We're bad at judging NHL coaches

Jonathan Willis
August 20 2013 11:18AM

The Edmonton Oilers took a major step back under Ralph Krueger last season. Under (the much criticized) Tom Renney, the 2011-12 Oilers had dramatically improved in their ability to win the shots battle with the opposition; poor goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin and other factors obscured the improvement but it was there. Renney was fired and Krueger promoted, and the team stepped into an elevator shaft.

But I’m not really writing about that. I’m writing about the second most-criticized man in any hockey rink, the head coach, and why so much of the criticism misses the mark.

Things We Criticize

Thinking back to Ralph Krueger and Tom Renney, what parts of their coaching were most criticized? For me, the list is basically this:

  • Poor leadership. He’s not demanding enough or he’s not willing to hold guys accountable or the team doesn’t feed off his emotion all belong to this class of complaint. (Or, going back a few years, this is the “MacT has lost the room” argument).
  • Poor lineup choices. He’s playing the veterans too much and the kids too little, or he has the wrong goalie in net, or he’s left a guy in the minors too long, or he hates offensive talent, or even he won’t dress the enforcer all fall under this heading.

As fans and pundits and media we’re very good at critiquing perceived problems with a coach’s personality or presentation, and very good at hammering on him for not putting the lines together the way we’d like.

Things We Only Criticize After The Fact

Of course, there’s a whole other part of a coach’s job – arguably the main part – that almost never gets hammered in advance of the problems showing up. That’s tactics. In writing this piece, I tried to think of a time where I’d seen some tweeter or commenter or blogger or distinguished member of the media wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame look at a team and say, ‘you know what, he has his initial forechecker committed too deep when his second forward is pressuring the pass; this team is going to struggle to gain possessions relative to the rest of the league off dump-ins’ and then go back a few months later and say, ‘see all this trouble – it’s because his initial forechecker overcommits rather than breaking back after he’s forced the pass.’

I’m not criticizing those commenters or bloggers or distinguished veteran reporters; I fall into the same boat. It’s difficult to look at an NHL coach’s system and say, ‘he’s doing it wrong, let me explain how.’ For starters, it requires a strong understanding of tactics that most of us simply don’t have and secondly it requires a lot of chutzpah to say ‘I know enough to critique an NHL coach’s tactics.’ There are a handful of TV commentators that at their best can make valid, insightful comments on why a strategy succeeds or fails, but they’re a small group. Beyond Don Cherry, who time has caught up with and left in the rearview mirror, I’m struggling to think of one that brings up perceived tactical problems regularly.

That’s understandable. It’s also an issue.

The Great Leader of Men

Let’s shift gears for a moment, because there’s an analogy I want to make. Think of a great military leader – a general or an admiral or whatever – in terms of the three areas we’ve outlined with coaches. Of the things he does, which matters the most – his ability to inspire his men, ensuring his most competent officers are put in the best positions, or his ability to out-think his opposition counterpart? Without question, they’re all important, but his ability to cheer the men and promote the right officers is going to be irrelevant if he’s sending them into an enemy ambush. It’s the tactics that matter the most.

That takes us to George Rodney, one of Britain’s most successful admirals – and given the history of the Royal Navy, that’s saying a lot. Wikipedia has a decent write-up on him, while Military History Monthly goes into his tactical genius. He’s basically the opposite of the guy we described in the last paragraph, not only because he was a brilliant tactician but also because he was terribly lacking in the other two areas. He had a reputation for playing favourites, for taking prize money for himself that should have gone to his captains and just generally for being dishonest and awful with his subordinates. But he was brilliant as a commander because he was an innovative tactician with a knack for applying the most force at the most critical point.

Now, there’s an argument to be made that for a coach at the NHL level, the ability to inspire players and especially to put the best lineup together is more important relative to tactics than it is for a military commander. I think that’s likely true, but I also think that their importance is vastly overemphasized relative to tactics in the media not because they matter more but because we’re bad (as a class) at critiquing tactics. Jacques Lemaire, love him or hate him, was a tactical innovator and extraordinarily successful because of it. And here’s how Chicago GM Stan Bowman described his father, legendary coach Scotty Bowman:

The one thing my dad’s always been so good at, I think, is he’s been able to adjust…. [F]or a guy who’s ‘old school’ and has been around so long, he’s incredibly progressive and willing to try new things, willing to do things which are not the norm, and that’s what made him successful as a coach … he was very unpredictable … I think all coaches today are kind of – I don’t want to say programmed – but they’re led to do a certain thing. So if you can force yourself to try things maybe a little different or take a different approach, it’s going to give you that advantage. Ironically I think what makes him so exceptional is that he didn’t think he had all the answers.

