The End of the Trend

trotz and co

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.

– Nick Emptage,

Long-term, there seems to be a 1-point boost (from 48.4% to 49.4%) once a team replaces its coach.

– Gabriel Desjardins (I think), Arctic Ice Hockey

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.

image (6)

* 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.

Coaching Change Year Possession
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.

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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.

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.

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  • Matthew Kory

    I’m excited about the Caps too. I’m working on an article about baseball, but wearing my John Carlson Winter Classic Caps jersey. It helps that I’m in Oregon and it’s 55 and raining in late July.

    But to the whole point of your piece, Peter, what can I say except, I agree? I find myself excited about the Caps changes (even if they aren’t the ones I’d have made) and about their prospects going into this season. And, selfishly, I can’t wait to read RMNB as the season goes on.

    Also, Oates was a dumpster fire soaked in asparagus pee made me laugh.

  • Tadd

    Peter writes an article about advanced hockey stats.

    Uses Shakespeare quotes.

    Can’t do more than love it!

  • JH

    Great analysis but you omitted one thing: Ovi is single again. He played better single, regardless of the undoubted increase in, er, late-night carousing. I can’t wait.

  • Shaun Phillips

    I think the only thing that could de-rail the 50%+ is the lack of a NHL-proven 2C. Kuzy might work, but we all know he struggles mightily with face-offs. I know Grabo was out for long stretches last season, but how bad would the Caps rating have been without him? Prolly god-awful. I know the new coach/system will give us a bump, but I worry how much losing Grabo will counter that.

  • Like what even is that? I feel like you’ve been gardening way too much this summer, Peter.

  • Matthew Kory

    There is at least a small intellectual leap to be made between asparagus pee and gardening, though, right?

  • mspeer

    “dumpster fire soaked in asparagus pee”
    It is this kind of poetic imagery that keeps me coming back…a true art.

  • Priscilla Kruper

    I’m taking my work sabbatical so i can focus on my hobbies this winter. if they fuck up, it won’t be my fault.

  • Yeah, that’s a big problem. It’s tough to verbalize though.

    Like: if Kuzya and Burakovsky turn out to be — not just viable NHL forwards– but viable NHL centers AND Brooks Laich is truly healthy for the first time in years, THEN I think that’s a great offense.

    But even if BL21 is even, Kuznetsov is a bottom-sixer, and Burakovsky is in Hershey, I still think they could pull off 50%+. Just not much higher.

  • very small

  • dylan wheatley

    the figures for the coachings changes, are those averaged out over all coaching changes? i’d rather see the average possession change for teams that saw an increase in possession, and the average change for those teams that saw a decrease in possession. otherwise you’re tempering changes like hanlon -> boudreau (which results in better possession) with changes like a box of rocks -> oates (which of course is way, way worse)

  • Shaun Phillips

    Don’t get me wrong, I think Kuzy is a definite top 6 forward. If it wasn’t throwing all of our offensive eggs into one basket (and creating a potential disaster on the d-side), I’d say he should be on the first line with Ovi and Nicky. I just worry about him at center. If he can improve his face-offs, Kuzy, Brouwer, Wilson could be a potent 2nd line.

    Even with a healthy Laich, I’m worried all the injuries have slowed him to bottom 6 talent. Also, I really don’t want Brouwer + Laich again in the top 6.

  • Shaun Phillips

    My lines for this season.

    Ovi – Backstrom – Fehr: Use Fehr+Nicky to drive possession for top line
    Wilson – Kuzy – Brouwer/Laich: Laich can backup Kuzy for FOs
    Ward – Mojo/Laich – Chimera: Too good to split up the wings, center depends on health/production
    Brouwer/Mojo – Latta – Beagle: could be a pest line with Beagle+Latta.

    Alzner – Niskanen
    Carlson – Orlov
    Orpik – Green

  • Bilal

    I feel for you peter. Thing that sucks for me is I don’t watch Baseball and the Fifa world cup is finished. Its gonna be a loooooooooooooong time till hockey is back……

  • This is a good question and also I don’t know how to answer it.

