Friday, February 09, 2007

New Coach of the Year Pick

Frequently, my choice for coach of the year is out of touch with the mainstream hockey media (who tend to choose the coach of the most improved team as coach of the year). This is incorrect because teams improve for many reasons. Sometimes they improve because of coaching, but often it is for other reasons. Usually, they improve because their players are better than they were the year before.

I had been picking Ted Nolan of the New York Islanders as coach of the year. He has done a very good job keeping the Islanders focussed and in the playoff race despite off season distractions that looked to make the team into a laughing stock. The Islanders hired and fired two GMs last summer and the latter hire was a backup goalie with no management experience in Garth Snow. The Islanders signed goalie Rick DiPietro to a ridiculously long contract. It didn't look like things would go very well for them. They have managed to stay in the playoff race (though more than likely they will be one of the top east teams that miss the playoffs). Nolan was given a lot of credit for making Alexei Yashin regain interest in playing well, though with Yashin fighting injuries and having only scored one goal since December 20th that credit may no longer be as valid. Nolan is definitely a coach of the year candidate, but he is no longer my choice.

I pick Jacques Lemaire of the Minnesota Wild as my coach of the year so far. There is no coach in hockey that has as much influence over the style of play his team exhibits and no coach who's team's success if more dependent on the style of play the coach teaches. Minnesota is currently holding down the eighth and final playoff spot in the far superior West Conference. They are in the toughest division in hockey (the Northwest Division). This is the division of the largest travel (I have driven from Vancouver through Edmonton and to Minnesota once. It took about four days. No other division has that kind of distance). This is also the only division in the tougher West Conference that lacks any weak sister teams to beat up on. A team just barely slipping into the playoffs in the west is a far better team than one would be that just barely slipped into the playoffs in the east.

Minnesota's improvement from last season was predictable with the addition of Kim Johnsson and Pavol Demitra; however improvement is a poor way to assign value to a coach. Lemaire was coaching in Minnesota last year (in fact he has been coaching there since the team expanded in 2000). His coaching this year is likely no better than last (where he deserved the Adams Trophy), so why should he be scored on his team's improvement? That method only has some merit when a coach is new to a team. Likely, however the best coaches in hockey stay with teams for long periods of time. Why would you fire the best? So it is a poor method to evaluate the best coaches in hockey to look for single season improvement.

When I pictured the Wild this year, I pictured an improved team led by Marian Gaborik (their best player). If it was suggested that injuries would have limited him to 22 games so far this season, I would not have imagined the Wild to have been as successful as they have so far. The Wild have kept on going while their best player was hurt. Jacques Lemaire teams succeed despite adversity.

There is an interesting (but rather stupid) issue that will likely be brought up this season. Ted Nolan is clearly a mainstream coach of the year candidate (arguably the favorite at this point). At the same time, the New York Islanders will likely miss the playoffs (though not by much). This will lead to a debate about if Nolan can be a good coach on a team that missed the playoffs. This debate is stupid. How many points do you think coaching is worth to a team in a season? Is it enough that a bad team would make playoffs merely by adding a good coach? If so does that mean you seriously think Columbus will make playoffs with Ken Hitchcock coaching? Coaching is an important part of a team, but not as important as the star players. It is very clear that a coach could have a great year (be responsible for more wins than any other coach in hockey) and also miss the playoffs.

I think the mainstream method of coach evaluation is bunk. I think that coaching is much harder to rate than by looking at single season improvements. It is something that must be determined by a much more complex analysis. This year, I think the two best coaches have been Jacques Lemaire and Ted Nolan. I think Lemaire has been moderately better and thus deserves coach of the year. At the same time, I would be surprised if he gets as much as a nomination.

My coach of the year is Dallas coach Dave Tippett. He lost Jason Arnoot to free agency in the off season, Mike Modano has missed 23 games and Brendan Morrow has missed 26 games, a defenseman is his team points leader, he has turned Mike Ribeiro into a useful player and he still has his somewhat comfortably team in the playoffs.
I don't think Dave Tippett is on the radar screen for the Adams trophy. He's certainly not coach of the most improved team. Last year Dallas has 112 points. This year they are on pace for 100 points. So they are worse than they were last year. Of course its possible for a coach to have a great year while his team gets worse, but is that happening here?

It seems that given that Dallas has one of the best defenses in the league (some might argue the best) its not too surprising they would be a playoff team. And given the problems you outlined, its not too surprising that they should drop a bit (losing 12 points from last year).

All told I see Dave Tippett as a pretty good coach, but I do not see anything there that puts him on the level of Lemaire or Nolan in terms of what he means to his team.
Michel Therrien or Claude Julien get my vote. MT has gotten the Penguins playing better D and not all the credit should go to Crosby. Julien has get the devils playing as if the trap never went away. Considering that they have lost Neidermayer and Stevens in recent years, their GAA stats and brideurs strong showing is credit to improved team play - quite surprising and boring as ever, but still effective.
For the record, I thought Dave Tippett should have won last year, or at least got some recognition. And lets not give too much credit to the Dallas defense. Their defense includes Trevor Daley, Stephane Robidas, and an aging Darryl Sydor. Jon Klemm has even played 25 games. And before Dallas (and Dave Tippett) Philippe Boucher was a decent #3-4 defenseman. And Turco has a good but not great .908 save % but somehow Tippet manages to get a lot of wins out of his team. He won't win because he gets forgotten in Dallas but he is my pick.
I think Michel Therrien is a poor pick. Given Pittsburgh's talented young core, of course they are going to be improved. That said, I bet he gets a nomination.

Julien I like. I wrote this a while ago endorsing him for a nomination for coach of the year. He would be at best the distant third place finisher though.

I predict the nominees for the Adams are Ted Nolan, Michel Therrien and whichever of Barry Trotz, Randy Carlyle and Lindy Ruff coaches the team that finishes in first.
What about Barry Trotz in Nashville? Longest coach with one team, he's also the only coach in the Pred's history, he's taken what he's been given and worked with it.

The Preds battled and quietly snuck into #1 overall, his coaching style is very impressive, argue all you want that he has locked and loaded guns in his star players, so, it's easy to coach them, but, like you all said, the coach still has to motivate them to want to play well.

My pick for coach of the year is Trotzy.
Michel Therrien is defenitely the coach of the year right now. Granted the Pens have a talented young group but all of them are just learning. Malkin-rookie, Staal-rookie, Crosby 2nd year, Fleury, Whitney, Malone etc. Not much experience there. Who is instilling the discipline, the work ethic and teaching all these kids the NHL level game? Of course they improved, they couldnt be any worse than they were last year, but Therrien has taught them a system and given them belief in the system and themselves. Give him the respect he deserves, the Pens are not only improved but look for them to go deep into the playoffs.
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