We've hit the halfway point of the NHL season, which means it's time to look back at the first half of this year's campaign, determine the winners and losers, and – of course – compliment those who've had positive impacts through the action we've seen so far.
One of the more interesting races has been for top coach of the first half. A number of strong candidates have emerged so far this season, whether they've taken a previous downtrodden team and turned it into a contender, or they've ensured their front-running team has continued to play at a high level with no drop-off in effort.
Some coaches receiving early Jack Adams consideration are in the first year with their teams - and some even in the first year as NHL head coaches - and have helped revamp the club. Making a strong case for top coach through the first half is St. Louis Blues bench boss Ken Hitchcock.
Hitchcock, a veteran of over 1,000 games in the NHL coaching ranks, took over the Blues one month into the regular season. Since his arrival in early November, St. Louis has gone 18-5-5. Hitchcock inherited a below-.500 team and now has them tied with the Detroit Red Wings for the Central Division lead, just two points behind conference-leading Vancouver.
While Hitchcock has his extensive experience to lean on, two coaches that have led similarly impressive turnarounds this year have done it with no previous NHL head coaching experience: Ottawa Senators head coach Paul MacLean and Florida Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen.
MacLean, who spent six seasons as an assistant with the Red Wings prior to joining the Senators, took a team that finished 13th in the Eastern Conference last year with just 74 points and now has them in the thick of the playoff picture with 50 points through 43 games.
Down in Florida, Dineen has taken a team revamped from head to toe in the off-season, and led them to the top of the Southeast Division through the first half of the year. While Dineen didn't exactly take the same roster that finished last in the Eastern Conference last year and improved them to third – the Panthers had 11 players in the lineup opening night that weren't on the roster the previous year – his efforts in getting a roster with so much turnover to gel so quickly earns him praise.
Other first-time NHL coaches, like the Dallas Stars' Glen Gulutzan, who has his team playing at a high level despite the loss of star Brad Richards in the off-season, and Minnesota's Mike Yeo, who took a Wild club that finished 11 points out of the playoffs and now has them eighth in the West through the first half, also deserve some consideration.
But while it's easy to get caught up in the new coaches who drastically improve their team's fortune, we can't forget the ones that have their clubs playing at a high level year in and year out.
The two coaches that squared off in the Stanley Cup Final last year once again are leading their squads to impressive performances through the first half of 2011-12. After stumbling out of the gate a little, Claude Julien has the Boston Bruins back at the top of the Northeast Division and Eastern Conference, and looking every bit like the strong team that won the Cup last season.
Alain Vigneault, a Jack Adams award finalist last year, also has his Vancouver Canucks humming along like last year. The Presidents' Trophy winners are once again on top of the Western Conference standings through the first half of this season.
And then in New York, John Tortorella comes in as a bit of a hybrid of the two coaching categories: an established coach of a solid team, but one that has also helped his club jump to the next level.
Tortorella is in his third full season with the Rangers, but a year after guiding them to the eighth seed in the playoffs, he now has them sitting atop the Eastern Conference with the most points in the entire league.
Our question to you is: who is the top coach of the first half of the season? You've heard what we've had to say; now it's your turn. As always, it's Your! Call.