Friday, May 05, 2006

Coach Of The Year

The NHL award nominees came out yesterday. As expected, the Jack Adams Trophy nominees were selected as the coach of the most improved team. The nominations went to Peter Laviolette of Carolina, Tom Renney of the New York Rangers and Lindy Ruff of Buffalo. Are these the three best coaches in the NHL or merely the guys who coached teams that were ready to make big steps forward this season?

Laviolette happened to be in a situation where Eric Staal had a breakout year, Rod Brind'Amour had a big comeback season and Martin Gerber provided very strong goaltending. Renney happened to be in a situation where Jaromir Jagr had a comeback year that was worthy of a Hart Trophy nomination and rookie Henrik Lundqvist provided such strong goaltending that he got a Vezina nomination. Ruff happened to be in a situation where Ryan Miller, Maxim Afinogenov and Daniel Briere all had breakthrough seasons and Teppo Numminen was added to provide very good defence. But what makes their team's improvements due to good coaching?

To see the problem with this method of coach of the year selection, one merely needs to look at the 2004 winner John Tortorella of Tampa Bay. He was the coach of the most improved team in 2004. He even won the Stanley Cup with that team. However, he is not that great a coach. He was merely in a great situation. When the situation got tough, he added to the division in his team by publically lambasting goalie John Grahame. This poor performance has me questioning whether or not he is even suitable as an NHL coach. However, he is the reigning coach of the year. It was a poor choice.

The other nominees in 2004 were Darryl Sutter in Calgary and Ron Wilson in San Jose. Why are they not back as nominees this year? Was their coaching worse this season? Or did their teams merely run out of room to be the most improved teams in the league. Calgary merely won the toughest division in the NHL. San Jose won 5th seed in the west with a very strong stretch run.

I support Jacques Lemaire of Minnesota as coach of the year. I think he is the coach that most positively helped his team this year. His team is disciplined and plays a strong defensive system and continuously gives a showing above that that their talent level should have (even with this his team missed the playoffs - but that is not relevant - you can be the most valuable coach to a team and provide the most Bill James "win shares" without earning a playoff berth). This year's coach of the year nominees were chosen poorly. To see how poorly, one only needs to look at the recent track record of last year's winner.

Obviously, as a Canes fan, I'm biased, but I think Laviolette and Ruff are excellent nominees for the JA. Both coaches had very little to work with in the way of name brand talent. Both coaches did a superb job of understanding the new rules changes and adapting their strategy accordingly.
Lindy Ruff is also kind of a feel-good story. It's impossible to not like the guy. With all that's going on with him personally, he's maintained his focus on the bench and done a great job. I'd prefer that Lavi get it, but I actually think that Ruff gets it.
*IF* you started a hockey team and could hire any coach in the NHL to coach them would your first three choices be Laviolette, Renney and Ruff? Or would there be other coaches you would pick first? If there are other coaches you would pick first, why are they not coach of the year nominees?
are the coaches benefiting from these players have "break-out" or "come-back" years, or are the players having these years because of the strong coaching?
are the coaches benefiting from these players have "break-out" or "come-back" years, or are the players having these years because of the strong coaching?

Thats the chicken and egg question isn't it?

I for one believe that good players like Staal, Lundqvist and Afinogenov are quite likely to have had breakout seasons as long as they had a semi-stable situation and a semi-competent coach.

There is nothing that is better at creating the perception of brilliant coaching then having a talented young team that is bound to breakout as long as the coach is not entirely idiotic.
A little background: perhaps the reason why Buffalo's players are doing so well is because Lindy Ruff spent most of last year behind the bench with their Rochester affiliate. He really did his homework: I don't know if he figured out how these young guys would work in his new system, or if he designed his new system around their talents...but either way, the man did the work. Now the Sabres have shed their old skins and are the poster children for the new NHL. Everything's different. And it gels so well because of this one man and his work throughout the 2005 strike year.
One way to check if that theory about Lindy Ruff beingh behind the bench in Rochester is important is to look over the 2004/05 Rochester roster and see how many players made any impact with the Sabres.

I see the folloowing players who are contributing in the playoffs on the Rochester roster: Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy, Paul Gaustad, Ryan Miller. 5 guys. Now we must ask ourselves if spending some time last year behind the bench (but not as head coach) with 5 members of your team should be enough to turn a team around.

Its a beautiful fluff story for a Buffalo News article about why the Sabres have improved, but it has little truth value.

Now I was at a Chicago Wolves vs. Philadelphia Phantoms game in Chicago in the 2004/05 season. I saw Ken Hitchcock in the arena in Chicago. So he likely was behind the bench as much as Ruff. This team has RJ Umberger, Dennis Seidenberg, Jani Pitkanen, Freddy Meyer, Antero Niittymaki (and in the playoffs Jeff Carter and Mike Richards).

Am I to conclude that the Flyers big improvement (they went from 101 points in 2003/04 to 101 points in 2005/06) was due to Hitchcock doing all the same homework Lindy Ruff did.

Or is it better to conclude that Ruff was in a place where several young players were ready to take a step forward as long as he was semi-competent enough to not impede them and Hitchcock was in a place where his team lead the NHL in man-games lost to injury. And none of this does anything to conclude that Lindy Ruff or Ken Hitchcock had a better season than the other had.
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