We’re bad at judging NHL coaches

The Edmonton Oilers took a major step back under Ralph Krueger last season. Under (the much criticized) Tom Renney, the 2011-12 Oilers had dramatically improved in their ability to win the shots battle with the opposition; poor goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin and other factors obscured the improvement but it was there. Renney was fired and Krueger promoted, and the team stepped into an elevator shaft.

But I’m not really writing about that. I’m writing about the second most-criticized man in any hockey rink, the head coach, and why so much of the criticism misses the mark.

Things We Criticize

Thinking back to Ralph Krueger and Tom Renney, what parts of their coaching were most criticized? For me, the list is basically this:

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  • Poor leadership. He’s not demanding enough or he’s not willing to hold guys accountable or the team doesn’t feed off his emotion all belong to this class of complaint. (Or, going back a few years, this is the “MacT has lost the room” argument).
  • Poor lineup choices. He’s playing the veterans too much and the kids too little, or he has the wrong goalie in net, or he’s left a guy in the minors too long, or he hates offensive talent, or even he won’t dress the enforcer all fall under this heading.

As fans and pundits and media we’re very good at critiquing perceived problems with a coach’s personality or presentation, and very good at hammering on him for not putting the lines together the way we’d like.

Things We Only Criticize After The Fact

Of course, there’s a whole other part of a coach’s job – arguably the main part – that almost never gets hammered in advance of the problems showing up. That’s tactics. In writing this piece, I tried to think of a time where I’d seen some tweeter or commenter or blogger or distinguished member of the media wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame look at a team and say, ‘you know what, he has his initial forechecker committed too deep when his second forward is pressuring the pass; this team is going to struggle to gain possessions relative to the rest of the league off dump-ins’ and then go back a few months later and say, ‘see all this trouble – it’s because his initial forechecker overcommits rather than breaking back after he’s forced the pass.’

I’m not criticizing those commenters or bloggers or distinguished veteran reporters; I fall into the same boat. It’s difficult to look at an NHL coach’s system and say, ‘he’s doing it wrong, let me explain how.’ For starters, it requires a strong understanding of tactics that most of us simply don’t have and secondly it requires a lot of chutzpah to say ‘I know enough to critique an NHL coach’s tactics.’ There are a handful of TV commentators that at their best can make valid, insightful comments on why a strategy succeeds or fails, but they’re a small group. Beyond Don Cherry, who time has caught up with and left in the rearview mirror, I’m struggling to think of one that brings up perceived tactical problems regularly.

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That’s understandable. It’s also an issue.

The Great Leader of Men

Let’s shift gears for a moment, because there’s an analogy I want to make. Think of a great military leader – a general or an admiral or whatever – in terms of the three areas we’ve outlined with coaches. Of the things he does, which matters the most – his ability to inspire his men, ensuring his most competent officers are put in the best positions, or his ability to out-think his opposition counterpart? Without question, they’re all important, but his ability to cheer the men and promote the right officers is going to be irrelevant if he’s sending them into an enemy ambush. It’s the tactics that matter the most.

That takes us to George Rodney, one of Britain’s most successful admirals – and given the history of the Royal Navy, that’s saying a lot. Wikipedia has a decent write-up on him, while Military History Monthly goes into his tactical genius. He’s basically the opposite of the guy we described in the last paragraph, not only because he was a brilliant tactician but also because he was terribly lacking in the other two areas. He had a reputation for playing favourites, for taking prize money for himself that should have gone to his captains and just generally for being dishonest and awful with his subordinates. But he was brilliant as a commander because he was an innovative tactician with a knack for applying the most force at the most critical point.

Now, there’s an argument to be made that for a coach at the NHL level, the ability to inspire players and especially to put the best lineup together is more important relative to tactics than it is for a military commander. I think that’s likely true, but I also think that their importance is vastly overemphasized relative to tactics in the media not because they matter more but because we’re bad (as a class) at critiquing tactics. Jacques Lemaire, love him or hate him, was a tactical innovator and extraordinarily successful because of it. And here’s how Chicago GM Stan Bowman described his father, legendary coach Scotty Bowman:

The one thing my dad’s always been so good at, I think, is he’s been able to adjust…. [F]or a guy who’s ‘old school’ and has been around so long, he’s incredibly progressive and willing to try new things, willing to do things which are not the norm, and that’s what made him successful as a coach … he was very unpredictable … I think all coaches today are kind of – I don’t want to say programmed – but they’re led to do a certain thing. So if you can force yourself to try things maybe a little different or take a different approach, it’s going to give you that advantage. Ironically I think what makes him so exceptional is that he didn’t think he had all the answers.