Back To The Oilers

Thanks to Tyler Dellow’s work, there is a very good argument that there was a specific tactical problem with Ralph Krueger’s teams when compared to Tom Renney’s teams. Their play in the neutral zone, more specifically in the 45 seconds following a neutral zone faceoff win, imploded. They were worse everywhere, statistically, but the numbers here were night-and-day. What, exactly, were they doing wrong? I don’t know, and I’ve yet to see a convincing argument from anyone on that point. But on Oilers Now yesterday, assistant coach Steve Smith made it clear that Dallas Eakins thinks he knows – he said “there were some things that [Eakins] didn’t believe in or understand what Ralph was doing” with respect to the club’s neutral zone system.

If Eakins fixes the problem, the team will be much better. Doubtless, we’ll hear a lot about how he’s holding players accountable and getting the most out of his line combinations, and maybe that will be true. But it isn’t those things that got Ralph Krueger fired – he wasn’t canned because he didn’t get mad enough at press conferences or throw enough chairs in the dressing room or sometimes had Nail Yakupov on the third line. It was almost certainly results, driven by that neutral zone collapse, that made Krueger vulnerable and it seems likely that the collapse was caused by tactical problems.

Eakins, wisely, has talked a lot about his approach to players and accountability, but there have been little comments from him and others all summer about tactical changes too, from Eakins comment on running multiple systems the day he was hired to Smith’s answer yesterday. The former points have gotten a lot of press, but I can’t shake the idea that it is his abilities in the latter area that will make him succeed or fail in Edmonton.

Recently around the Nation Network

Jason Gregor wrote earlier today about why Mikhail Grabovski should appeal to the Oilers; at Canucks Army Cam Charron makes the same argument for Vancouver:

Mike Gillis has talked about having a roster spot open for one of the kids to compete for, but I think that [Jordan] Schroeder should be in that competition. If he's one of the 12 NHL forwards the team has under contract, it's an indication the Canucks don't have enough depth to make it through a full season. They need skill, they need speed, and they need centremen. 

Click the link above to read more, or check out some of my recent stuff:

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Hayek
August 20 2013, 11:39AM
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Coaches are largely irrelevant assuming that NHL coaches are all of a pretty similar skill level to be coaching at the NHL level.

Talent wins or loses hockey games. Coaches affect the combination of talent through 1) forming lines (of low importance), 2) distribution of ice time (of higher importance), 3) and tactics as you point out (which is largely a zero sum game, as countered by other capable coaches).

I don't deny that they may some outliers for coaching ability in the short term, but in the long term, coaching is basically a wash in the NHL, and is a low or non-factor in team success. On ice talent, and to a lesser degree the GM who assembles the talent has a much larger significant effect on team success.

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#2 Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!
August 20 2013, 11:27AM
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Coaches must rule with an iron FIST!

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#3 DSF
August 20 2013, 08:29PM
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Barry Trotz FTW.

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#4 Next up, is Connor McJesus.
August 20 2013, 11:00PM
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With still half a dozen holes in the lineup, and no money left to address these issues. I don't like Eakins chances of putting an end to the gong show that is our Oilers.

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#5 godot10
August 20 2013, 12:06PM
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Ralph Krueger:

1) Did not have a training camp. 2) Had a compressed schedule, he couldn't shorten the bench. 3) Had no games against the easy eastern conference. 4) Had to veteran assistant coach. 5) Had a rookie he was forced to play in the top four instead of Tom Gilbert.

And he was not given an opportunity to have an off-season to study and reflect how he could do things differently.

The piling on on Krueger is ridiculous, especially since Justin Schultz claims it was Krueger that sold him on Edmonton.

What is Krueger's sin? Not protecting bad hockey players. Showing up management so bad, that the new GM had to overturn nearly half of the roster. Krueger believes in team, And that means every player, and every one in the organization has to pull their weight. When you have been 30th, 30th, and 29th for three years, and missed the playoffs for six, what is the point of trying to be short term tactical, over long-term strategic.

To compare a first time coach under the conditions Krueger inherited the team with a 3rd time head coach (with at best a mediocre track record) is unfair.

So Krueger tactic's were horrible. He still did better in the standings, because of other things (including probably luck) even though the tactics were bad. However, Hall had a breakout season. Nugent-Hopkins, at 19, showed that he could be a 200-foot two way player. Yakupov arrived after 20 games. Basically all the good players thrived. All the bad ones dived. And, screw tactics, because that probably was a damn good thing.

