Babcock or McLellan

The Oilers have been playing the role of
ugly duckling for a long time now, but this funny looking misfit is finally
growing up. Once the wall-flower, the Edmonton Oilers are about to be Belle of
the Ball when it comes to this year’s coaching sweepstakes.

With almost every NHL insider pegging the
Oil as the odds on favourite to land Mike Babcock if he so chooses to leave
Detroit then we can perhaps safely assume that Edmonton is the ideal
destination of many high profile coaches this Spring. There are surely others
in the mix or about to be in the mix but the top two candidates for the job are
Babcock and McLellan.

I have a soft spot in my heart for Todd
Nelson who gets the short end of the stick here. He was passed over to be the
bench boss when failed GM Craig MacTavish hijacked the search for Ralph
Krueger’s new Associate Coach, fell in love with the over-hyped Dallas Eakins,
and fired the only coach in recent history to even flirt with meaningful games
in March. MacTavish didn’t even get a chance to speak with Nelson because he
was too busy winning games in the AHL playoffs, something Dallas Eakins had
failed to do that Spring.

Nelson deserves a better fate than what
he’s had so far with this organization, but life’s not usually about what you
deserve. If somehow the Oilers end up with neither Babcock nor McLellan then I
think Nelson stands a good chance to remain the Head Coach of the Oilers. That
said, I get the feeling the odds of missing out on both coaches is pretty
small.

Let’s roll with the assumption that
Edmonton is picking between Babcock and McLellan as their next bench boss. The
two coaches are both highly praised but they come with slightly different reputations.
Babcock is certainly associated more often with better defensive hockey than he
is offense. His style of play up to and including these playoffs has involved
tight checking. It is probably what kept his team closer in the series with
Tampa than maybe it had a right to be based on rosters alone. McLellan’s Sharks
have always been associated with great regular seasons and elite offense but
not necessarily a similarly elite defensive system.

Now, over the last several years the
rosters these two coaches had were very different even if they were both elite.
Babcock has had the pleasure of coaching Zetterberg, Datsyuk, DeKeyser,
Kronwall, and Nick Lidstrom. Meanwhile, McLellan has had Thornton, Marleau,
Pavelski, Couture, Burns, and Dan Boyle. So while no comparisons are truly fair
because neither coach got to take over the roster of the other, at least we’re
talking about two loaded teams. It’s not as if we’re trying to compare what
Babcock has done with the Wings to what Ted Nolan had done with the Sabres.

Both of the coaches have been with their
previous (or still current) franchises for a long time but I wanted to look at
what they had done most recently with their clubs while still trying to get the
most data. As such, I looked at the team’s fancy stats over the last four years.
That is to say I took a look at the data from 2011-2012 to 2014-2015 from
stats.hockeyanalysis.ca in various game states to see what kind of a glimpse it
can give.

In the table below I have listed the
categories I am looking at and also included their league rank over that time
period. The categories are Goals For per 60 minutes, Goals Against per 60
minutes, Shots For per 60 minutes, Shots Against per 60 minutes, Fenwick For
per 60 minutes, Fenwick Against per 60 minutes, Corsi For per 60 minutes, Corsi
Against per 60 minutes, and Corsi For Percentage.

5v5 EVEN STRENGTH

 

GF/60

GA/60

SF/60

SA/60

FF/60

FA/60

CF/60

CA/60

CF%

Detroit

2.31 (11th)

1.99 (5th)

31.1 (3rd)

27.1 (4th)

40.8 (14th)

36.3 (4th)

53.9 (17th)

47.2 (2nd)

53.4 (3rd)

San Jose

2.18 (20th)

2.11 (8th)

29.6 (10th)

28.0 (8th)

43.9 (2nd)

39.3 (9th)

60.0 (1st)

55.0 (18th)

52.1 (6th)

 

It’s interesting, to me, that Babcock’s Red
Wings outscored McLellan’s Sharks 5v5 considering his reputation for tight
checking. What doesn’t surprise me is that McLellan’s teams generally create
more shot attempts, even if the Red Wings ultimately create more shots for.
McLellan’s teams have been darlings in the fancy stats world for their ability
to generate chances and you can see that over the last four seasons their bread
and butter was playing a shot attempt heavy game.

Looking at the numbers, Babcock’s approach
is less about increasing the attempts for and more about limiting the attempts
against. This fits in very well with the traditional analysis of Babcock’s
teams. You can see that in creating unblocked (Fenwick For) and total attempts
(Corsi For) the Red Wings have been a middle of the pack team, but when it
comes to defending against those attempts the Red Wings are near the top in
Shots, Fenwick,  and Corsi.

I included the Corsi For Percentage stat to
illustrate that both coaches had their teams dominating the possession game but,
looking at the actual breakdown of how they did it, we can see they approached
the game very differently. Babcock was skewed to the defensive end of the
spectrum, McLellan to the offensive end of the spectrum, and yet both managed
to run clubs who controlled the play of the game.