Back To The Oilers

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Thanks to Tyler Dellow’s work, there is a very good argument that there was a specific tactical problem with Ralph Krueger’s teams when compared to Tom Renney’s teams. Their play in the neutral zone, more specifically in the 45 seconds following a neutral zone faceoff win, imploded. They were worse everywhere, statistically, but the numbers here were night-and-day. What, exactly, were they doing wrong? I don’t know, and I’ve yet to see a convincing argument from anyone on that point. But on Oilers Now yesterday, assistant coach Steve Smith made it clear that Dallas Eakins thinks he knows – he said “there were some things that [Eakins] didn’t believe in or understand what Ralph was doing” with respect to the club’s neutral zone system.

If Eakins fixes the problem, the team will be much better. Doubtless, we’ll hear a lot about how he’s holding players accountable and getting the most out of his line combinations, and maybe that will be true. But it isn’t those things that got Ralph Krueger fired – he wasn’t canned because he didn’t get mad enough at press conferences or throw enough chairs in the dressing room or sometimes had Nail Yakupov on the third line. It was almost certainly results, driven by that neutral zone collapse, that made Krueger vulnerable and it seems likely that the collapse was caused by tactical problems.

Eakins, wisely, has talked a lot about his approach to players and accountability, but there have been little comments from him and others all summer about tactical changes too, from Eakins comment on running multiple systems the day he was hired to Smith’s answer yesterday. The former points have gotten a lot of press, but I can’t shake the idea that it is his abilities in the latter area that will make him succeed or fail in Edmonton.

Recently around the Nation Network

Jason Gregor wrote earlier today about why Mikhail Grabovski should appeal to the Oilers; at Canucks Army Cam Charron makes the same argument for Vancouver:

Mike Gillis has talked about having a roster spot open for one of the kids to compete for, but I think that [Jordan] Schroeder should be in that competition. If he’s one of the 12 NHL forwards the team has under contract, it’s an indication the Canucks don’t have enough depth to make it through a full season. They need skill, they need speed, and they need centremen. 

Click the link above to read more, or check out some of my recent stuff:

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I am not sure this is exactly accurate. There was lots of criticism of Renney and Krueger in the way they did line matching, which is a key component of strategy, is it not?

    Over and C’n’B in particular, Renney and Krueger’s puzzling use of the 4th line in situations where it made no sense to do so were flagged for causing possession issues and losses in tight games, and we could see the mistakes repeat as the season went on. Renney strangely seemed to love using the 4th line in the third period of tight games after TV timeouts, for example. Strategically, this is the abolute worst time to deploy the 4th line, but Renney did it repeatedly. Krueger seemed to carry on this strange tradition with his own twist.

    • Those fall under the ‘easy to critique’ category.
      They are important parts of strategy but I think the article is questioning if we, as fans, place too much importance on those aspects.

      JW is focusing on hypothetical questions like “Why is player X running a slightly more east/west route at the 5:00 mark in the 3rd period in a 4v5 situation down 2-3 while his forward receiver is running north south and the centreman is dropping back despite seeing the opposition continue to run a 1-2-2 system instead of a 2-2-1…. Etc… Blah blah”.

      Unless you’re a pro coach, or you have enough footage available to back up a specific claim it’s difficult to confidently point out mistakes before you see the result. Hindsight is 20/20.

  • oilabroad

    I had a conversation with a previous player not long ago who played under Bowman in Pittsburgh. He told me that they had player only meetings about trying to get him fired as he couldn’t even run a practice. This for me was an eye opener about the importance of a coach/system… unless you have the right players on the ice, the guys behind the bench mean squat…

  • The Soup Fascist

    I think part of Krueger’s demise, apart from his goofy D-zone coverage was his:

    a) Reluctance to have an associate coach (with NHL experience) last year

    b) His decision to head back to Europe in the off-season rather than participating in the hiring process*.

    * I am led to believe it was his decision to allow MacT hire the associate coach vs. doing it himself or at least having greater input.

