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:

  • 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.

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

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:

  • Tikkanese

    Ralph Krueger:

    1) Did not have a training camp.
    2) Had a compressed schedule, he couldn’t shorten the bench.
    3) Had no games against the easy eastern conference.
    4) Had to veteran assistant coach.
    5) Had a rookie he was forced to play in the top four instead of Tom Gilbert.

    And he was not given an opportunity to have an off-season to study and reflect how he could do things differently.

    The piling on on Krueger is ridiculous, especially since Justin Schultz claims it was Krueger that sold him on Edmonton.

    What is Krueger’s sin? Not protecting bad hockey players. Showing up management so bad, that the new GM had to overturn nearly half of the roster. Krueger believes in team, And that means every player, and every one in the organization has to pull their weight. When you have been 30th, 30th, and 29th for three years, and missed the playoffs for six, what is the point of trying to be short term tactical, over long-term strategic.

    To compare a first time coach under the conditions Krueger inherited the team with a 3rd time head coach (with at best a mediocre track record) is unfair.

    So Krueger tactic’s were horrible. He still did better in the standings, because of other things (including probably luck) even though the tactics were bad. However, Hall had a breakout season. Nugent-Hopkins, at 19, showed that he could be a 200-foot two way player. Yakupov arrived after 20 games. Basically all the good players thrived. All the bad ones dived. And, screw tactics, because that probably was a damn good thing.

    Krueger forced the organization out of its comatose state.

    That said. MacT is entitled to his own coach. I sort of like Eakins, but there is an awful lot of counting chickens before an Eakins-coached team has played a game.

    • Counting chickens? Where? I was very careful in my wording in that last heading – there was a problem, but we don’t know if Eakins can fix it.

      What I’m saying is we should talk about the problem, and if Eakins does fix it we should recognize that rather than talking about what a force he is in the locker room.

    • Romulus' Apotheosis

      some solid points especially Krueger waking the organization up. they certainly were sleeping, thinking they could draft their entire lineup. At least now, they seem aware that the waiting window is shut, fans are demanding results, and some savvy managerial moves are required.

      Management, not coaching, is the single most important factor in an organization’s short and long term success. Scouting, drafting and development probably being the most important aspects of management. And in these areas the Oilers have been the worst in the league.

      As you say, we can thank Krueger for exposing Tambo and especially Lowe for complete and utter incompetence. Hopefully, this is Lowe’s last kick at the can. If MacT fails, a top to bottom house cleaning must follow.

  • G Money

    Great article.. To the posters who question whether or not a coach is important at the NHL level.. Think back to the 06 cup run. Mac T implemented a new system on the fly in preparation for Detroit, because he knew we didn’t have the horses to run with the big dogs of Detroit.. This strategy almost won us our sixth cup.. To say a coach doesn’t really matter, is completely stupid.. A good team has a good coach.. One who can give them a winning system and the motivation to play it.. Simple as that..

    • Tikkanese

      Do you not also remember during the ’06 season, MacT was about to be fired. His contract was not extended during the season, and he was likely on his way out. Do we really think MacT had outcoached other teams as we were massively outshot in those playoffs, and basically got through on the stellar SV% of Roloson.

      Also, if MacT was such a stellar and talented coach, why did we miss the playoffs in ’07? Obviously talent has a significantly bigger impact than coaching.

      Not to say MacT was a bad coach; he seemed more than capable to me. But you are looking more at the result here than actual actions.

      • The Oilers Shot Clock

        Why did the team miss the playoffs in ’07? Because the team was just awful in the first place.

        They were giving NHL games to guys like Sebastian Bisaillion, Bryan Young, Danny Syvret and Mathieu Roy.

        Hejda, Staios and Tjarnqvist (3 of the top 4 defensemen) all missed significant time because of injury. They were also bringing in basically 2 rookies in Smid and Greene at the same time.

        They 3 NHL C’s in Horcoff, Reasoner and Stoll (who got hurt and missed the last 30 or so games).

        That team was doomed from the start.

  • I can honestly say that I am not comfortable ripping on tactics until I see it fail first. Even then, I’m not qualified. I barely know what to look for. Compare the game of hockey to football and it’s vastly different. The game of football isnt fluid at all. Stops and starts, all tactics.

    I am much more comfortable ripping the Eskimos for calling shotgun draws on the 3 yard line than I am ripping Krueger for something that I can only “feel” is wrong about the way his team backchecks.

    I lack the education or experience discerning different hockey tactics, and thats with me watching the game my whole life.

    The only time I even half-@ssed brought it up last year was on the 5v3. The situation is so unique and pronounced that it lends itself to be critiqued much more easily.

    • And you aren’t alone; there are precious few out there who have the resume to say ‘you know, Dallas Eakins is doing x wrong, tactically.’ I know I don’t feel comfortable doing that kind of thing.

      It’s something I tried to learn more about this year, something I’ve been reading about this summer and something I hope to be able to highlight more frequently – if not in a critical way, at least in a ‘look at what they’re doing here’ kind of way.

      It’s difficult, and that’s why it’s received so little play.

    • Quicksilver ballet

      Did you ever play the game? It’s pretty basic most of the time………there are coaches that make the game appear to be more tactical than it really is.

      Like most others, I played the game all the way to juniors and most of what I remember is coaches telling us about zone coverage, individual player coverage, working hard, and never giving up on a play especially when we caused the turnover.

      The players now are now better trained in systems play………but I still think that the game has certain basic elements that will never change. Many in the hockey industry will make you think that everything has changed ……….but I maintain that players that play with natural instinct are still the best players.

      Gretzky never played anyone’s system, except his own. I heard him describe it once……..something like, ” I just lug it out and either pass or shoot”………sounds pretty basic to me?

