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January 9, 2012
Driving To The Net
Arniel And The Power Play

by Timo Seppa

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The first half of the 2011-12 NHL season has certainly seen a surprisingly large number of head coaches shown the door. A characteristic of those early dismissals—Bruce Boudreau in Washington, Davis Payne in St. Louis, Jacques Martin in Montreal, and even arguably Paul Maurice in Carolina and Randy Carlyle in Anaheim—was that they were coaching perceived playoff contenders that were considered to be underachieving.

While that actually makes sense—a coach's job is to optimize a team's performance, given their talent level—those changes caught many folks off-guard given some more conventionally obvious targets. You'd think that it would have been the perennial doormats letting their coaches go, but that wasn't the case. Jack Capuano was safe in Long Island, and Scott Arniel escaped the axe in Columbus…until today.

The Blue Jackets have certainly been disappointing, both in the short and long term. In the league since 2000-01, Columbus has only been above .500 in point percentage in 2008-09 (.561); their sole postseason appearance occurred that season, though it resulted in a first-round sweep. And even with the bar set so low, the Jackets are currently setting an all-time worst pace of .329 (11-25-5, with 27 points in 41 games). With plenty of blame to go around, it made sense for a portion of the blame to fall upon the shoulders of head coach Scott Arniel.

But was it just the fact that Arniel wasn't provided the horses to compete in the super-tough Central Division, against recent Stanley Cup champions Chicago and Detroit, perennial playoff entrant Nashville, and up-and-coming St. Louis? Some of GM Scott Howson's offseason moves were certainly made in the hopes of balancing the playing field. Howson boldly traded for first-line center Jeff Carter at the NHL Entry Draft, and while perhaps overpaying, added some legit offense on the blue line in the person of James Wisniewski. 36-year-old winger Vinny Prospal, brought on in a one-year deal, has looked like a steal, leading the team in scoring while adding a respected veteran presence in the locker room. And early first round pick Ryan Johansen has quickly emerged into a contributor as well, signaling that the prospect pipeline was starting to produce much needed young talent to the team.

Yet while all of those moves were fine and good, you'd still have needed to search far and wide for a preseason prognosticator picking Columbus anywhere above last place in the Central or as a potential playoff team.

Caveats aside, Arniel's track record wasn't favorable, particularly when compared to that of former coach Ken Hitchcock. In many aspects, the Blue Jackets had taken steps backwards since his departure, and they'd done no better than tread water elsewhere.

One example is on the power play. Never a particular strength of the Jackets—you need star players to have a truly upper echelon man advantage—the production of several key contributors had taken a highly visible nosedive in a year-and-a-half under Arniel's watch:

2010-11 and 2011-12 under Arniel		2008-09 through 2009-10 under Hitchcock
Player			TOI/60	PPP/60		Player			TOI/60	PPP/60
Rick Nash		3.44	2.72		Rick Nash		3.25	4.50
Kristian Huselius	2.59	4.05		Kristian Huselius	3.48	3.85
Antoine Vermette	2.38	1.86		Antoine Vermette	1.59	3.58
R.J. Umberger		3.00	2.79		R.J. Umberger		2.98	3.31
Fedor Tyutin		3.10	2.75		Fedor Tyutin		3.54	3.25
Derick Brassard		2.76	3.89		Derick Brassard		2.68	3.05

While players like Kristian Huselius and Derick Brassard have seen an uptick in their power play rates, the once passable-to-good rates of ex-Senator Antoine Vermette and team captain/franchise player Rick Nash have plummeted. Similarly, new players like Carter and Wisniewski were largely added for their power play prowess. Now compare their (albeit small sample) 2.29 and 2.13 PPP/60 rates in 2011-12 to their past four years: 3.56-6.02 (Carter) and 2.68-6.66 (Wisniewski). Nuff said?

With the Jackets' PP shortfalls mind, it's not particularly encouraging that former Minnesota Wild bench boss Todd Richards has been named interim head coach—the details of Columbus' lackluster power play had been delegated to Richards for the first half of this season, and he hadn't exactly made improvements over the 2010-11 performance.

What's to blame? Key injuries are a factor. For instance, the absence of the perennially fragile Huselius, a solid power play producer, hurts a bit. But a lot of it is coaching and scheme, more important on the man advantage than at even strength. In Nash's case, his utilization has changed. Under Hitchcock, he frequently scored from in front of the net and from sharp angles near the goal line to the right of the net. Under Arniel, Nash was frequently utilized on the half-wall, to diminished effect. That's coaching, and the blame is ultimately on the head coach, whether special teams are delegated to assistants or not.

A silver lining to the rash of injuries (e.g. Wisniewski, Carter, Huselius, Letestu) Columbus is currently experiencing is that new faces will no doubt get a chance to produce on the man advantage sooner rather than later. It's possible that talented youngsters like Johansen, recent call-up David Savard, and inevitable call-up Cam Atkinson will shine on the power play, if given a chance. Figuring out who's really got this specific talent is important for the team, going forward. Optimizing your record is that much more important when you're truly competitive; now's the perfect time to experiment.

The converse is that players that have proven (over multiple seasons and coaches) not to produce well at 5-on-4 should be taken out of the rotation. R.J. Umberger, a fine even strength contributor, should have no business on the power play; he never flourished under either both Hitchcock or Arniel.

Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.

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