Krueger forced the organization out of its comatose state.

That said. MacT is entitled to his own coach. I sort of like Eakins, but there is an awful lot of counting chickens before an Eakins-coached team has played a game.

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#7 Tikkanese
August 20 2013, 11:47AM
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That may be your best article yet, JW. Props.

Although I disagree on "time catching up on Don Cherry". He is still quite insightful and has adapted to the changing times. I haven't seen him say anything like "all Europeans are soft" in many years. The fact that you state he is the only commentator who brings up coaching tactical problems regularily somewhat contradicts your point. Maybe you could elaborate?

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#9 Tikkanese
August 20 2013, 12:41PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Remember in the playoffs when he went on and on and on about having wingers come out high and really pressure the points? Even I know that's wrong.

Maybe you disagree with the counter tactic but his reasoning for a change was warranted. I seem to recall them being scored on almost at will by the defencemen's play at that point. Which was why he was going on and on about it.

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#10 Hayek
August 20 2013, 12:59PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

That's a nice theory, but is it true? And if it is, why do so many general managers fire their coaches every year?

Are they idiots, foolishly shifting deck chairs on the Titanic, or are they cynics playing the PR game, or do they believe the coach makes a difference and are smart to address a problem?

I haven't heard of any instance in recent years where a coach provides his team such an advantage as to significantly outperform other coaches. I'm not saying coaches aren't good, I'm saying they are all good.

When teams randomly outperform or underperform each year, this is usually attributed to a coach because it is convenient. More likely, this variance is simply random, and noise. High SV%, high SH%, and just the random outcomes that are always prevalent within the curve of expected outcome of games.

Why do GMs fire so many coaches every year? Do GMs not recognize coaching talent? Most coaches aren't rookie NHL coaches, so shouldn't GMs know what they are getting? GMs fire coaches quite simply for their own job preservation. GMs typically have long tenures in the NHL, and if they can pin problems on a coach, they deflect blame from themselves, and the construction of the team (which easily has a bigger impact on winning games).

GMs can't really publicly blame players, or fire them. This would diminish trade value, and also why would they shed more light as their failure on recognizing talent.

If you are looking for an example of coaching in the NBA, sports economists David Berri and Martin Schmidt take a look at coaching in the NBA, and only found evidence of one coach in the modern era outperforming expectations, and that being Phil Jackson.

Quite simply talent is the largest prevailing factor in the outcome of hockey games. Debating coaching talent is probably equivalent of crediting the 4th line as being a large factor of a team's success or failure over a season.

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#11 Fresh Mess
August 20 2013, 05:48PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Remember in the playoffs when he went on and on and on about having wingers come out high and really pressure the points? Even I know that's wrong.

He (Cherry) knows more than you or me JW, and it isn't even close.

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#12 Spydyr
August 21 2013, 09:40AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Remember when he went on and on about how Ryan Johnson was a fantastic player who blocked shots and made hits and any coach would want and his team and if Corsi didn't like him than Corsi was stupid?

Me too.

Perhaps it is just me but I will always take the opinion of a man who spent a lifetime in the game he loved over some stat.

Grapes played decades in the AHL back when there were only six NHL teams.In todays watered down game his career would have been in the NHL.He also coached in the NHL winning the Jack Adams trophy for coach of the year.

Mr.Willis what have you accomplished that even holds a candle to Mr.Cherry's accomplishments?

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#13 Jason Gregor
August 20 2013, 11:54AM
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Hard to tell if system is bad, or if players are bad at executing it.

Lots of times in hockey players need to adlib, because the game can change so quickly, and it is rare the coach is responsible for that.

I agree coaches get too much of blame, because ultimately a coach is only as good as his players.

A coach can definitely make an impact, many have proven it, but ultimately if a coach doesn't have quality players they don't win.

I can't remember a coach who won consistently with bad or average players.

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#14 Hayek
August 20 2013, 01:06PM
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Jax 69 wrote:

Great article.. To the posters who question whether or not a coach is important at the NHL level.. Think back to the 06 cup run. Mac T implemented a new system on the fly in preparation for Detroit, because he knew we didn't have the horses to run with the big dogs of Detroit.. This strategy almost won us our sixth cup.. To say a coach doesn't really matter, is completely stupid.. A good team has a good coach.. One who can give them a winning system and the motivation to play it.. Simple as that..

