins have outgunned the Buffalo Sabres and out-bored the New Jersey Devils. They've also learned how to close out games. That was obvious Saturday against Atlanta, when the Thrashers barely made it past the red line in the final minutes.

And remember, even with all that fabulous young skill, this remains a team with little experience, little punch on the wings and a largely pedestrian defense corps.

Therrien hasn't done everything right, but these are among his best moves:

• Sticking by much-maligned winger Michel Ouellet. The perception is that Ouellet plays too much. The reality is that he averages only 13 minutes, 22 seconds of ice time -- and does a whole bunch with it. He's fifth on the team in power-play goals and fourth in scoring among the forwards.

• Managing the ice time of 18-year-old rookie Jordan Staal, who plays 14 minutes, 48 seconds per game. The temptation, in any sport, is to look at a player who's doing a lot with minimal time and shriek, "Play him more!" Nobody wants to consider the possibility that limited time might be helping that player thrive. Staal has been brought along expertly (though I'd like to see him on the top power play).

• Keeping Crosby fresh. Much to his critics' dismay, Therrien steers Crosby away from the penalty kill - and away from all those point shots headed toward his feet.

• Successful line-juggling. People forget that "Badger" Bob Johnson switched lines often and that Scotty Bowman changed his combinations like underwear. It's not that big a deal. It makes the Penguins harder to prepare for come playoff time and forces players to get used to various linemates.

It's not like Therrien juggles for the sake of juggling. During the 14-0-2 streak, he barely changed a thing.

And he never heard from The Bellowing Moose again.

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