With As The Habs World Turns set to break for the offseason, fans and pundits have expressed polarized responses to rookie GM/Director Marc Bergevin’s cliffhanger decision to hire Michel Therrien to coach the Canadiens. While some are willing to give Therrien a chance, others expect his second stint to be no better than his first. To provide a dispassionate perspective as the free agent frenzy continues on the slow fade to summer, we used a “moneypuck” inspired approach to assess the coach’s potential.
This past season, over-achieving coaches like Dave Tippett (Phoenix), Barry Trotz (Nashville), and Kevin Dineen (Florida) got the most out of their players and brought teams not considered to be outstanding on paper to the playoffs. By contrast, an under-achieving coach like Terry Murray (LA) presided over a team that failed to live up to its potential, and was replaced by Darryl Sutter whose success requires no chronicling for championship-starved followers of the bleu, blanc, et rouge. Like all fans, we wonder where Therrien will fall in relation to these trends.
Successful over-achieving coaches must motivate their players, as individuals and as a team, prepare strategies for the season (systems and lines), and develop tactics suited to the specific challenges offered by each opponent. Fighting off the visceral temptation to join the doubters, we pondered over how we could use our sociological expertise to make a fair and systematic prediction about how Therrien will stack up the second time around.
Effective strategic and tactical preparation is premised upon making realistic assessments of a team’s talent. When Therrien used his opening press conference to evaluate his new players, we decided to use some statistical data to test his claims. Among other possibilities, overly generous or naïve remarks by the coach could be seen as indicating poor talent assessment skills. They would also provide credibility to the fear that a pathway had been cleared towards a redux of Therrien 1.0.
Therrien identified the first line (Desharnais, Cole, Pacioretty), the goalie (Carey Price), the young defenseman (PK Subban), and the second line centre (Tomas Plekanec) as highly talented core players with whom he was ready to work to ensure that the 15th place finish would be an aberration. We compared statistics of these players with equivalent players from the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs this past season, focusing specifically on the final four. To our surprise, the results yield promise for Therrien 2.0.
All statistics in our analysis were taken from Nhl.com. To put together data on first and second lines, we located records of game-day team lineups from this year’s playoffs and compared them with records of team lineups from the second half of the regular season. Considering factors like injuries during the season and line rotation adjustments for match-ups, we assembled first and second line combinations for each team in our sample that we considered to be representative of what the teams used, or intended to use, for the 2011-2012 NHL season.
Compared to the playoff teams, only five team’s first lines (Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, San Jose, Boston, and LA) scored more points than the Habs first trio during the regular season. Twelve of the sixteen playoff teams did NOT rely on placing their top three point getters on their first line as the Habs did this past season. Though Therrien got this one right, the numbers also confirm the widely held view that the relative strength of the Habs first line masked an overall lack of offensive depth.
Carey Price tied for 12th out of all goalies in regular season wins. Among the highest winning goalies, Price tied for 13th in save percentage. Goalies from three final four playoff teams (Jonathan Quick, Mike Smith, and Henrik Lundqvist) finished in the top five in both regular season wins and save percentage. As Therrien suggested recently, there is room for improvement. The numbers also suggest that many pundits and fans are right to believe that Price has the potential to be an elite goalie.
Compared to the top regular season scoring defensemen on playoff teams, Subban tied for 14th. This solid if less than spectacular result is put into perspective by noting that six out of the playoff teams (including LA and New Jersey) had their top scoring defensemen finish out of the top10 in regular season points for defensemen. In comparison with the top scoring defensemen on playoff teams, Subban’s +/- rating of 9 during the regular season put him in 8th place. This is the highest result for a non-playoff team’s defenseman in this category. The numbers suggest that Subban clearly has the potential to be an anchor on the Habs back end.
Finally, compared to second line centres on playoff teams, Plekanec finished 6th in points during the regular season. Of the final four playoff teams, only New Jersey’s second line centre (Patrick Elias) scored more points. On the other hand, Plekanec ranked last in +/- compared to playoff team second line centres. While the numbers show that Therrien has work to do to help Plekanec realize his offensive AND defensive potential, this depends both on the player having an effective supporting cast and on improved team defense.
The numbers show Therrien’s talent assessment skills to be quite sound. But, and interpreting the meaning of the numbers differently, in systematically confirming that Therrien demonstrated good judgment in his decision to parrot the conventional wisdom on the team’s strengths, we have still left a tough question about last year’s Habs unanswered: Did a 15th place team with a solid core of players reveal a coaching regime that had no clue or did it reek of other deficiencies that not even a Toe Bake, Scotty Bowman, or Jacques Lemaire could overcome on his own?
Regardless of how one interprets the numbers, what can anyone fairly predict at this time about whether Therrien can take this core, develop it and the other players, and get them to over-achieve?
A sociologist would argue that there are many variables that determine coaching success, but no scholarly training is needed to safely predict that Therrien cannot act alone. All loyal fans of a team with a painful recent history of poor trades and ineptitude in retaining or developing its homegrown talent know that Bergevin and his impressive-on-paper team have a key role to play. So, as barbecue season heats up, we hope that this exercise reminds all fans, and especially the coach’s doubters, that it is at least as important to pray that Bergevin can channel an inner Kenny Holland (or Dean Lombardi!) as it is to agonize over whether it’s within the realm of possibility that Therrien’s hiatus has given him what he needs to channel an inner Darryl Sutter.