Do you not also remember during the '06 season, MacT was about to be fired. His contract was not extended during the season, and he was likely on his way out. Do we really think MacT had outcoached other teams as we were massively outshot in those playoffs, and basically got through on the stellar SV% of Roloson.

Also, if MacT was such a stellar and talented coach, why did we miss the playoffs in '07? Obviously talent has a significantly bigger impact than coaching.

Not to say MacT was a bad coach; he seemed more than capable to me. But you are looking more at the result here than actual actions.

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#15 Will
August 20 2013, 01:07PM
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Hayek wrote:

I haven't heard of any instance in recent years where a coach provides his team such an advantage as to significantly outperform other coaches. I'm not saying coaches aren't good, I'm saying they are all good.

When teams randomly outperform or underperform each year, this is usually attributed to a coach because it is convenient. More likely, this variance is simply random, and noise. High SV%, high SH%, and just the random outcomes that are always prevalent within the curve of expected outcome of games.

Why do GMs fire so many coaches every year? Do GMs not recognize coaching talent? Most coaches aren't rookie NHL coaches, so shouldn't GMs know what they are getting? GMs fire coaches quite simply for their own job preservation. GMs typically have long tenures in the NHL, and if they can pin problems on a coach, they deflect blame from themselves, and the construction of the team (which easily has a bigger impact on winning games).

GMs can't really publicly blame players, or fire them. This would diminish trade value, and also why would they shed more light as their failure on recognizing talent.

If you are looking for an example of coaching in the NBA, sports economists David Berri and Martin Schmidt take a look at coaching in the NBA, and only found evidence of one coach in the modern era outperforming expectations, and that being Phil Jackson.

Quite simply talent is the largest prevailing factor in the outcome of hockey games. Debating coaching talent is probably equivalent of crediting the 4th line as being a large factor of a team's success or failure over a season.

ugh, what an obviously terrible comment.

If coaches really don't matter, how do explain the success of the Coyotes year after year. On paper they are not a good team, and should be front runners to miss the play offs every year. But they have Tippet.

That, I'm sure, is only one of an insurmountable number of examples that make your point rather worthless.

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#17 Rindog
August 20 2013, 11:13PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Remember in the playoffs when he went on and on and on about having wingers come out high and really pressure the points? Even I know that's wrong.

How do you know that is wrong? There are many coaches that believe that wingers pressuring the point is the best defensive coverage system available. It prevents the puck from getting back to the point and a whole new set of offensive options become available. Covering the points limit the offensive threat to down low/cycling. A more "user friendly" system for lesser talented defenders.

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#18 TigerUnderGlass
August 21 2013, 10:39AM
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@Willis

This brings to mind a couple of things I've been thinking about lately. The NHL is really far behind other sports in a lot of ways.

1. I don't believe a head coach should even be worrying about tactics. In the NBA a head coach's job is exactly as you described in terms of what we criticise. They inspire, they monitor, and mostly they babysit the massive egos inherent in many professional athletes.

Perhaps, most importantly, they hire assistants who handle tactics. A lead assistant will be in charge of Xs and Os, and that assistant will have his own assistants in charge of offensive and defensive sets, presses etc. Another assistant handles rotation....you get the idea.

Pro athletes need to be managed and it is much more than a full time job, so head coaches are delegators and managers.

NHL head coaches seem to want to micromanage and as a result I think they lack in areas because it is too much to handle.

2. The NHL is way behind in terms of tracking tactics as well. They are starting to catch up a little bit in terms of statistics, but the NBA has moved ahead to in depth tactical assessments.

Have you heard about the camera system NBA teams have begun to use that tracks every players position at all time and catalogs events as they occur in relation to player locations and actions? It allows teams to assess what they are doing tactically by seeing the results of their movements and tactics.

Short version? We only complain about the things that SHOULD be the head coaches job to handle. Most people consider Phil Jackson an all time great basketball coach, but his job was "Zen Master". Tex Winters provided literally ALL of the tactics.

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#19 Rama Lama
August 20 2013, 07:14PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

I can honestly say that I am not comfortable ripping on tactics until I see it fail first. Even then, I'm not qualified. I barely know what to look for. Compare the game of hockey to football and it's vastly different. The game of football isnt fluid at all. Stops and starts, all tactics.

I am much more comfortable ripping the Eskimos for calling shotgun draws on the 3 yard line than I am ripping Krueger for something that I can only "feel" is wrong about the way his team backchecks.

