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October 26, 2009
Howe and Why
Coaches

by Robert Vollman

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There are lots of ways to statistically measure the contributions of skaters and goalies, but what about the coaches? A good coach should consistently improve his team. He should be able to make a bad team competitive, a competitive team good, and a good team into a champion. The best coaches should be able to do it faster and more consistently than the others.

In order to find out which coaches are helping their teams win games, we need to establish expectations. For all coaches since the early-90s expansion, I measured their expectations by looking at the teamís winning percentage from the two preceding seasons, weighted more to the immediately preceding season. I then regressed each season towards the norm by 35% (as discovered by Gabriel Desjardins). I also dutifully remembered to make adjustments after the 1998-99 season and the 2004-05 lockout because the rule changes made points easier to come by. For expansion teams, I based expectations on an average expansion team winning percentage of .344.

Armed with these expectations, I looked for the best single-season performances based on the number of points a team earned relative to expectations.

Season  Coach              PTS
1992-93 Pierre Page        40.5
2006-07 Michel Therrien    36.0
1993-94 Kevin Constantine  33.3
2005-06 Peter Laviolette   32.5
1996-97 Ken Hitchcock*     31.2
2001-02 Peter Laviolette   30.8
1992-93 Scotty Bowman      30.0 
1995-96 Scotty Bowman      29.3 Won Jack Adams
2008-09 Claude Julien*     26.9 Won Jack Adams
1999-00 Joel Quenneville*  26.4 Won Jack Adams

* Active coaches: Hitchcock is in Columbus, Julien is in Boston and Quenneville is in Chicago.

When Pierre Page joined the Nordiques in the middle of the 1991-92 season, Quebec had stumbled through terrible seasons under Michel Bergeron and Dave Chambers, recording only 31 victories in 178 games. Page brought results immediately, winning 17 in the remaining 62 and then coached the Nordiques to a monster 104 point season in 1992-93. The young talent he developed would go on to win the Stanley Cup three seasons later under Marc Crawford. Unfortunately Page couldnít reproduce the same magic in Calgary in 1995-96 nor Anaheim in 1997-98, so it appears that he was simply the right coach in the right place at the right time.

Strangely, Pierre Page did not win the Jack Adams award for the leagueís best coach in 1992-93. In fact, seven of the top ten single-season coaching performances in this latest expansion era were not honored with the Jack Adams award, including Peter Laviolette, who in 2001 transformed the New York Islanders from a sub-.400 team three seasons running to give them their first winning season in ten years. He did it again in Carolina after the lockout season, taking them almost immediately from a very bad team to Stanley Cup Champions.

If Pierre Page and Peter Laviolette are not worthy of the Jack Adams trophy, then who was? In some cases the answer is surprising.

Season  Adams Winner     PTS  Robbed!           PTS
1992-93 Pat Burns        26.1 Pierre Page       40.5
1993-94 Jacques Lemaire  19.1 Kevin Constantine 33.3
1994-95 Marc Crawford    16.5 
1995-96 Scotty Bowman    29.3 
1996-97 Ted Nolan        12.8 Ken Hitchcock     31.2
1997-98 Pat Burns        16.2 Ken Hitchcock     20.9
1998-99 Jacques Martin   21.7 Pat Quinn         23.7
1999-00 Joel Quenneville 26.4 
2000-01 Bill Barber       9.2 Bob Hartley       25.5
2001-02 Bobby Francis     6.4 Peter Laviolette  30.8
2002-03 Jacques Lemaire  18.5 Mike Babcock      23.0
2003-04 John Tortorella  20.6 Ron Wilson        21.3
2005-06 Lindy Ruff       24.6 Peter Laviolette  32.5
2006-07 Alain Vigneault  12.0 Michel Therrien   36.0
2007-08 Bruce Boudreau   23.5 
2008-09 Claude Julien    26.9 

Despite Pat Burnsí strong 1992-93 season, the Jack Adams award should have gone to Pierre Page (followed by Scotty Bowman). Pat Burns stole another one in 1997-98 when Pat Quinn transformed the 6th-place Toronto Maple Leafs into a powerhouse his first year with the club.

Peter Laviolette is not the only coach who has been snubbed for the award (albeit by only one vote in 2005-06). Thereís also Ken Hitchcock, who helped immediately take the Dallas Stars from a basement-dwelling disappointment under Bob Gainey in 1995 to one of the best teams in the league for five straight seasons.

The award committee seemed to get off-track at the turn of the century, awarding Bill Barber the award after he replaced Craig Ramsay mid-season and coached a 1st-place team under Roger Neilson the season previous to 2nd place in 2000-01.

Stranger still, Bobby Francis was awarded the Jack Adams trophy in 2001-02 for the Phoenix Coyotes despite the team only improving by 5 points (the same season that Laviolette turned the Islanders around). Bobby Francis would be replaced two seasons later by Rick Bowness, who leads all coaches for the worst single-season performance of this era, back in 1992-93 with the expansion Ottawa Senators:

Season  Coach            PTS
1992-93 Rick Bowness    -42.9
1992-93 George Kingston -35.7
2006-07 John Stevens    -34.5
2005-06 Mike Kitchen    -32.3
1993-94 John Paddock    -28.5

It may not be fair to pick on Rick Bowness for his struggles with an expansion team, but studying his disastrous results in Phoenix and Boston, how quickly Jacques Martin turned the team around after he left Ottawa, and the 1992-93 season leads us to believe that his inability to coach was probably no fluke. Same goes for George Kingston, who watched the Sharks go from a combined 63 points over two seasons under his watch to 82 points in just Kevin Constantineís first year.

