When Randy Carlyle was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday, one of the main reasons was the organization's recent push for more data-driven decisions.
And the data on Carlyle was damning.
It's extremely difficult to boil something as complicated as running a hockey team down to one number, but what was hard to miss when watching the Leafs was how little they had the puck and how badly they were outshot.
A mediocre team in this department under former coach Ron Wilson, they became almost unbelievably poor once Carlyle arrived. Over his nearly three years and 188 games, the Leafs were a 43.5 per cent possession team, one of the lowest numbers ever in that long a span.
Believe it or not, that is a very good spot for interim coach Peter Horachek to step into.
Measuring how a coach impacts play in the NHL isn't easy. They're often credited with good special teams, but what exactly makes a good coach at even strength varies depending on who you ask.
Recent history, however, shows us that a coach can have a huge influence when taking over a poor possession team.
Over the last seven seasons, the 10 biggest improvements in possession featured seven teams that changed coaches. In several cases, the coach on the way out was a former player or GM who was a demonstrably poor coach.
When the Phoenix Coyotes went into bankruptcy and Wayne Gretzky was forced out as coach, for example, his replacement was Dave Tippett, one of the top coaches in the game. That first season, 2009-10, the Coyotes possession skyrocketed up 6.5 per cent – from 45 to 51.5 per cent – the biggest year-to-year shift since the data has been available.
A great player, The Great One was a poor coach – and the numbers showed it.
Tippett was named coach of the year.
Other examples are similar. Joel Quenneville improved the Blackhawks possession by 5.7 per cent in 2008-09 over what Denis Savard managed. Michel Therrien improved the Habs' by about the same in 2012-13 in taking over for a clearly overwhelmed Randy Cunneyworth.
More recently, Jon Cooper replaced Guy Boucher and the Lightning improved by 5 per cent last season.
This year, they're up another 4 per cent again and one of the best teams in the league.
This isn't an exact science – not every firing pays off this way and some teams improve possession-wise because of an improved roster – but it's clear that a coaching change can be a significant boost.
In Horachek's case, even his first two games behind the bench have been instructive. He has tried to implement a much different breakout than Carlyle's, for example, with his centremen back deep in the zone to help, and the Leafs have been outshooting their opponents.
"We're bumping pucks to the middle more than rimming it around the wall, and it's letting us get out of our zone cleaner," Leafs centre Tyler Bozak explained to TSN in the intermission of a 5-2 win over Columbus on Friday. "We're spending a lot more time in the offensive zone so that keeps them playing defence."
That's a very simple strategic shift, but it's only one example of something a new coach can introduce that shows up in the data.
In this small sample size, the Leafs have had 51 per cent of the shot attempts and 59 per cent of the scoring chances at even strength, which are both dramatic improvements.
Horachek's methods will now be in for a very tough test this week, as Toronto will face four of the best teams the league in the next six nights.
The NHL’s most improved possession teams (2007-2015)
|Teams||Season||Possession change||Year 1 coach||Year 2 coach|
Rising: Top scorers since Dec. 1
1. Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim. Look out Jakub Voracek and Tyler Seguin. With Sidney Crosby falling off of late, the NHL’s scoring race has become wide open and it’s been Getzlaf who has made up the most ground recently. Going into Sunday night, he had seven goals and 19 assists in his last 18 games, which allowed him to gain six points on Voracek (the current leader) and eight on Seguin in that span. At 29, Getzlaf is playing some of his best hockey yet.
2. Tyler Johnson, Tampa. Key stat: 4.1 points per 60 minutes at even strength, first in the NHL the last six weeks. Johnson suffers from the Joe Smith Affliction™ of not getting nearly enough attention in part because he has got such a common, forgettable name. But here’s something worth remembering: Only one player in the league has outscored Johnson since Dec. 1 (Getzlaf) and he has more even strength points (36 in 42 games) than anyone this season – period. Undrafted and 5-foot-9, the Spokane, Washington, native is now five points from leading the NHL in scoring and is a big reason why the Lightning are the highest scoring team in hockey.
3. Patrick Kane, Chicago, and Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles. Kane is another scoring leader hopeful and working in his favour is that he’s been very productive despite a low on-ice shooting percentage and some meh linemates. There’s another level he can reach. Kopitar, meanwhile, likely won’t get in the scoring race given he was so quiet early in the year, but he’s been beastly for the Kings recently – especially on the power play (an NHL-best 12 points on the man advantage in his last 18 games).
Falling: Deepest slumps since Dec. 1
1. Mason Raymond, Calgary. A hat trick in his second game made it look like signing a three-year, $9.45-million deal with the Flames was going to be a perfect homecoming for Raymond. It hasn’t worked out that way. An early injury has turned into a huge scoring drought, and he now has only one point in his last 15 games. Of late, Raymond has been a healthy scratch.
2. Tuomo Ruutu, New Jersey. There are a lot of odd things happening in New Jersey this year. The Devils are by far the oldest team in the NHL. They’re the third lowest scoring team in the NHL. And they have players like Ruutu being paid considerably to not produce much of anything. In his last 23 games, Ruutu has no goals and only two assists, making him one of the least productive players in the league. He’s making $5-million for another year and half, too.3. Nick Bonino, Vancouver. The key player acquired from Anaheim in the trade for Ryan Kesler, Bonino endeared himself to Canucks fans quickly with a great start, as he piled up 19 points in his first 23 games in Vancouver. Since then, he’s been awfully quiet. Ruutu-like, almost. After losing to Calgary 1-0 on Saturday, the Canucks are 5-7-2 in their last 14 games and a lack of secondary scoring – with a league low 18 even strength goals – has been a big reason why.
The push to define scoring chances
A lot happened in the hockey world last week. In addition to the Leafs firing Carlyle, Canada won gold at the world juniors for the first time in six years, two huge happenings in Toronto that dominated the news cycle.
But quietly behind the scenes, there was also some compelling work done on the analytics side. WAR on Ice (war-on-ice.com), a new site produced by a couple bright minds from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, introduced a new scoring chances statistic that incorporates shot location, rebounds and rush shots.
Their preliminary findings show that this new stat predicts future goal differential slightly better than previously available numbers (like Corsi), which could make it a pretty powerful tool.
So how do teams rate in scoring chances? The top teams at even strength are Tampa Bay (56%) and Nashville (55%), while the bottom feeders are Buffalo (37%), Calgary and Toronto (both 44%).
Two of the top players, meanwhile, are Boston’s Patrice Bergeron – a perennial Selke Trophy favourite – and Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman. Their teams have had 61 per cent of the scoring chances when they’ve been on the ice.
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