I lack the education or experience discerning different hockey tactics, and thats with me watching the game my whole life.

The only time I even half-@ssed brought it up last year was on the 5v3. The situation is so unique and pronounced that it lends itself to be critiqued much more easily.

Did you ever play the game? It's pretty basic most of the time.........there are coaches that make the game appear to be more tactical than it really is.

Like most others, I played the game all the way to juniors and most of what I remember is coaches telling us about zone coverage, individual player coverage, working hard, and never giving up on a play especially when we caused the turnover.

The players now are now better trained in systems play.........but I still think that the game has certain basic elements that will never change. Many in the hockey industry will make you think that everything has changed ..........but I maintain that players that play with natural instinct are still the best players.

Gretzky never played anyone's system, except his own. I heard him describe it once........something like, " I just lug it out and either pass or shoot".........sounds pretty basic to me?

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#20 nunyour
August 20 2013, 08:42PM
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Doesn't matter what your game plan is if you bring a knife to a gun fight.

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#21 Archaeologuy
August 20 2013, 11:45AM
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I can honestly say that I am not comfortable ripping on tactics until I see it fail first. Even then, I'm not qualified. I barely know what to look for. Compare the game of hockey to football and it's vastly different. The game of football isnt fluid at all. Stops and starts, all tactics.

I am much more comfortable ripping the Eskimos for calling shotgun draws on the 3 yard line than I am ripping Krueger for something that I can only "feel" is wrong about the way his team backchecks.

I lack the education or experience discerning different hockey tactics, and thats with me watching the game my whole life.

The only time I even half-@ssed brought it up last year was on the 5v3. The situation is so unique and pronounced that it lends itself to be critiqued much more easily.

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#23 The_CWD_GarbageMan
August 20 2013, 12:32PM
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A coach has to convince the players buy into their ideology of how the game should be played and this is reinforced by winning outcomes on the ice. Talent is an important thing, but if it doesn't develop and thrive you're left with another Al Daigle.

Which leads to the other job a coach has; making their players comfortable so they have a platform to succeed and being able to form relationships with their players. When a player and coach have trust in one another the coach is better equipped to deduce what he needs to do to sustain a player's confidence or get him back on track. Ultimately I believe this leads to player accountability.

If ya coach doesn't have these things then hit the bricks pal because the bus will soon be leaving.

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#24 Rama Lama
August 20 2013, 02:27PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

That's a nice theory, but is it true? And if it is, why do so many general managers fire their coaches every year?

Are they idiots, foolishly shifting deck chairs on the Titanic, or are they cynics playing the PR game, or do they believe the coach makes a difference and are smart to address a problem?

I like Mac T's assessment on coaching.........they usually receive too much criticism when things are going wrong and too much credit when things are going well.

All coaches want to win and usually play guys that play according to their expectations. Renny use to over play Horcoff in spite of his iron hands, I for one could never see his value on the PP.........but there he was almost every time. He once said if the young guys want PP time they had better learn to play the other side of the puck first.

He is fired now, followed by Krueger, soon to be followed by Eakins. Coaches get fired to cover for inept senior managers like Lowe.......plain and simple.

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#25 Reinman
August 20 2013, 02:55PM
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Oiler's biggest problem that I see is they really, really struggle to sustain pressure in the other teams end. You never see the Oiler's hem the other team into their zone for extended periods. This always ends up in the Oiler's spending too much time in their zone. Oiler's need Hitchcock. Someone first need to teach them about checking. Hitchcock could teach them to take time and space away from the other team, and teach them how to fore check properly. Once they know this, then they can start using their talent on top of this to break games wide open.

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#26 Sliderule
August 20 2013, 07:49PM
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Almost every NHL team is using a puck side or call it strong side overload in the defensive zone. Steve Smith said this was too hard for players to understand so last year RK went to a man system that the players and fans could not understand.

In his interview with Stauffer he went on to explain how they were going to use a swarm system.He went on to say the strong side winger would support the center and defenseman and the other winger would even jump in.

If this is their new system they are in big trouble.

I am hoping hat he just miss spoke and meant that weak side winger would cover slot and cross ice passes to defense.

Somehow I don't think he miss spoke and just doesn't have a clue.

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#27 oilabroad
August 21 2013, 07:22AM
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I had a conversation with a previous player not long ago who played under Bowman in Pittsburgh. He told me that they had player only meetings about trying to get him fired as he couldn't even run a practice. This for me was an eye opener about the importance of a coach/system... unless you have the right players on the ice, the guys behind the bench mean squat...

