The Value of the Head Coach

For those of you who may have clicked on this article in anticipation of reading another “G” rated post, you may want to click off and find something somewhat tamer. No hard feelings, I understand. A lot of people like their hockey to be family-friendly like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” This article is going to slant just a tad more to the PG-13 side of the ledger.

If you’re fine with that then I encourage you to stick with this and continue reading.

What the School of Stats is doing here that will turn this otherwise innocent article into a PG-13 work is simply to suggest something that defies conventional hockey wisdom. I know what you’re thinking and I apologize for it but it is something that I have to do. It’s ingrained into every fiber of the statistical analyst and I can no more ignore my compulsion than the artist can ignore the compulsion to draw pictures.

So what am I going to say that will be considered so controversial as to potentially cause many of my readers to stop reading this and find a nice little game recap instead?

I am going to suggest that the impact of the head coach of an NHL team may be overrated. “Blasphemy,” you say!! Maybe, but remember rule number one to any statistical analyst is to ignore conventional thinking. My “suggestion,” certainly qualifies as ignoring conventional thinking.

Rule number two for analysts is to formulate a hypothesis about the issue in question. My hypothesis is that the head coach is an overvalued position in hockey. Rule number three is to use stats (facts) to determine whether the hypothesis has any merit.

So that’s what I’m going to do in an attempt to at least convince the readers that have bravely ignored the PG-13 rating this article was given, that a head coach may not be as valuable as one may think.

This concept is certainly not new. In fact, it is one of the core beliefs of “Money Ballers,” (hands in the air miming quotation marks with my fingers). If you have read “Money Ball,” then you will remember how the author, Michael Lewis, conveys Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane’s feelings about a field manager in baseball.

Basically, to paraphrase, Beane feels that it is the field manager’s responsibility not to enact any tactics that are contradictory to the philosophy of the Oakland A’s organization and “Money Ballers” (hands in the air miming quotation marks with my fingers) everywhere. Don’t try to sacrifice the runner from first base over to second base. Don’t give the base runner the green light to steal. Don’t pay mind to the old lefty/righty matchups that are kingpins of the conventional baseball wisdom.

Those are some of the tactics that statistical analysis has proven have a lower rate of success than their alternatives and yet field managers continually ignore that fact and do it anyway. Billy Beane would prefer that his field manager simply fill out a lineup card and handle the bullpen appropriately instead of getting cute with tactics.

Of course baseball and hockey are different animals. Just because baseball managers are viewed as unimportant doesn’t mean hockey head coaches are too. Let’s analyze some facts to see if we can determine one way or another how much impact a head coach really has.

Look at the realities facing a coach in the NHL; when a team that is widely viewed as being a playoff and/or Stanley Cup contender flops out of the gate, what happens? People start to speculate about the job security of that team’s head coach. What do the players of the team have to say in general about this?

They usually come to the defense of the embattled coach and point the finger at themselves. Most of the talking heads on TV or in the media usually point to the players underperforming as the reason why the team has disappointed in the standings.

So why then is it the coach that usually gets the ax? How about this; “it’s easier to fire the coach than it is to fire 10 or 15 players.” A cop out actually but that statement is also very telling.

Okay, if we were to assume rather that the head coach plays a more vital role to the team’s success than what I am hypothesizing then what types of things would we expect to find in our research? Obviously, a successful head coach would have to be a regular in the playoffs, right?

Additionally, in order to distinguish his talents apart from the structure and management of the organization, it would help if that coach were to have success with multiple teams in their careers. If they have won a cup with one team but have coached four different teams but not achieved success (playoffs) with two of those teams then it could be rationalized that his Stanley Cup win can be attributed to the organization more than to the coach.

So, the first thing we will do is identify the teams that have won the Stanley Cup during the period stretching from the 1989-90 season through last season. That’s 20 years and covers the latter stages of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty and the time immediately following the strike in 1994-95 and the lockout of the 2003-04 season.

Here is a list of the winning and losing teams in the Stanley Cup finals and their respective coaches in those seasons.

 

Season

Stanley Cup Champion

Head Coach

Stanley Cup Runner-Up

Head Coach

1989–90

Edmonton Oilers (CC)

John Muckler

Boston Bruins (PW)

Mike Milbury

1990–91

Pittsburgh Penguins (PW)

Bob Johnson

Minnesota North Stars (CC)

Bob Gainey

1991–92

Pittsburgh Penguins (PW)

Scotty Bowman

Chicago Blackhawks (CC)

Mike Keenan

1992–93

Montreal Canadiens (PW)

Jacques Demers

Los Angeles Kings (CC)

Barry Melrose

1993–94

New York Rangers (EC)

Mike Keenan

Vancouver Canucks (WC)

Pat Quinn

1994–95

New Jersey Devils (EC)

Jacques Lemaire

Detroit Red Wings (WC)

Scotty Bowman

1995–96

Colorado Avalanche (WC)

Marc Crawford

Florida Panthers (EC)

Doug MacLean

1996–97

Detroit Red Wings (WC)

Scotty Bowman

Philadelphia Flyers (EC)

Terry Murray

1997–98

Detroit Red Wings (WC)

Scotty Bowman

Washington Capitals (EC)

Ron Wilson

1998–99

Dallas Stars (WC)

Ken Hitchcock

Buffalo Sabres (EC)

Lindy Ruff

1999–2000

New Jersey Devils (EC)

Larry Robinson

Dallas Stars (WC)

Ken Hitchcock

2000–01

Colorado Avalanche (WC)

Bob Hartley

New Jersey Devils (EC)

Larry Robinson

2001–02

Detroit Red Wings (WC)

Scotty Bowman

Carolina Hurricanes (EC)

Paul Maurice

2002–03

New Jersey Devils (EC)

Pat Burns

Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (WC)

Mike Babcock

2003–04

Tampa Bay Lightning (EC)

John Tortorella

Calgary Flames (WC)

Darryl Sutter

2004–05

Not awarded because of the cancellation of the 2004–05 season.

