Anatomy of a midseason coaching change

In the last two days, I’ve written posts in this space combatting some of the discussion about the debate over whether Alain Vigneault is the right man to lead the Canucks. This is a topic on which I take a much stronger tone because it seems like a lot of people think that the coach really matters in the grand scheme of things. A coach can put guys on the ice and make in-game adjustments, but ultimately the style of a team will be determined by the kind of players management acquires.

The first post is a defence of trusting the process. The second is about score effects and sitting back. This one is ultimately my thoughts on the positives and negatives of a midseason coaching switch. Read on the jump.

I think Alain Vigneault is a good coach and a sharp guy, but most of his knowledge is inherent in the institution. One of the things about Mike Gillis’ tenure with the Canucks is that the front office seems to have more input into roster and lineup decisions than most regimes. Gillis has often talked about lessons learned from Moneyball, and seems to prefer a hands-on approach where every part of the organization works in lockstep.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Here’s the reason the Canucks should keep Alain Vigneault until the offseason: because firing him solves nothing. Coaches firings, especially midseason ones, I find are usually done to distract the press into convincing the masses that the organization is doing something to fix a larger problem. Mark Cuban said at Sloan that the goal of a general manager is not to manage a club, it’s to keep his job. That’s paraphrasing, but also very true.

This season has claimed the coaching life of Lindy Ruff, which buys Darcy Regier a few more hours, but has done nothing to fix his club filled with lousy contracts. Last season, Brian Burke fired Ron Wilson in an attempt to stop the bleeding of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and eventually his own tenure as general manager came to an end when the sale of MLSE was complete. Pierre Gauthier fired and traded everybody he could and was saved until the summer. Scott Howson replaced Scott Arniel with Todd Richards, but in these situations, the coaching replacement was just indicative of a carousel and an attempt at a quick fix, not a calculated decision.

Some more famous coaching changes:

Pittsburgh Penguins, 2008-2009

This is the famous one. The Penguins fired Michel Therrien midway through the 2008-09 season a year after going to the Stanley Cup Finals. At the time of the firing, the Penguins were 27-25-5. They finished the season on a 18-3-4 run, dispatching Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina and Detroit in the playoffs enroute to a third Stanley Cup for the franchise under new head coach Dan Bylsma who has been with the organization ever since.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Thing is… just how good were the Penguins in 2008? A lot of empirical evidence suggests that the team was lucky to make it to the finals against Detroit that season. In 2008, the team’s Corsi Tied % was just 44.5%, which is unconscionable considering they were first place in the Eastern Conference. That was Marc-Andre Fleury’s career season, with a .921 overall save percentage. Him and Ty Conklin had .940 and .938 save percentages at even strength that season for the third best tandem in the league.

But… that goaltending didn’t last in the first half of the 2008 season. The Penguins goaltending fell to .918 at evens in 2009, but the team’s Corsi Tied % was still low—the team was getting outshot every night. In the first 56 games under Therrien, it was 44.8%. I don’t know exactly what Bylsma did when he stepped in, but the Penguins Corsi Tied % changed dramatically, going 53.9% in the final 25 games of the season. (I’m using Corsi Tied % because a commenter brought up this old JLikens post. It’s more predictive over the long-run than wins and goal differential).

The key difference between the 2009 Penguins and 2013 Vancouver Canucks is that those Penguins were empirically bad teams who were no longer being propped by great goaltending. Corsi Tied % is a very predictive statistic, and it does show that the Canucks are likely playing better than the results indicate. They’re getting good puck possession but have yet to turn the possession into shots and chances.

Los Angeles Kings, 2011-2012

Mike Gillis made a huge mistake at last season’s trading deadline. It’s not that he traded away Cody Hodgson, but it’s that he did not trade for Jeff Carter. 27 other general managers made that mistake. Dean Lombardi didn’t.

The LA Kings under Terry Murray at the start of last season had a Fenwick Tied of 50.2%. After replacing Murray with Darryl Sutter in December, they went up to 54.9%. They still had a low shooting percentage as a team, and the team really came together when they traded Jack Johnson for Jeff Carter, increasing the team’s Fenwick Tied % to 61.2%. The Kings remain on top of the league in both Fenwick Tied % and Corsi Tied %.

It’s obvious that the Kings were a better team under Sutter than Murray, but the big change was acquiring Jeff Carter. That team became an instant contender, and the Kings have been by far the best team in the league since that move.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

But coaches don’t always increase a team’s possession numbers.