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#28 Tikkanese
August 21 2013, 09:29AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Remember when he went on and on about how Ryan Johnson was a fantastic player who blocked shots and made hits and any coach would want and his team and if Corsi didn't like him than Corsi was stupid?

Me too.

What's wrong with Ryan Johnson? He played over 700 games in the NHL and led the league forwards in blocked shots one year. Yea sounds like a terrible player and no coach would want that guy...

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#29 Dirk Hoag
August 20 2013, 11:37AM
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One example I can think of right away (which shows how rare such criticism is) was that of Ron Wilson in Toronto, and his mandate that defensemen keep both hands on their stick in the defensive zone. In general, though, there is very little discussion of tactical difference between NHL teams, certainly in comparison to what we see in NFL or NBA coverage. Tyler Dellow highlighted that a few weeks ago in his post breaking down the Nashville Predators' tendencies after losing neutral-zone faceoffs.

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#30 dawgbone
August 20 2013, 11:37AM
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The problem is most people focus on the Hollywood stuff. He's a great motivator, he makes guys accountable, etc...

Motivation stems from these win one for the giper, any given sunday speeches that the movies love to toss out. In the end, they mean nothing because extrinsic motivation just doesn't work long term.

Making guys accountable is a great theory, but when your only solution is to replace them with worse players, how does that help?

Hockey isn't really a complicated sport. The idea on offence is to get the puck to the prime scoring area and get a shot off. The idea on defence is to prevent the other team from doing the same. I want the coach that teaches that the best.

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#32 PerryK
August 20 2013, 11:58AM
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dawgbone wrote:

The problem is most people focus on the Hollywood stuff. He's a great motivator, he makes guys accountable, etc...

Motivation stems from these win one for the giper, any given sunday speeches that the movies love to toss out. In the end, they mean nothing because extrinsic motivation just doesn't work long term.

Making guys accountable is a great theory, but when your only solution is to replace them with worse players, how does that help?

Hockey isn't really a complicated sport. The idea on offence is to get the puck to the prime scoring area and get a shot off. The idea on defence is to prevent the other team from doing the same. I want the coach that teaches that the best.

DB, IIRC you did a great break-down series on Copper & Blue before.

I really enjoyed that. It would be great if you would take a crack at this again.

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#33 916oiler
August 20 2013, 12:14PM
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We need some stability - get us in the playoffs and KEEP YOUR JOB, Mr. Eakins!

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#34 smiliegirl15
August 20 2013, 12:22PM
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Strudwick was talking about the European game vs the North American version of hockey while he was filling in on someone's show last week. His point was how the Euro game is quite different from the NA game and it doesn't always translate well on the ice. The larger ice surface is the main difference and therefore coaches have different systems that work.

I think this was Krueger's biggest challenge. He was very successful in Europe and I think he tried to implement a lot of those systems here with the Oilers. We watched "early" in the season when a lot of the players were struggling with his systems, which reflected in our win/loss. I don't think Krueger's game adapted quite the way he envisioned. Had he had a training camp and a full season, things might have been different but that's not what happened.

I guess we'll see once this Eakins version gets out on the ice.

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#36 Will
August 20 2013, 12:44PM
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Good read and great insight on a topic none of us really know enough about. I would like to link back to the articles which meticulously broke down various plays in the game. Those articles were great insight into how coaches and players execute on particular systems, and I hope to see those agin this year.

This article is especially interesting when we consider how we use advance stats to demonstrate a player either is or isn't executing a certain aspect of the game. And yet no advanced stats exist to see whether the system that player is playing is a contributing factor on their individual stats. Such as how Kreuger's neutral zone system affected a player's shots for and against. Was it the player being poor in their own end, or was it the coach not knowing how to break into the zone on a faceoff win?

As for Krueger vs other systems, he definitely had some interesting ideas. I like how he tried to win every single game, and actually used a strategy involving line combinations as the game went on to try and improve his chances for the win. Now sometimes he made the wrong choices, but you could very plainly see him trying to win every single game.

The main complaint I've herd levelled against him (not that I know much about what it means), is that he played man coverage as opposed to zone coverage. Knowing how effective zone coverage is in other sports, I wonder how much that small piece affected play. I also know he wasn't big on line matching, which had a lot to do with a shortened season. But still that seems odd to basically not use that advantage when playing at home.

I do think there is still an argument to be made that no matter what system Kruger had in place, it was still people like Ryan Whitney trying to execute it, and failing.