      • The basics are pretty simple, but the systems and routes that coaches have players implement have changed drastically since gretz’s time.

        Sure many of us played the game up until Junior, heck, I still play, but I’ve never had a coach who ended up in the CHL, AHL, NHL, or any pro Euro leagues(as far as I know).

        It’s easy to spot if a team is running a 2-1-2 or a 2-2-1 etc… Breakout strategies and zone entry strategies can be easily picked apart as well but if you read Dellow’s piece on why Nashville was so good against us when they lost a NZ FO it makes you realize(if you hadn’t already) there is likely a massive amount to tactics that we are completely blind to because we aren’t rewatching every game 20 times and dissecting every play with the sole purpose of improving systems.

        Great article JW.

      • 2004Z06

        This is the most well said and true comment I’ve read in a long time. The whole time I was reading the article I was thinking this. And when I read through the comments I realized how dumb people are. But what you said is 100% accurate.

        All of the best players play with their own ‘system’ I don’t know why coaches try to make a player play a certain way when that isn’t how they’ve thrived or can thrive. Look what happened to Ovechkin when it’s all about defence, would Datsyuk be a Selke finalist every year if he played according to the Detroit system? Probably not because when you play according to your teams system, you are just a pawn for the opposing teams film crew to figure out and defeat you easily.

        If I was ever a coach of a team I would tell my players, use your instincts, use your own systems. My job is to put together the lines so that you as individual players will benefit — from each other, in particular, your linemates. In hindsight and retrospect it really is all about your linemates, and their hockey sense levels, and skill and skating ability.

        Put a lineup together that makes sense and it will work. When a player is having fun, and not changing his natural thought process to thinking of the system during game, he plays a lot better. A job of a coach is to get a player to this level and allow him to grow and prosper.

        The lines for the Oilers should be this:

        Hall-RNH-Yakupov
        Perron-Gagner-Eberle
        ?-?-Hemsky

        The question marks are there because I forget their lineup llol. But these should be the lines and I’ll tell you why.

        Number one RNH is a pure play maker, he needs a guy with a wicked one timer to unleash it at the moment he gets that perfect pass from him, and Yakupov is that man. Hall can just be the speed guy that RNH can sauce or flick a pass to and he’ll fly and push the D to create more space for RNH and Yakupov. Although a PWF might be a better suit there than Hall.

        Number two, RNH and Eberle and their gay little passing back and forth is a dying art, and if the Oilers want to take their game to the next level, RNH and Eberles little passing isn’t going to cut it. Also, Eberle as a sniper, doesn’t even seem to have the best shot, in comparison to his teammates, Hall and Yakupov, let alone the entire league, and this isn’t intrasqaud season it’s 30 team NHL ladies and gents and they are competing with the best in the business on a daily basis. Also, he plays with a short stick, so I would say he is better suited on the second line so he can sorta… do his thing. I think he would work better with a grinder like Gagner, him and Eberle would kill it down low. Add in Perron with a right handed one timer shot on the left to Eberles right handed passing on the right and that is a deadly second line.

        I hope to see this as the lineup because it is the one that will bring the oilers the most success — going forward.

        And those are my two cents for the Oilers from a true prince of the game.

  • G Money

    The problem is most people focus on the Hollywood stuff. He’s a great motivator, he makes guys accountable, etc…

    Motivation stems from these win one for the giper, any given sunday speeches that the movies love to toss out. In the end, they mean nothing because extrinsic motivation just doesn’t work long term.

    Making guys accountable is a great theory, but when your only solution is to replace them with worse players, how does that help?

    Hockey isn’t really a complicated sport. The idea on offence is to get the puck to the prime scoring area and get a shot off. The idea on defence is to prevent the other team from doing the same. I want the coach that teaches that the best.

  • Jason Gregor

    Hard to tell if system is bad, or if players are bad at executing it.

    Lots of times in hockey players need to adlib, because the game can change so quickly, and it is rare the coach is responsible for that.

    I agree coaches get too much of blame, because ultimately a coach is only as good as his players.

    A coach can definitely make an impact, many have proven it, but ultimately if a coach doesn’t have quality players they don’t win.

    I can’t remember a coach who won consistently with bad or average players.

    • Romulus' Apotheosis

      “Lots of times in hockey players need to adlib, because the game can change so quickly, and it is rare the coach is responsible for that.”

      I think this caveat is perfectly fine in the particular instance.

      However, when casting an eye over a season, we are now confronted with the aggregate.

      When RK rolls his lines regardless of the situation on the ground, i.e., consistently puts his 4th line out in the OZ after a TV timeout when it’s their turn in the rotation…

      When zone exits follow a consistent, and flawed, pattern…

      When offensive zone draws consistently fail to lead to shots…

      When previously stalwart corsi-performers fall off a cliff…

      it’s time to start looking for patterns of failure, rather than cite ‘on-the-fly’ cock-ups.

    • Yeah, Mirtle made that same point about the ambiguity between poor system and poor execution of a good system, and it’s a valid one – it’s hard to critique whether a system works when it isn’t clear what the system is because the players don’t stick to it.

      On your latter point, Lemaire’s the only guy who kind of comes to mind in Minnesota, and that wasn’t a team totally bereft of talent.

  • Rambelaya

    I can’t believe all the people here who seem to think coaching doesn’t matter. Tell that to 1998 Nagano CDN Olympic hockey team, and see if they think coaching doesn’t matter.

    I think of it like playing an instrument: which is more important, the instrument or the musician? It doesn’t matter, because without either one you can’t make music.

    You need good players, and a good coach. Which is more important? Doesn’t matter, because you need them both.

    A coach alone can’t win you the Cup, but he can sure lose it for you.