5v4 POWER PLAY

 

GF/60

GA/60

SF/60

SA/60

FF/60

FA/60

CF/60

CA/60

CF%

Detroit

6.61
(6th)

1.02
(24th)

51.1
(9th)

7.9
(11th)

73.5
(8th)

10.0
(8th)

97.8
(10th)

11.3
(5th)

89.6
(4th)

San
Jose

6.92
(4th)

0.59
(7th)

61.8
(1st)

9.3
(25th)

85.8
(1st)

11.5 (22nd)

116.4
(1st)

14.4
(24th)

89.0
(9th)

 

On the power play, I knew already that
McLellan’s teams create a metric tonne of shots and chances. I was expecting
them to be number one in the NHL over this time. One of the big advantages
McLellan has on his team is one Mr. Jumbo Joe Thornton and his vision and skill
level combine to create an unstoppable power play machine and McLellan’s system
is a great match to his player here.

Mike Babcock’s Red Wings team may create
fewer shots and chances but they are also still very good, as they should be
given the talent on that team. If you think this is an area of “weakness” for
Mike Babcock then perhaps this is where one hopes Todd Nelson could fit in with
the staff. His power plays have been fantastic at every level that he’s
coached and in his brief stint as the interim Head Coach this past year
Edmonton’s shot attempt generation was indeed higher than Babcock’s Red Wings
team over that same period. Maybe if there is any place for Nelson to remain it
is as an associate for Mike Babcock. Then again, if Babcock comes I imagine he
will have total control over who he works with no matter how much of a push the
brass makes for Nelson.

There is going to be some pushback to the
idea that Babcock’s power play is problematic at all because in overall power
play efficiency Detroit performed very well this year, but on the whole his
teams have been much more pedestrian even with Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and the
host of other talented players they have. Here are Detroit’s Power Play
efficiency rankings over the last 4 seasons:

2014-2015 23.8% (2nd)

2013-2014 17.7% (18th)

2012-2013 18.4% (15th)

2011-2012 16.1% (22nd)

Meanwhile, here are San Jose’s rankings
over the same time period:

2014-2015 21.6% (6th)

2013-2014 17.2% (20th)

2012-2013 20.1% (7th)

2011-2012 21.1% (2nd)

Like Babcock McLellan has one season of the four that doesn’t belong with the others, but unlike Babcock that outlier is the
season where his PP looked just OK. The rest of the time his teams feasted upon
the opposition while on the man-advantage.

THOUGHTS

thinking cap

If the Oilers are truly able to choose
between McLellan and Babcock as their next Head Coach then this decision is
akin to picking between a Maserati and a Lamborghini. Part of you really wants
to take the Lamborghini no matter what but the consolation prize if you can’t is
still going to be the best car you’ve ever driven.

Mike Babcock would be the coach that takes
this young team and gets them to play his game. If his reputation and the fancy
stats can agree (and they do) then he should be counted on to teach them how to
play “the right way”. His teams are about limiting chances against and
capitalizing on chances for. I’m not sure how long Justin Schultz would
last on a Babcock coached team, but the entire young core will get a master
class on how to turn defense into offense.

Todd McLellan’s style of play might involve
changing the instincts of these young kids less than Babcock. His high volume
offensive event style combined with Hall, Eberle, RNH, Yak, and Connor McDavid
sounds like music to my ears. That high-end power play with all those young
talented players could result in an epidemic of heart attacks this coming winter
for goalies and fans alike.

I like McLellan more as a fit with what
Edmonton has, but I think both would get the team playing a winning brand of hockey.
Ultimately I think this gig is Babcock’s if he wants it. His resume is
fantastic and his teams win with a style of play that is coveted around the
NHL. Frankly, it feels ridiculous that the Oilers are even able to have choices
like this.

  • Johnnydapunk

    Can’t knock either guy. I would think Cheraili statement that he wants a team that is hard on the puck, heavy sticks etc,would mean that Babcock is more that type of a coach.
    [The current personnel are not that type of team!however.]

  • CMG30

    Just to be contrarian I’m going to admit to a slight preference for McLellan.

    His style of play is a better match for the key players on the team as it stands now. Eakins was brought in, at least in part, to instill defensive awareness in the top players with less than desirable results. As much as possible, lets play to our strengths. GO TEAM McLELLAN!

    As for Nelson, I’m sure he would love to be a head coach in the NHL but I’m not so sure that there’s an opening for him right now. One would think that a season or two as an assistant to either Babcock or McLellan would be a significant boost to a resume.

    • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

      To be honest, if Babcock can’t get this team playing two-way hockey, trade every single person not named McDavid or Nurse, because there is not a person in the world better qualified to teach these guys the finer points of playing defense.

      • positivebrontefan

        Agreed. It’s time to stop letting the inmates run the asylum. This team is not going to start winning until it gets its goals against under control. The era of weak/non-existent backchecking and lazy defensive play has to end.

  • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

    It’s weird to me seeing Babcock be out-coached by Nelson on the PP. I love Nellie as much as the next guy, but this is Mighty Mike Babcock we’re talking about, being beaten at something (however briefly) by the lowly Oil. The thought of Babcock’s two-way style being complimented by Nelson’s great PP gives me funny feelings in strange places.

  • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

    One more thing and I’ll shut up about Babs.

    Can you picture Schultz or Nikitin getting away with some of the crap they’ve been pulling, if they’ve gotta answer to a guy who’s coached Lidstrom, Datsyuk and Zetterberg? Because I can’t. And it feels awesome.

    As much as I love the young forwards, this goes for them to. No more lazy backchecks, one handed flybys, dipsy doodles at the blue lines, leaving your teammates hanging in scrums. This is relevant regardless of if it’s Babs, McC or Nelson coaching next year.

    MCDAVID!

  • Tkachev v. Gaudreau

    To be honest, I dont think the Oilers will have a problem with generating offense. The top 6 will be very good, and whoever Chiarelli finds to surround them will be fine (Personally I am a fan of Joel Ward).

    What this team needs help with is defense, and the guy to go for that is Babcock. Look at the top 6 that Detroit had in a game 7. Alex Marchenko was a top pairing defenseman. Babcock is a proven defensive mind, and he will push everyone on this team to play the type of heavy hockey needed to compete in March and April.

    Considering the coaches available, there is no need to commit so heavily to offensive coaching. This team doesnt need to turn Eberle from a 28 goal scorer into a 30 goal scorer. This team lacks defensive structure and discipline, and Babcock is the perfect guy to instill that into them.

    The best example of this is Washington. Before this year, they were an elite offensive team that lacked defensive commitment. They hired Barry Trotz, who transformed their team defense, and now they are a completely different team. Ovechkin plays (some) defense!

    Mike Babcock is a significantly better coach than Barry Trotz. If Babcock can teach RNH to be an elite two-way centerman, and Klefbom/Nurse/Marincin to be shutdown defenders, then this team will have a chance to play competitive hockey in April.

    • Anton CP

      It is very hard to say who is a better coach. The players have a lot to do with it too.

      If Babcock is such a great coach, why does he not just stay in Detroit?

      No, I think he is looking for a better team to go to. Edmonton represents a team that may be able to sustain a dominant record for the next 8-10 years. It is more a question as to when will it start. But any coach we get right now, I think will have a good chance to pad his Win/Loss record.

      Babcock would also be know as the man who turned around the Oilers. Although, I think Nelson would get the job done too, assuming Chiarelli balances this team out between forwards and D men.

  • Burnward

    If I’m Babcock, the time to take this job would have been next year, after Chiarelli has done his dirty work. Too many unanswered questions maybe right now. McDavid or not, that’s still the worst defense/goaltender combo in a league dominated by defense and goaltending.

    • macdshawn

      That would be a good call, but then if the Oilers find success this year. He won’t be the genius that turned them around.

      If a big name comes, they will have to have faith that Chiarelli will sort out the lineup.

      I still think Hall is the one to trade, as much as I would love to see Hall and McDavid on a line together.

      I just don’t think we are going to sure up the lineup, without giving up something major.

    • Joy S. Lee

      The job presumably won’t be open “next year.” It’s open “this year.” If Babcock wants it, it’s his. If not, it’s McLellan’s. If neither of them, it’s likely to be Nelson/Deboer, etc.

      I’m reasonably confident Babcock is coming to town, and given the #’s Matt Henderson posted above, that would be glorious. McLellan would be glorious, too. And Nelson might be glorious, as well, if he’s given the chance to show it.

      If Babcock comes to town, Nelson absolutely would be a great PP guy (+ more) to keep, and he knows the players/team, so that makes sense as well. Nelson also fits in the mold of these two ultra-qualified bench bosses, because he appears to be an honest, steady and stable, not overly brash coach who keeps the focus where it belongs. He would fit right in with either one of them, and bring the history of the organization and it’s developing players with him. Makes total sense to me, and it should make total sense to the incoming guy, whoever it is.

  • Anton CP

    The WMHC almost looks like that McLellan is trying to impress Oilers by having Hall/Ebs a great performance against Germany today. If he is indeed compete for job with Babcock then this would be something new for Oilers. Coaches actually fighting to coach for Oilers? Can you imagine?

    • The_Angershark_Lives

      Because they are both elite head* coaches. Meaning, if they don’t get the head* coaching job in Edmonton, they will get another head* coach job in the league.

  • ThinkingOutLoud

    I don’t know if our forwards have the size to pull off a McClellan-style aggressive attack – if they did, and guys like Yakimov make it up it could definitely be exciting. Babcock-style strategy with a bit more focus on defensive + opportunistic might be a safer approach. Thoughts?