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#37 The Soup Fascist
August 21 2013, 08:13AM
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I think part of Krueger's demise, apart from his goofy D-zone coverage was his:

a) Reluctance to have an associate coach (with NHL experience) last year

b) His decision to head back to Europe in the off-season rather than participating in the hiring process*.

* I am led to believe it was his decision to allow MacT hire the associate coach vs. doing it himself or at least having greater input.

Plus, as stated before I washed my hands of him mid-season last year when he started Horcoff and Smyth in O.T. and justified it - after the loss - by saying that he thought the Oilers were a strong shootout team. Adios, Ralphie.

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#38 Wax Man Riley
August 21 2013, 10:25AM
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Spydyr wrote:

Perhaps it is just me but I will always take the opinion of a man who spent a lifetime in the game he loved over some stat.

Grapes played decades in the AHL back when there were only six NHL teams.In todays watered down game his career would have been in the NHL.He also coached in the NHL winning the Jack Adams trophy for coach of the year.

Mr.Willis what have you accomplished that even holds a candle to Mr.Cherry's accomplishments?

Oilers should have hired Cherry for head coach with all of his experience and accomplishments.

Quinn's experience and accomplishments sure worked out.

I think what JW is trying to say is that the game has passed Cherry by, and he isn't really relevant anymore.

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#39 TigerUnderGlass
August 21 2013, 11:44AM
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The Soup Fascist wrote:

Certainly, I agree that assistant coaches should be acting as "co-ordinators" and doing the "X and Os". The assistants should be detail guys and head coaches are the big picture guys.

However, I think it was mentioned above that because hockey is such a fluid game, specific tactics are more difficult to execute, just because of the speed of the game. Certainly baseball and football are more static due to the nature of the games. You use basketball as an example, which I agree is closest to hockey in terms of the "big four" team sports.

But basketball is played in an area 1/4 of the size of a hockey rink, with guys running not skating, in a league that defines what is and what is not an illegal defense. The "pieces on the board" of a hockey game are much more difficult to predict than basketball. IMO, the ability of the players to read and react are far more vital than a pre-set play drawn up by a coach.

I disagree strongly with 2 things.

First, the fluidity and speed of hockey makes proper tactical analysis more important, not less. Events occur so often and so suddenly that knowing their value along with the value of positioning is more vital than ever.

Second, I take serious issue with your concept of basketball as a series of pre-set plays. This is wildly inaccurate. I think you have a misconception of what "tactics" means. It has nothing to do with "pre-set plays".

Because of the work being done with these cameras a number of tactics and strategies previously considered effective have been shown to be serious strategic and tactical mistakes. Now ideas have been proven.

If you don't something similar would have a profound effect on hockey tactics and strategy I think you are mistaken. Hockey is screaming for this and they just ignore it.

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#40 Tikkanese
August 21 2013, 03:16PM
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@ TigerUnderGlass

Thanks for the laughs! That was the funniest set of posts I've read in a long time.

To suggest that the NHL doesn't use advance stats is, I'm sorry, but it is moronic. Just because the fans are just starting to catch on to "advance" stats doesn't mean that the NHL hasn't been using them for a long time.

The NHL has also been using video since the 70's. Remember "Captain Video" Roger Neilson? Heck, my Mites team in the early 80's used video to teach us tactics and plays. The NHL is hardly "screaming for this and they just ignore it". They've been breaking apart every single play of every game for years. Every break out, every turnover, every powerplay, every shot, every blocked shot etc. They know every players' weaknesses and tendancies be them skaters or goalies. Tactics and plays are built around these and have been for decades.

Hockey coverage is way behind the NFL, NBA & MLB but the use of tactics, video etc is not. Just because you don't get to see it like you do in other sports does not mean that it isn't there.

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#41 The Oilers Shot Clock
August 20 2013, 12:50PM
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I've read about a system that is completely system based.

I half expect him to show up with a cape on. This topic was made for him.

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#42 seanjohn
August 20 2013, 02:09PM
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godot10 wrote:

Ralph Krueger:

1) Did not have a training camp. 2) Had a compressed schedule, he couldn't shorten the bench. 3) Had no games against the easy eastern conference. 4) Had to veteran assistant coach. 5) Had a rookie he was forced to play in the top four instead of Tom Gilbert.

And he was not given an opportunity to have an off-season to study and reflect how he could do things differently.

The piling on on Krueger is ridiculous, especially since Justin Schultz claims it was Krueger that sold him on Edmonton.