    Plus, as stated before I washed my hands of him mid-season last year when he started Horcoff and Smyth in O.T. and justified it – after the loss – by saying that he thought the Oilers were a strong shootout team. Adios, Ralphie.

    • The Soup Fascist

      It was Krueger’s request to hire an associate with NHL experience. The Oilers wanted to wait till after the shortened season i.e. didn’t want to hire during the lock out. As far as his participation in the hiring process, that is up to his employer to decide. Staff don’t enter into my interviews unless invited. Not their choice. And I’d head to Europe every summer if given the chance. He has as much rights as the players in this respect i.e. enjoy your holidays.

      • The Soup Fascist

        OK I am hearing things a little different in terms of Ralph’s desire to have a strong associate, but my info is not concrete so I cannot say you are wrong.

        And yes, you are totally correct, Ralph was free to choose to go back to Europe, put up his feet, crack open a Heineken and watch the world go by.

        How did that work out for him?

  • @Willis

    This brings to mind a couple of things I’ve been thinking about lately. The NHL is really far behind other sports in a lot of ways.

    1. I don’t believe a head coach should even be worrying about tactics. In the NBA a head coach’s job is exactly as you described in terms of what we criticise. They inspire, they monitor, and mostly they babysit the massive egos inherent in many professional athletes.

    Perhaps, most importantly, they hire assistants who handle tactics. A lead assistant will be in charge of Xs and Os, and that assistant will have his own assistants in charge of offensive and defensive sets, presses etc. Another assistant handles rotation….you get the idea.

    Pro athletes need to be managed and it is much more than a full time job, so head coaches are delegators and managers.

    NHL head coaches seem to want to micromanage and as a result I think they lack in areas because it is too much to handle.

    2. The NHL is way behind in terms of tracking tactics as well. They are starting to catch up a little bit in terms of statistics, but the NBA has moved ahead to in depth tactical assessments.

    Have you heard about the camera system NBA teams have begun to use that tracks every players position at all time and catalogs events as they occur in relation to player locations and actions? It allows teams to assess what they are doing tactically by seeing the results of their movements and tactics.

    Short version? We only complain about the things that SHOULD be the head coaches job to handle. Most people consider Phil Jackson an all time great basketball coach, but his job was “Zen Master”. Tex Winters provided literally ALL of the tactics.

    • The Soup Fascist

      Certainly, I agree that assistant coaches should be acting as “co-ordinators” and doing the “X and Os”. The assistants should be detail guys and head coaches are the big picture guys.

      However, I think it was mentioned above that because hockey is such a fluid game, specific tactics are more difficult to execute, just because of the speed of the game. Certainly baseball and football are more static due to the nature of the games. You use basketball as an example, which I agree is closest to hockey in terms of the “big four” team sports.

      But basketball is played in an area 1/4 of the size of a hockey rink, with guys running not skating, in a league that defines what is and what is not an illegal defense. The “pieces on the board” of a hockey game are much more difficult to predict than basketball. IMO, the ability of the players to read and react are far more vital than a pre-set play drawn up by a coach.

      • I disagree strongly with 2 things.

        First, the fluidity and speed of hockey makes proper tactical analysis more important, not less. Events occur so often and so suddenly that knowing their value along with the value of positioning is more vital than ever.

        Second, I take serious issue with your concept of basketball as a series of pre-set plays. This is wildly inaccurate. I think you have a misconception of what “tactics” means. It has nothing to do with “pre-set plays”.

        Because of the work being done with these cameras a number of tactics and strategies previously considered effective have been shown to be serious strategic and tactical mistakes. Now ideas have been proven.

        If you don’t something similar would have a profound effect on hockey tactics and strategy I think you are mistaken. Hockey is screaming for this and they just ignore it.

        • The Soup Fascist

          Basketball relies heavily on pre-set plays and are a huge part of the tactics of the coach. Why are there timeouts every 30 seconds at the end of NBA and NCAA games?

          The last three minutes of those games can literally take 30 minutes. What do you think they are discussing during the timeouts? The weather?

          The “tactics” in a basketball game rely heavily on individual responibilities in what amounts to a limited number of scenarios. Hockey is a wholly different beast.

          There are just so many different scenarios, at higher speeds over a larger area that can play out in an NHL rink than a basketball court. The ability to quickly process and act on these changes is what makes the good players great. Coaches can supply some tools but the player’s cognitive abilities are paramount.