Expansion teams aside, John Stevens really struggled with the Philadelphia Flyers after taking over from Ken Hitchcock in 2006-07, but got them back on track quickly enough. There are no excuses for Mike Kitchen, however, who inherited a team that had finished no worse than 2nd the past six seasons under Joel Quenneville, and promptly dropped the Blues into the basement with sub-.400 hockey until Andy Murray dug them out. John Paddock coached the average Winnipeg Jets effectively for two seasons but they suddenly fell apart under his watch before quickly becoming a .500 team again immediately upon his departure.

Overall, who were the best coaches of this era? Seeing Scotty Bowman at the top of the list makes me feel better about the accuracy of my methodology.

Coach           Seasons  Pts
Scotty Bowman     10    107.5
Jacques Martin*   13     94.7
Ken Hitchcock*    14     87.5
Jacques Lemaire*  14     78.2
Joel Quenneville* 13     68.3
Darryl Sutter     11     67.3
Pat Quinn*        11     56.3
Bob Hartley        9     54.4
Peter Laviolette   7     52.6
Claude Julien*     7     51.6

* Active NHL Coach

Have we just solved the mystery why Montreal, Columbus, New Jersey, Chicago and Edmonton are off to such hot starts? The way I figure it, having these men behind the bench adds 5-10 points, and we should adjust our expectations accordingly.

Some of you may want to know which coaches fared the worst, and quite possibly cost their teams points. Here they are.

Coach           Seasons Pts
Rick Bowness      7    -70.9
Jacques Demers    6    -45.0
Curt Fraser       4    -41.2
Mike Kitchen      3    -40.3
Ted Green         2    -37.1

This method of comparison favors the coaches that have been active for longer. Here is a list of what each coach may be contributing to each team in points per game.

Coach              GC   PPG
Bruce Boudreau*   152  .295
Todd McLellan*     92  .143
Scotty Bowman     785  .137
Claude Julien*    411  .126
Peter Laviolette  487  .108
Jacques Martin*   947  .100
Kevin Lowe         82  .100
Mike Babcock*     500  .097
Kevin Constantine 377  .090
Ken Hitchcock*    991  .088

Minimum 82 games coached

* Active Coach

Number one on the list is Bruce Boudreau, who quite deservedly won the 2007-08 Jack Adams award for turning around the Washington Capitals. Last season's Jack Adams winner Claude Julien checks in at #4, but his Bruins are off to a rocky start so far this year. Montreal, Detroit and Columbus have wisely snapped up their proven coaches, and I expect someone to snap up Laviolette at some point this season.

Todd McLellan took over the San Jose Sharks from Ron Wilson last season and they finished first overall, but itís doubtful heíll continue to outperform Scotty Bowman for long. Hopefully Kevin Constantine left his playbook behind for McLellan, because he was the one who made them competitive back in 1993-94. He coached the Penguins from 84 points to 98 in 1997, and won 20 out of 31 when taking over for Larry Robinson in New Jersey in 2001, so you canít credit his high score solely to taking over an expansion team from George Kingston, who tops our list of worst performances.

Coach            GC    PPG
George Kingston  84  -.424
Ted Green       108  -.343
Mike Kitchen    131  -.307
Scott Gordon*    90  -.304
Rick Kehoe      160  -.208

* Active Coach, New York Islanders

Ted Green coached Edmonton starting in 1991 until being replaced by Glen Sather after the Oilers won just 3 of their first 24 games in 1993. In fairness to Green, the Oilers struggled for a few more seasons under George Burnett and Ron Low, but remember that John Muckler left Green the 1989 Stanley Cup Championship team that returned to the semi-finals the following season. The 2nd season with Green, they lost 50 games and missed the playoffs.

Scott Gordon is the only active coach on this list, and Iím not sure how much longer heíll last on the Island. New York is notoriously impatient with their coaches, having gone through ten since Al Arbourís reign ended in 1993-94, including truly great coaches like Peter Laviolette and Ted Nolan. What chance does Gordon have if things donít turn around quickly?

I donít mean to be overly critical of the coaches that donít measure well in this system, because there are always a lot of other factors outside their control that explain at least some of their teamsí performances. Rick Kehoe took over for Ivan Hlinka early in the 2001-02 season, the year after they lost Jaromir Jagr and where Mario Lemieux and Alexei Kovalev played 91 games combined. They would struggle for several more seasons under Ed Olczyk and it wasnít until the draft gave Michel Therrien the talent to turn things around.

Wrap Up

The coach can have a very significant impact on a teamís performances, perhaps by as many as 10 points in either direction. In todayís NHL, how many players can claim to do the same? We need to develop more ways of statistically rating the leagueís coaches, but preliminary work reveals that Edmonton (Pat Quinn), Columbus (Ken Hitchcock), Montreal (Jacques Martin), New Jersey (Jacques Lemaire), Chicago (Joel Quenneville), Boston (Claude Julien) and possibly Washington (Bruce Boudreau) are on the right track, whereas maybe the New York Islanders ought to send some makeup flowers to Peter Laviolette.

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

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