What is Krueger's sin? Not protecting bad hockey players. Showing up management so bad, that the new GM had to overturn nearly half of the roster. Krueger believes in team, And that means every player, and every one in the organization has to pull their weight. When you have been 30th, 30th, and 29th for three years, and missed the playoffs for six, what is the point of trying to be short term tactical, over long-term strategic.

To compare a first time coach under the conditions Krueger inherited the team with a 3rd time head coach (with at best a mediocre track record) is unfair.

So Krueger tactic's were horrible. He still did better in the standings, because of other things (including probably luck) even though the tactics were bad. However, Hall had a breakout season. Nugent-Hopkins, at 19, showed that he could be a 200-foot two way player. Yakupov arrived after 20 games. Basically all the good players thrived. All the bad ones dived. And, screw tactics, because that probably was a damn good thing.

Krueger forced the organization out of its comatose state.

That said. MacT is entitled to his own coach. I sort of like Eakins, but there is an awful lot of counting chickens before an Eakins-coached team has played a game.

some solid points especially Krueger waking the organization up. they certainly were sleeping, thinking they could draft their entire lineup. At least now, they seem aware that the waiting window is shut, fans are demanding results, and some savvy managerial moves are required.

Management, not coaching, is the single most important factor in an organization's short and long term success. Scouting, drafting and development probably being the most important aspects of management. And in these areas the Oilers have been the worst in the league.

As you say, we can thank Krueger for exposing Tambo and especially Lowe for complete and utter incompetence. Hopefully, this is Lowe's last kick at the can. If MacT fails, a top to bottom house cleaning must follow.

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#43 OilClog
August 20 2013, 03:30PM
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If Kruger could of figured out how to play with a lead.. he'd still be the coach. Oilers lost the lead last year more times then in the previous 700games.. or it seemed that way to me.

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#44 Romanus
August 20 2013, 04:07PM
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2004Z06 wrote:

In other news...Sheldon Souray is out for 4-6 months with a wrist injury. Ducks have signed Fistric as the replacement.

Didn't Souray have a bad wrist when he was here also? i recall he was wearing a brace.

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#45 TayLordBalls
August 20 2013, 06:49PM
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MacT was an excellent coach.

MacT, Eakins and Lowe seem to have the same hockey

    'if you can't beat them in the alley, you cant beat them in hockey'

philosophy.

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#46 David S
August 20 2013, 08:36PM
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Sliderule wrote:

Almost every NHL team is using a puck side or call it strong side overload in the defensive zone. Steve Smith said this was too hard for players to understand so last year RK went to a man system that the players and fans could not understand.

In his interview with Stauffer he went on to explain how they were going to use a swarm system.He went on to say the strong side winger would support the center and defenseman and the other winger would even jump in.

If this is their new system they are in big trouble.

I am hoping hat he just miss spoke and meant that weak side winger would cover slot and cross ice passes to defense.

Somehow I don't think he miss spoke and just doesn't have a clue.

From Throndson and Morley's groundbreaking work "Relative scale of NHL hockey coaches" (Harvard Press™, November 2012):

(-) Steve Smith ----------- 0 ----------- Scotty Bowman (+)

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#47 The Soup Fascist
August 21 2013, 08:52AM
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j wrote:

It was Krueger's request to hire an associate with NHL experience. The Oilers wanted to wait till after the shortened season i.e. didn't want to hire during the lock out. As far as his participation in the hiring process, that is up to his employer to decide. Staff don't enter into my interviews unless invited. Not their choice. And I'd head to Europe every summer if given the chance. He has as much rights as the players in this respect i.e. enjoy your holidays.

OK I am hearing things a little different in terms of Ralph's desire to have a strong associate, but my info is not concrete so I cannot say you are wrong.

And yes, you are totally correct, Ralph was free to choose to go back to Europe, put up his feet, crack open a Heineken and watch the world go by.

How did that work out for him?

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#48 Jax 69
August 20 2013, 12:46PM
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Great article.. To the posters who question whether or not a coach is important at the NHL level.. Think back to the 06 cup run. Mac T implemented a new system on the fly in preparation for Detroit, because he knew we didn't have the horses to run with the big dogs of Detroit.. This strategy almost won us our sixth cup.. To say a coach doesn't really matter, is completely stupid.. A good team has a good coach.. One who can give them a winning system and the motivation to play it.. Simple as that..

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#49 The Oilers Shot Clock
August 20 2013, 01:36PM
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The AV-TORT case study the NHL has begun should be interesting in a year.

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