I’m really excited about the upcoming Caps season. After replacing Adam Oates with Barry Trotz, I predict the Caps will– finally– reverse their five-year decline and start to get better in 2014-15.
But people who expect a coaching change to immediately transform the team into a Cup contender won’t find solace in the literature.
Teams changing coaches saw their Fenwick Close % increase about 0.35%; after a coaching switch, teams averaged one more Corsi attempt for and 0.4 more Corsi attempts against per 60 minutes, and saw very slight decreases in shooting and save percentages.
Long-term, there seems to be a 1-point boost (from 48.4% to 49.4%) once a team replaces its coach.
By that math (and before accounting for roster changes) we might expect the Caps to have around 48-percent puck possession next season. That would kind of suck. I’m a bit more optimistic.
First of all, this isn’t a rebuttal to the studies above, which I think are great. I just want to limit this conversation to the role that coaching changes have had on the Caps in particular. Because, for them, it’s been a bit more …dramatic than the rest of the league.
* Note: For 1997 to 2007, I’m using even-strength shot percentage, as provided by Tyler Dellow (Thanks to JP for the tip). After that, I’m using even-strength shot-attempt percentage during close games. It’s not exactly apples to apples. This is helpful high-level information, but please don’t take these numbers to #thebank.
Like I said: dramatic. The Capitals were awful during the fire sale, but rebounded modestly in the following years under Hanlon. When Boudreau came to town, they exploded. Then Boudreau was forced to play the trap, and the Caps retreated from greatness. Then Hunter was a disappointment and Oates was a dumpster fire soaked in asparagus pee.
(There were also a ton of important changes to the roster, which are certainly more important than coaching. I’ll address some of them below.)
Coaching has had a huge impact on the Capitals. Maybe that’s because the Caps have employed coaches with dramatically different styles. Boudreau recognized the offensive talent on his team and set them free. Hunter preferred a meeker style. Oates could not differentiate anatomy from terrain.
|Hanlon to Boudreau||2007-08||+8.49%|
|Boudreau to Hunter||2011-12||-6.13%|
|Hunter to Oates||2012-13||-2.00%|
Lemme put a big ol’ disclaimer on those numbers: I’m fudging a lot. The Hanlon/Boudreau change is the difference between 2006-07 and 2007-08, using shots for the former and close-score shot attempts for the latter. The Boudreau/Hunter change is using close-score shot attempts from parts of the same season. And I’m not suggesting coaching changes are responsible for all or even most of that.
But we have seen how a change in coaching can improve things quickly. When Pittsburgh fired Michael Therrien and hired Dan Bylsma in late 2008, their possession improved 6.3 percent and they won the Stanley Cup. But, as Emptage’s and Desjardins’ studies show, your mileage may vary. Still, in Washington’s case, that mileage has been a lot.
Boudreau’s Caps got 53.6 percent of the shot attempts during close games before he got fired. A team that good is practically guaranteed to make the playoffs and more likely than not to make it past the second round. Hunter’s Caps during the remainder of that season got 47.4 percent of the shot attempts during close games, which would give them about a 1-in-4 chance of making the playoffs. That’s a radical change.
On the surface, that means “Boudreau good, Hunter bad.” I’m inclined to agree in principle, but we need more nuance. Hunter did without two of his three best possession players, Mike Green and Nick Backstrom, for much of the season. And Muneeb Alam pointed out to me that the Caps were a 51.5 percent team after the trade deadline, which is pretty great.
And, as much as it pains me to do this, I have to say a few words in Adam Oates’ defense. He was not given a strong defensive corps …though I’d argue his roster decisions regarding Oleksy, Orlov, and Schmidt made the situation much worse. (And that’s the most emphatic defense of Oates I could muster. Wow, I’m awful.)
Trying to figure out how the 2014-15 Caps will look– with an improved defense, a thinner offense, and a brand new coach– is delicate calculus. Trotz himself doesn’t guarantee good puck possession; he had a lot of ups and downs with the Predators.
But Nashville rarely spent to the salary cap– sometimes leaving as much as 12 million dollars unspent. And it’s no stretch to say Trotz never had a roster as talented as Washington’s.
Nashville’s 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons were really bad (though a 102.1 PDO vaulted the 2012-13 Predators into the second round of the playoffs), but I’m not sure how important they should be to our considerations. Trotz doesn’t carry with him some innate puck-possession skill that will magically animate the 2014-15 Caps. But he will implement a new system, one that will probably result in having the puck more and winning more games.
That new system could result in improved efficiency. We might not see the Capitals carry the puck into the offensive zone more, but Nashville’s numbers– as analyzed by Adam Stringham– suggest that the Caps could get more shots per zone entry. That would be a positive change, especially for a top line that sees 40.7% of its shot attempts come from Alex Ovechkin alone. It’s also evidence of the sort of rigor, both qualitative and quantitative, that Trotz puts into his job. While I’m reluctant to put much stock into how Trotz “seems” as a coach, he is probably more analytical and credible than Adam Oates.
And that’s an important point. Unless Oates wasn’t actually as bad as we thought, the Caps under Trotz might get better just thanks to the dead cat bounce. Just un-Oates-ing the team might result in a marked improvement (during 5v5 at least). I said as much back in March.
If Oates called a timeout and told the players to choose their own linemates and play however they want, I genuinely think they'd do better.
— Peter Hassett (@peterhassett) March 31, 2014
I’m inclined to believe that a new corpus of tactics can have a profound, transformative effect on a team– especially when the previous system was very different. We saw that in Hanlon/Boudreau and Thierren/Bylsma.
Then again, the confounding factors are compelling. The drop-off from Boudreau to Hunter wasn’t quite so huge when you consider injuries or their red-hot finish to the season. Coaches aren’t magic.
Still, without dramatic changes, the Capitals we saw in April were headed for the bottom ten of the league. The team has made those changes– a new front office, a new coach, a new defense. Now we’ll just wait and see.
So I don’t know if Trotz can change the Capitals from a 47.6-percent, playoff-bubble team into a 52-percent Cup contender. That kind of jump is rare. And awesome. I think we should be a little more conservative in our predictions/aspirations for this year.
I think the Capitals will outshoot their opponents. Put me down for somewhere over 50 percent.
That’s not gonna set the world on fire, but it will end a trend that has lasted as long as RMNB itself. Add to that a less-atrocious penalty kill, a power play that is fundamentally strong, and a number-one goalie now playing under the best goalie coach in the sport, there’s a lot of blue skies ahead. None of that guarantees a playoff spot or an appearance at the conference finals or anything, but those kinds of guarantees don’t actually exist. For now, it’s enough to know that the Capitals are finally getting better.
Over the last five years, we’ve heard lots of folks say the Caps are getting a fresh start. For the first time, I think they’re right.
Hey, look! I wrote a whole article about 2014-15 and didn’t even mention Brooks Orpik …crap.