Washington Capitals, 2011-2012

With this one, I’ll thrown in possession numbers, team records and PDO numbers to let the reader jump to the obvious conclusion:

  Corsi Tied % Shot % Save % PDO
Boudreau 55.4% 9.1% 0.905 0.996
Hunter 47.4% 8.4% 0.927 1.011

The Capitals started their 2011-2012 season 7-0-0, then hit a PDO slump between games 8 and 22 and threw the baby face out with the bathwater and brought in Dale Hunter. The change killed the Capitals from a puck-possession perspective and the end result was no greater than anything the team accomplished in the playoffs under Boudreau. They lost in the second round, Hunter left to go back to the London Knights, and now under Adam Oates the Caps are still a team trying to regain their footing.

Montreal Canadiens, 2011-2012

The numbers are a little deceiving, because the Habs, who have historically had a pretty good powerplay, weren’t converting on their PP opportunities. Martin actually had the team in plus territory for most of the season, but they fell off somewhat after Scott Gomez (yes, that Scott Gomez) went down to injury after the first month:

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
  Corsi Tied % Shot % Save % PDO
Martin 47.8% 8.6% 0.924 1.010
Cunneyworth 46.7% 7.7% 0.921 0.998

The end result was a last place finish in the Eastern Conference and a lottery pick. Rookie GM Marc Bergevin has made some moves that have paid off to turn the ship around this season, but after a 19-24-9 season under Cunneyworth, the Canadiens have become the poster boys against the quick fix.

(Two charts generated using timeonice scripts like this and this)


The irony is that I recall being convinced that Jacques Martin and Bruce Boudreau were problems in their respective markets, employing defensive strategies that took away from team talent. While a lot of coaching switches have no effect, there are some instances where positives or negatives swing wildly when a change occurs midseason.

As it stands, the Canucks are a good enough possession club to not warrant a coaching switch, lest you end up like the Capitals. That said, I’m not a strident defender of Alain Vigneault. I just object to bad narrative and I firmly believe that a coaching switch isn’t what the team needs. The team needs either a scoring winger to help the powerplay or a two-way centreman to replace Ryan Kesler.

There’s no reason for Gillis to be attached to Alain Vigneault, just as Billy Beane wasn’t attached to manager Art Howe. Moneyball describes how Beane is frequently at odds with Howe to implement his own system, and eventually he ends up trading Howe and replacing him with bench coach Ken Macha, but during the offseason.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

I think a midseason coaching switch is random and there’s no way to predict where it will go. The sample size is pretty low both ways. If you go with the coaching switch to satisfy Dave Pratt or Tony Gallagher, then you’re thinking like a fan in the stands. When you think like a fan in the stands, well, eventually you become one.

Making a move for the sake of making a move doesn’t seem like a positive.

  • Cowbell_Feva

    {You failed to mention that this yrs MTL team currently has ~55% Fenwick Tied with ‘minor’ changes & a new coach?}

    You HAVE established that changing Coaches ‘can’ make a large difference in possession #’s without significant player changes.

    {with Pitt. you admit that you don’t know what Byllsma did BUT the fact IS he did something – he made changes that increased the poss number substantially & over the long haul!)
    (Again – Coaching CAN matter!)

    In the Kings example. Of course Carter was important, as was getting rid of Johnson. However it’s hard to believe that one player is worth ~5% increase in poss stats?(If so star players would be making 15 mil a year?)

    This could just as easily be in large part to continued benefits from Sutter as coach!
    It could also be the result of player being pushed more.
    After all ‘puck battles’ are a large part of modern hockey & lead to increased possession
    therefore it is a reasonable guess that a teams desire/drive /will/motivation could lead to improvements in possession.

    Coaches with superior psychological tricks & motivational strategies can increase the output in elite athletes & teams.Players talk of wanting to ‘go through the wall ‘ for certain coaches!

    The fact is the Kings HAVE shown an 8% improvement in the gold standard (poss. stats) with one trade & a coaching change?
    This is the difference from being an ‘average’ club fighting for playoffs & best in the league.

    This IS remarkable! This IS not simple variation or PDO or luck.
    With this ‘potential’ reward, firing AV is a no-brainer. The Nux know what AV can get out of this team. He has 7 years on his resume.
    In fact, the only rational reason to keep AV is because you think he is so special so valuable so great that he is irreplaceable (think Bowman) Clearly this IS not the case!

    We also know that historically team performance decreases with years of tenure.
    (no coach has won their first cup with more than 4 years on tenure since Arbor)

    This is what successful teams do!
    The evidence is clear & obvious. To deny it is simple ignorance.
    Successful teams (cup winners) don’t hang on to coaches 7/8 yrs!