          Your contention that there is a magical video fix available – over and above the hours of video the coaches already dissect – that is being ignored by 30 NHL coaching staffs is puzzling. Surely, among these 120 professional coaches, there is at least one whose hockey knowledge, wisdom and foresight approaches your own.

          • During the course of a basketball game a team might call 4 or 5 set plays. That is all. Even then, most set plays are essentially a series decisions to be made based on the reacting to the defense, much like in hockey. Set plays are possibly more common in hockey because teams run set breakouts regularly as well as run set maneuvers after faceoffs.

            Magical fix? At what point did I make such a contention? I did reference a wonderful tool which has only recently become available and suggested it would be extremely beneficial.

            I should have been more clear about what video system I was talking about, but after 5 or 6 years commenting here I never thought I would be mistaken for a guy who says “why don’t NHL teams try looking at video”.

            To be clear – I am referencing a video tracking system (SportVU) that translates every movement made into a set of geometric coordinates. The uses for such a system, in terms of analysis, are virtually endless.

            Here is a quick link that discusses some basic uses for the system: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9068903/the-toronto-raptors-sportvu-cameras-nba-analytical-revolution

            This is not 1970s video, as was suggested by the inemitable tikkanese.

            You like to reference the size of the rink and the speed of hockey, well both of these make such a system more useful, not less.

          • The Soup Fascist

            Without sounding like too much of a knob, clearly you have not played much basketball if you think there are less than 5 set plays in a game. I do not pretend to be a great basketball player. I was at best a middling high school player. But almost every play is (or is supposed to be) a set play. When the point guard is signalling or calling out plays coming up the floor what do you think he is doing?

            We are black and white in this regard. At least one of us is very wrong. I don’t think it is me.

            In terms of SportVu I am not familiar with it so I will defer to your knowledge. Intuitively though, I do not know why 120 coaches / assistants in the NHL would not utilize a tool that could help them. But again, I cannot speak specifically to that tool, so to do so would be pointless. I will read about the technology.

  • Tikkanese

    @ TigerUnderGlass

    Thanks for the laughs! That was the funniest set of posts I’ve read in a long time.

    To suggest that the NHL doesn’t use advance stats is, I’m sorry, but it is moronic. Just because the fans are just starting to catch on to “advance” stats doesn’t mean that the NHL hasn’t been using them for a long time.

    The NHL has also been using video since the 70’s. Remember “Captain Video” Roger Neilson? Heck, my Mites team in the early 80’s used video to teach us tactics and plays. The NHL is hardly “screaming for this and they just ignore it”. They’ve been breaking apart every single play of every game for years. Every break out, every turnover, every powerplay, every shot, every blocked shot etc. They know every players’ weaknesses and tendancies be them skaters or goalies. Tactics and plays are built around these and have been for decades.

    Hockey coverage is way behind the NFL, NBA & MLB but the use of tactics, video etc is not. Just because you don’t get to see it like you do in other sports does not mean that it isn’t there.

    • 1. Reading is fundamental. I never said they don’t use advanced statistics, In fact I specifically said they are starting to catch up.

      2. If you believe what I am talking about is “video review” you don’t belong in this conversation.

      • Tikkanese

        You specifically said:
        “Because of the work being done with these cameras a number of tactics and strategies previously considered effective have been shown to be serious strategic and tactical mistakes. Now ideas have been proven.

        If you don’t something similar would have a profound effect on hockey tactics and strategy I think you are mistaken. Hockey is screaming for this and they just ignore it.”

        Contradict yourself much?

  • I’m not going to get into my basketball credentials beyond that I have played a great deal of basketball at many different levels because this is an anonymous forum. What’s the point, I could say whatever I want.

    You are confusing “plays” with “sets” and “offense”. Even if you weren’t, plays are not scripted actions, they are still dictated by the offensive players reads and reactions.

    They are not scripted any more than an NHL power play or an NHL breakout.

  • Tikkanese

    The Russian “system” of using the defense and
    the entire ice surface blew Canadian “hockey”
    out of the water until the “beat ’em in the alley
    beat ’em on the ice” version took the place of Canadian hockey. In MHP. The Gretz Oilers, with
    much the same system as the Russians with the toughest bastard on the ice as well … to ensure actual hockey took place, put an end to goon hockey.