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:

  • Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!

    Coaches are largely irrelevant assuming that NHL coaches are all of a pretty similar skill level to be coaching at the NHL level.

    Talent wins or loses hockey games. Coaches affect the combination of talent through 1) forming lines (of low importance), 2) distribution of ice time (of higher importance), 3) and tactics as you point out (which is largely a zero sum game, as countered by other capable coaches).

    I don’t deny that they may some outliers for coaching ability in the short term, but in the long term, coaching is basically a wash in the NHL, and is a low or non-factor in team success. On ice talent, and to a lesser degree the GM who assembles the talent has a much larger significant effect on team success.

    • That’s a nice theory, but is it true? And if it is, why do so many general managers fire their coaches every year?

      Are they idiots, foolishly shifting deck chairs on the Titanic, or are they cynics playing the PR game, or do they believe the coach makes a difference and are smart to address a problem?

      • Mark-LW

        I haven’t heard of any instance in recent years where a coach provides his team such an advantage as to significantly outperform other coaches. I’m not saying coaches aren’t good, I’m saying they are all good.

        When teams randomly outperform or underperform each year, this is usually attributed to a coach because it is convenient. More likely, this variance is simply random, and noise. High SV%, high SH%, and just the random outcomes that are always prevalent within the curve of expected outcome of games.

        Why do GMs fire so many coaches every year? Do GMs not recognize coaching talent? Most coaches aren’t rookie NHL coaches, so shouldn’t GMs know what they are getting? GMs fire coaches quite simply for their own job preservation. GMs typically have long tenures in the NHL, and if they can pin problems on a coach, they deflect blame from themselves, and the construction of the team (which easily has a bigger impact on winning games).

        GMs can’t really publicly blame players, or fire them. This would diminish trade value, and also why would they shed more light as their failure on recognizing talent.

        If you are looking for an example of coaching in the NBA, sports economists David Berri and Martin Schmidt take a look at coaching in the NBA, and only found evidence of one coach in the modern era outperforming expectations, and that being Phil Jackson.

        Quite simply talent is the largest prevailing factor in the outcome of hockey games. Debating coaching talent is probably equivalent of crediting the 4th line as being a large factor of a team’s success or failure over a season.

        • The Oilers Shot Clock

          ugh, what an obviously terrible comment.

          If coaches really don’t matter, how do explain the success of the Coyotes year after year. On paper they are not a good team, and should be front runners to miss the play offs every year. But they have Tippet.

          That, I’m sure, is only one of an insurmountable number of examples that make your point rather worthless.

        • OilClog

          Phil Jackson had Jordan and Kobe;if I had to think of an example in the NBA, Popovich and Sloan were able to do more with less. Spurs almost won it over Miami this year too and they didn’t have half the talent Miami had.

          Of course a coach can influence the game. His greatest currency is playing time; and if he didn’t have the right people at the right time or don’t use their personnel properly then they have to be held accountable for it. Would adding a couple more minutes to the to the top lines and less on the bottom lines pay off? Maybe it does, that’s ultimately a coaches decision.

          It’s a guess how much parity there is in coaching in the NHL since it’s hard to quantify that, but talent is never the same. And I do think some coaches will be able to get more from their team than others. But like you said, it’s futile to argue such things.

        • 2004Z06

          How do you explain why every player interviewed credits a coach or two in their past that helped make them the player they are today?

          How do explain how some players thrive in a specific coaches system, but flounder in others?

          Every great player had a great coach at some point.

          Coaches and systems matter. Period!

      • Tikkanese

        I like Mac T’s assessment on coaching………they usually receive too much criticism when things are going wrong and too much credit when things are going well.

        All coaches want to win and usually play guys that play according to their expectations. Renny use to over play Horcoff in spite of his iron hands, I for one could never see his value on the PP………but there he was almost every time. He once said if the young guys want PP time they had better learn to play the other side of the puck first.

        He is fired now, followed by Krueger, soon to be followed by Eakins. Coaches get fired to cover for inept senior managers like Lowe…….plain and simple.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    With still half a dozen holes in the lineup, and no money left to address these issues. I don’t like Eakins chances of putting an end to the gong show that is our Oilers.

  • 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.

  • Tikkanese

    That may be your best article yet, JW. Props.

    Although I disagree on “time catching up on Don Cherry”. He is still quite insightful and has adapted to the changing times. I haven’t seen him say anything like “all Europeans are soft” in many years. The fact that you state he is the only commentator who brings up coaching tactical problems regularily somewhat contradicts your point. Maybe you could elaborate?

      • Tikkanese

        Maybe you disagree with the counter tactic but his reasoning for a change was warranted. I seem to recall them being scored on almost at will by the defencemen’s play at that point. Which was why he was going on and on about it.

          • Spydyr

            Perhaps it is just me but I will always take the opinion of a man who spent a lifetime in the game he loved over some stat.

            Grapes played decades in the AHL back when there were only six NHL teams.In todays watered down game his career would have been in the NHL.He also coached in the NHL winning the Jack Adams trophy for coach of the year.

            Mr.Willis what have you accomplished that even holds a candle to Mr.Cherry’s accomplishments?

          • Wax Man Riley

            Oilers should have hired Cherry for head coach with all of his experience and accomplishments.

            Quinn’s experience and accomplishments sure worked out.

            I think what JW is trying to say is that the game has passed Cherry by, and he isn’t really relevant anymore.

          • Tikkanese

            What’s wrong with Ryan Johnson? He played over 700 games in the NHL and led the league forwards in blocked shots one year. Yea sounds like a terrible player and no coach would want that guy…

      • How do you know that is wrong? There are many coaches that believe that wingers pressuring the point is the best defensive coverage system available. It prevents the puck from getting back to the point and a whole new set of offensive options become available. Covering the points limit the offensive threat to down low/cycling. A more “user friendly” system for lesser talented defenders.

  • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  • @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.