Saturday, June 14, 2008

Lemaire's Coach Of The Year Case

The NHL awards were handed out on Thursday. The Jack Adams Trophy for coach of the year was given to Bruce Boudreau of the Washington Capitals. Boudreau took over the Capitals in November when Glen Hanlon was fired. Under Boudreau, Washington improved and won the Southeast Division. They made the playoffs for the first time since 2003. This is a good achievement, but it runs along the lines of picking coach of the year as coach of the most improved team.

Washington had a good young team with some high end talent. They had Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Alexander Semin. This young core was bound to improve and it would make any coach at the helm seem like a genius. At the trade deadline they added Sergei Fedorov and Cristobal Huet, without giving up anyone off their roster. That helped even more. Huet was a big improvement over Olaf Kolzig. An upgrade in goaltending goes a long way to improve any team. Boudreau got himself into a situation where things were bound to improve in the future. He provided the changes to help that improvement along, but his success comes as much from circumstance as it does from his ability as coach.

I usually disagree completely with the coach of the year choices the hockey writers come up with. This year is no different. It often misses the mark. In a thirty year coaching career, Scotty Bowman was coach of the year twice. Does that seem right? Wasn't he a much better coach than that?

It is hard to evaluate coaches properly. They don't accumulate statistics. In principle as a sabermetrics problem, the coach of the year is the coach who is responsible for the most wins for him club. That means that there would be a theoretical method to split up a team's wins to all its players and their coach and anyone else responsible and the coach with the most win shares is the best coach. The problem is hockey does not lend itself to that kind of statistical analysis. Much of what goes on in a game is undocumented statistically and coaching is one of the hardest areas to document even in a sport (like baseball) that is more easily analyzed statistically.

In hockey I try to look at this on a systems level. Which coach has the biggest influence over his team's success? It is not a question that can be answered with any high degree of technical analysis, but I think the clear answer is Jacques Lemaire of the Minnesota Wild. I picked Lemaire for coach of the year. The hockey writers didn't. In fact, he didn't get a single vote.

Minnesota is clearly Jacques Lemaire's team. They are a very fast team that is good at forechecking. Every player is chosen based on his ability to fit into that system. They are a team that can trap exceptionally well and has used that style of play to their success. If we look at the front end talent on Minnesota, aside from Marian Gaborik, they have few potential all stars. Pierre-Marc Bouchard was their second highest scorer with 63 points. Brent Burns and Kim Johnsson are their top defenders. These are not the kinds of players you would think of as the stars of a division winning team (Washington for example has better front end talent). The team has consistently done very well, after enduring the growing pains of any expansion team. Once they had some talent in place, Minnesota has been one of the best teams in the Northwest Division. Lemaire has been the coach of the team since day one. Because they do not make huge year over year improvements, he is not considered a coach of the year candidate. Why would they make huge year over year improvements anyway? Lemaire was the coach last year and this year. He would not be the reason for the improvement.

In a division with Jarome Iginla, Roberto Luongo, Joe Sakic, Paul Stastny, Dion Phaneuf and others, Minnesota finished first in the Northwest Division. That is a significant achievement and its one that few coaches (if any) other than Lemaire could have done. However, they actually dropped six points in the standings from last season's second place finish. No coach of the year can come from a team that got fewer points than last year. You have to coach an improving team to win the award. The problem is teams improve for many reasons. Coaching is only one. The team with the biggest improvement always has several of these reasons line up together at the same time and the coach gets an award for it. It also removes from consideration coaches who have consistently coached the same team very well for years since there is no reason they should be the most improved team. You must have been bad last year to be the most improved team this year and a good coach was not bad last year.

The Jack Adams Trophy is the trophy where the winner is most poorly selected. Consistently, it goes to a coach who happens to be in a situation where his team improves. Usually that coach deserves some (but not all) of the credit for that improvement. Coaches who are already in good situations have a hard time getting consideration. In this case, Jacques Lemaire was a deserving coach of the year, but got no votes because his team did not improve. Bruce Boudreau was put in a situation where an improvement was very likely. He did a good job and the improvement came. However, his coach of the year win was only possible because he was in a situation where there was a good young core that was ready to improve.

But by your argument why not Babcock, his team has and did perform better and over the last couple years has been molded into the exact team he wanted - players like Shanahan or Lang having been replaced. Certainly the talent or payroll factor cannot be raised anymore...
Because Lemaire is more valuable. I think he adds more to Minnesoat than Babcock adds to Detroit.
But really on what metric - should he have won last year as well?

In terms of W and L, pts. etc GF/GA the Wild did at best no better this year than last and in most cases worse (even the difference in place in the NW is a matter of just OTL defeats this year or last - it's not like Minnesota suddenly ran away with the division this year or was not edged out by a point last year).

The Wild have failed to qualify more often than not for the playoffs and exited quickly this year and last - Lemaire's one deep run looks more like a fluke.

I guess I just unclear why performance of the Wild this merits any special recognition for Lemaire - unless you are looking for a sort of recognition of entire tenure kind of award.

Isn't Babcock's value somewhat self evident in that the Red Wings are better under his tenure than that of Lewis
The metric, as I tried to explain in the post is that the coach of the year is the coach who produces the most win shares for his team. In principle, each win could be broken up into shares that were earned by indivudual players, the coach and anyone else responsible. In practise there is no method to actually do this, but it gives the idea. I think if we did that, we would see Lemaire is the most important coach to his team - in that he produces the most win shares.

I would argue, the Wings are better under Babcock than Lewis (though not by much - Lewis coached them two years to 110 and 109 point seasons) because of the emergence of Zetterberg and Datsyuk. I think that is a far bigger factor in the Wings success.

The Wild have far less to work with than the Wings have had at any point in recent history and nevertheless are the winners of the Northwest Division. It would be far easier for another coach to step into Detroit and have Babcoc's success there than to step into Minnesota and have Lemaire's success.
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