2005–06

Carolina Hurricanes (EC)

Peter Laviolette

Edmonton Oilers (WC)

Craig MacTavish

2006–07

Anaheim Ducks (WC)

Randy Carlyle

Ottawa Senators (EC)

Bryan Murray

2007–08

Detroit Red Wings (WC)

Mike Babcock

Pittsburgh Penguins (EC)

Michel Therrien

2008–09

Pittsburgh Penguins (EC)

Dan Bylsma

Detroit Red Wings (WC)

Mike Babcock

A quick look at this chart shows that four teams won multiple Stanley Cups during this period; Detroit (4), Pittsburgh (3), New Jersey (3) and Colorado (2). Of the 19 Stanley Cups awarded during this time, twelve have gone to the four aforementioned squads. Impressive, isn’t it.

However, a closer look shows that only one of the head coaches listed above, Scotty Bowman, won more than one cup. He won four with two different teams although an asterisk should be next to his win in the 1991-92 season as the Penguins head coach previously, Bob Johnson, was forced to give up his duties due to a diagnosis of brain cancer. Bowman actually oversaw a “coach by committee” situation as he moved down from a front office position to assume the reigns as interim head coach. Johnson even contributed to the committee until his untimely passing in November of 1991.

New Jersey has won three cups under three different head coaches. The one constant with the organization has been GM Lou Lamoriello and the defensive style employed by the team. The Devils won under head coaches Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson and Pat Burns. Lemaire achieved some success as coach with Minnesota but only exited the first round of the playoffs once. Robinson coached the Kings for several years with minimal success. Pat Burns’ coaching career has been cut short due to a bout with cancer. All in all, a good case could be made that it’s the Devils’ system and management that have contributed to the on-ice success of the franchise more than the coaches’ contributions.

Even Detroit, which saw Bowman at the helm for three of their four Stanley Cups, has seen further success under another head coach, Mike Babcock. Babcock has coached the Wings to a Stanley Cup win in 2007-08 and a runner-up finish in 2008-09. The constants in Detroit have been owner Mike Ilitch, GM Ken Holland and assistant GM Jim Nill.

Colorado won two cups with a roster that included Hall of Fame talent like Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Patrick Roy. Ray Bourque and Rob Blake went along for the ride for the second Stanley Cup championship in 2000-01. Since then, Cup winning coach Marc Crawford had successful regular seasons in Vancouver, less so in LA and is in his first season as coach of Dallas. Bob Hartley had one playoff run in Atlanta in three-plus seasons after leaving Colorado. Unimpressive to say the least.

Looking at the coaches that won a cup and also appear in this list as “runner-up,” is Scotty Bowman (Det and Pit), Mike Babcock (Det and Ana), Ken Hitchcock (Dal, where he also won his cup), Mike Keenan (NYR and Chi) and Larry Robinson (both in NJ). Of these coaches, (taking out Bowman because of the asterisk) only Mike Babcock and Keenan have won a cup and appeared in a cup final with a second team.

That indicates that perhaps Babcock and Keenan are good coaches. However, while Babcock has had success with both franchises that he has headed, Keenan has guided a total of eight franchises in his coaching career. In four of his final six seasons as a head coach, he missed the playoffs entirely. In the other two, his team was eliminated in the first round.

Now, I want to look at this season and one coaching change that was already made. Philadelphia came into the season with serious Stanley Cup aspirations. I picked them to finish ahead of defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh in the Atlantic in fact.

Unfortunately for the Flyers, they have struggled out of the gate, sitting tied for 13th overall in the Eastern Conference and five points out of the last playoff spot. As their struggles continued the fingers started to point towards the coach. Despite the protestations of veterans like Chris Pronger, the Flyers finally pulled the trigger and fired the coach that just a couple of years ago had helped resurrect the Flyers franchise.

Last season, coming off of a runner-up finish in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Penguins were struggling heading into the All-Star break. They were on the verge of possibly missing the post-season entirely when the Penguins fired the coach that had guided the team to within a couple of wins from Stanley Cup glory.

What happened?

The Penguins caught fire under new coach Dan Bylsma and ended up defeating the Red Wings for the cup. In fact, Bylsma had only coached professionally since the beginning of that season at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL. He had no prior experience as an NHL head coach but still found a way to guide a struggling team to a Stanley Cup championship.

Alright, I probably didn’t do enough actual research to convince the skeptics out there. However, isn’t what I have introduced at least compelling enough to make even the casual hockey fan wonder just how important the head coach is to on-ice success? That’s a step toward understanding and opening up the mind.

Thanks for reading and please email me at gmiller@insidehockey.com with any questions or comments. I challenge you to argue my point with me. Also, if you are on twitter, follow me at gkmkiller. Class is in recess.

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