    It is a recognition of the benefits that a CHANGE CAN bring”

    I am glad you referenced this aspect from Moneyball. Psychology matters. Anyone who has played team sports or worked on a team in business knows this. Chemistry & relationships ARE vital for optimal performance. And, the coach IS the main person to foster /develop & cultivate these relationships. Av himself admitted the ‘chemistry’ is not the same as other years?

    Now, is success guaranteed with a change? Of course not? BUT, it is reasonably affordable/simple &, has a chance of bringing great success ?!

    Also, trades are very hard to pull off currently in NHL.

    You change the coach. It puts pressure now on the core players. If the team doesn’t respond over a given time period THEN you start to change the core. It also sends the message to the team about having a high bar of expectations.

    {The Devils are a perfect example of this}

    It’s simple- Logical -Intelligent- & Supported by historical evidence. But somehow it is seen as sacrilege in the this ‘knowledgable’ hockey town? LOL

    Only in Vancouver! (A town with a ‘loser’ psychology!)

  • So all it takes is for the Canucks to fire AV, trade anybody they can, go into the lottery and get rookies as good as Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk and add them to the roster of players who were good before, but weren’t getting results until the coach was fired.

    The Montreal model, but the smoked meat isn’t as good out here.

  • “In the Kings example. Of course Carter was important, as was getting rid of Johnson. However it’s hard to believe that one player is worth ~5% increase in poss stats?(If so star players would be making 15 mil a year?)”

    I don’t necessarily believe that, but if changing a coach could make a 10% difference, more teams would do it.

    Also, it’s well-established that under the previous CBA, star players were undervalued and third liners were overvalued.

    “This could just as easily be in large part to continued benefits from Sutter as coach! It could also be the result of player being pushed more. After all ‘puck battles’ are a large part of modern hockey & lead to increased possession therefore it is a reasonable guess that a teams desire/drive /will/motivation could lead to improvements in possession.”

    All the things you quoted are things that you can have no idea about in regards to any team until after the fact. I happen to think that bad teams work just as hard as good teams.

    “We also know that historically team performance decreases with years of tenure. (no coach has won their first cup with more than 4 years on tenure since Arbor)”

    And lots of coaches who never make it to four years never win Cups. The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”.

  • “Only in Vancouver! (A town with a ‘loser’ psychology!)”

    I don’t get why people care.

    If the team has 0 Stanley Cups in its history, it shouldn’t affect how management acts compared to a team with 5 Stanley Cups.

  • I know this is a cop-out to the logic of this blog as it doesn’t involve stats, but still: people get desensitized to the same authoritative stance. Just like listening to the same boss for 7 years in an office job, the message grows stale. Hockey players are no different. I believe the Canucks have undergone more emotional stress than the average hockey team and I do not believe Vigneault is the man to coax the team out of this (comparably) lifeless state they are in. He’s calm and logical, but cold and uninspiring.

    That aside, it’s becoming easy to see the same repetitions unfold in the Canucks game plan that are now ineffective yet still employed. From message boards to bars I’ve seen and been involved in numerous conversations with people bitching about the Canucks stale play style (obviously the drop pass) and how other teams have the book on them. We know the pieces are good, we’ve seen them perform recently enough to know it’s there. It is the utilization of those pieces that becomes the next question, and that lies on coaching.

    Every coach has a shelf life. Some don’t, and surprise surprise those are the elite that have brought cups home. We’ve all seen AV get out coached in the playoffs. I’m not saying he’s a bad coach – hell he’s an excellent coach. But he’s not top tier, and his message is getting old.

  • Chicken Freaking Littles.

    AV has lost in the playoffs with the canucks to the stanley cup champions four times in 6 six years and “his message is stale”, “he’s lost the room”, “the team has tuned him out”….

    The team is missing a first line centre and a top six winger and is neck and neck with a much improved Wild team that was AHEAD of us last year at this time.

    Add in the fact that we’re playing only western conference teams in a much dirtier dog fight than a normal season, I’m AOK with our ‘slump’.

    It ain’t gonna last. If we’re truly lucky, we’ll make the playoffs and THEN get hot. Do you really think that hiring Lindy Ruff or Jacques Martin (who else are you naysayers hiring, by the way?) will magically bring in some pyschology juice and make it all better?

    AV is one of the elite coaches in the NHL right now, he took a team that was scraping to get into the playoffs and has polished it into a juggernaught with unrealistic expectations from panicky fans.