Saturday, June 16, 2007

Alain Vigneault Is A Poor Coach of the Year

The NHL Awards were handed out this week. I think that the worst choice for an award winner, by a significant margin, is coach of the year Alain Vigneault of the Vancouver Canucks. He maintains a long standing but ill-conceived tradition of giving the coach of the year to the coach of the most improved team.

It should be clear that teams improve for many reasons. The most common reason is that the team has better players. As long as a coach has basic competence, he should be able to lead a team of better players to an improvement in the standings. And worse, in the case of coaches who have been with a team for many years, such as Jacques Lemaire of Minnesota, there is no reason to expect an improvement in the standings based on good coaching alone (since he was a good coach in his previous seasons as well).

Fundamentally, I would define coach of the year in a more sabermetric manner. In an ideal statistical world, we would be able to properly quantify how many wins were produced by each player on a given team based on analysis of the numbers that they produce. The total wins produced by all the players on a team would correlate strongly with the total wins their team has in the season. This idea is akin to the win shares method that Bill James uses to analyze baseball. Baseball has a much better statistical record then hockey and thus is much easier to analyze in this fashion. However, even if it is not possible in practise to analyze hockey in this manner, one could use it as a lens to try to identify the best players and thus should-be award winners. Bill James does not try to give out win shares to baseball managers (who are the analog of hockey coaches) because this is too statistically dubious even in baseball, but the concept would still exist. Coaches in hockey (and managers in baseball) do influence the number of wins their team has over a season. One could imagine measuring this and ranking coaches based upon the results (in practise it would be a difficult if not impossible task). The coach who leads the NHL in win shares is the coach of the year. This coach might be on a team that improves. This coach might be on a team that has their record stay the same from the previous year. This coach might even be on a team that drops in the standings. But nevertheless that coach should be could of the year.

In hockey this season there were two coaches who stood out in this regard. Jacques Lemaire in Minnesota, who has created a winning system in Minnesota, where the team regularly outperforms the amount of talent that they have. This is a team that improved in the standings despite Marian Gaborik being limited to 48 games played and despite no player scoring more than 64 points (Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra tied with that number). A Lemaire team is a team that plays the neutral zone trap better than any other in the NHL and has many fast skating defensively responsible players who are often shifted from one line to another during the course of the game. History shows us that this system works. Lemaire succeeds wherever he goes.

Ted Nolan of the New York Islanders also had a great coaching performance. He came into a team in chaos after a crazy summer on Long Island and lead the Islanders to the playoffs. This happened on a team without any huge offensive talents (Jason Blake led them in scoring with 69 points) and where Tom Poti was the number one defenceman (at least in terms of minutes played).

Neither Lemaire nor Nolan were nominated for coach of the year. Instead the nominations went to President's Trophy winning Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff and improved team coaches Michel Therrien of Pittsburgh and Alain Vigneault of Vancouver. Vigneault won.

The clearest reason for a Vancouver improvement was Roberto Luongo in goal. He was a Vezina and Hart nominee and a huge improvement from Alex Auld and Dan Cloutier in the previous season. Defensively, the team was roughly the same. They had lost Ed Jovanovski to free agency (though he only played in 44 games the previous season) but found Kevin Bieksa to be a solid replacement. At forward, the Sedins took over from Markus Naslund as the go to players offensively. This transition took place over the course of the season and coincided with the Canucks emergence in the second half as much as the rise of Luongo did. Vancouver had a poor offence but it improved somewhat as the Sedins took over as the first line offensively (from Naslund and Brendan Morrison).

Vigneault supporters cite the improvement the Canucks showed in the second half (as compared to the first half) as a sign that he was a good coach. This is probably a correct statement. Vigneault saw that the Sedins were better capable of being the first line offensively and gave them the shot. He saw that Bieksa was a competent defender and gave him more ice time. Luongo got better adjusted to Vancouver and his numbers improved. All this shows competent coaching ability, but it doesn't merit a coach of the year award. Definitely not while Lemaire and Nolan made playoff teams out of much less then Vancouver had.

It is hard to statistically isolate the result of coaching on a team. Probably, it is impossible. This makes it hard to definitively pick a coach of the year. This leads many of the writers who vote to do the lazy thing and pick the coach of the most improved team. That is a poor method to pick a coach of the year. It often leads to people selected as coach of the year who get fired not long afterward. It leads to acknowledged top coaches like Scott Bowman to coach for 30 years in the NHL and only be named coach of the year twice. Vigneault was a very poor choice who was chosen as a result of a poor selection method. The better coaches were overlooked.

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