  • Myan

    Good piece. If I’m honest, I’ve never been a big fan of Trotz as it always seemed like his teams got outplayed. I’m interested to see how Trotz does with a potent offense and how the team does with 6 NHL caliber defensemen & a coach who knows what he’s doing.

  • That top line could be awesome. Ovi and Fehr are great together. 56% of shot-attempts over the last 4 years.

  • Matt Lauer

    I’ve been kind of surprised they haven’t tried any trades for a more impact forward yet. Maybe that’s still coming. I still advocate for trading Laich and finding a way to eliminate the burden of Erskine’s contract.

    I actually do think that Kuzya and Burakovsky will be impact players this season. However, I think that we will have to wait until the second half of the season until they reach that maturation point. #thebank

  • Diller M

    Totally the point I was going to make. This would suggest that a move to a better coach would really improve possession, ie Boudreau and Bylsma whic would be necessary to facilitate an overall trend of improvement when weighed against coaches who bring down possession. It is encouraging that e stat isn’t actually closer to 0 which you might expect when averaging all coaching changes, good and bad.

  • Diller M

    you gotta get into MLS it’s good at getting you through the tough times. Also the women’s pro games are very entertaining, final from Sunday’s game was 6-4

  • Shaun Phillips

    I think Burakovsky could use a year in Hershey. They would have to drop/assign a forward to Hershey to fit him in. As the low man and being on a one-way contract, they’d risk losing Latta (or maybe they just drop volpatti, but then who’s sitting?). I think it’d be better if Burakovsky got full time playing in Hershey (rather than risk Wilson-ing him) and then bring him up in ’15-16 when the Caps can simply not resign one of several players.

  • Shaun Phillips

    Yup. I think Fehr was grossly under-used/estimated by Oates and Hunter.

  • Shaun Phillips

    That’s one thing I never thought about Trotz’s teams. They were always a pain in the arse to play against and scared the crap out of me when the Wings would play them (what seemed like) every year in the playoffs. They definitely seemed to take his blue-collar approach. If you mean outskilled, then yes, he always had less talent to work with than the other teams in the Central (outside of maybe Columbus during those years), but that was largely the fault of the management.

  • Vicki Albarano Blucher

    Im actually partial to watching premier league, and Ligue BBVA (With Ronaldo and Messi), but these games come from Spain and i cant understand the announcers lol.

  • Chris Wilkins

    Very good article. I for one am also optimistic about the upcoming season. I do agree that a “fresh start” phrase has been thrown around quite a bit with this team and agree with Peter that with the new management and coaches, as well as the new players that it does finally feel like a fresh start that could do wonders for this team. Here’s to hoping they will not underachieve.

  • Myan

    I can only comment on what I’ve observed in the last season and a half when I actually watched Preds games. I lived in Nashville last season and went to about a dozen games and they seemed outmatched in nearly every game. Maybe Trotz’s last season was a poor representation of his teams but I got a sinking feeling in my stomach when we hired him. I hope I’m wrong because we just got Capitals season tickets and it would suck to spend all that money and be heartbroken every night!

  • jalabar

    Two points: I prefer to think of last season as a toilet fire, so soaked in asparagus pee is apropos.
    And where I work, we occasionally feature grilled asparagus spears as a side. One of the servers told me that she likes to eat asparagus because it ‘makes her pee smell nice’. Dunno if that’s where you were going, but thought I might lend some insight to ‘asparagus pee’.

  • Shaun Phillips

    I think losing Rinne for most of the season due to his hip injury and other injuries (Josi with his concussion, Fisher with his injuries, etc) combined with how STACKED that division was last season were a big portion of the Preds troubles. You had to either have lights-out goalies, score a ton of goals, or both to compete in that division and the Preds couldn’t do either (largely due to lack of talent). 5 teams from that division made the playoffs.

    Odd fact that I just realized, with the exception of the Wings and the Stars, you had to be >.500 (including OTL) to make the playoffs. While it makes sense, I would’ve expected a few more #rego losses+OTL combos to make it.

  • Shaun Phillips

    I love grilled asparagus (make it frequently). No way does it make pee smell “nice”. And for the educational side:

  • John M

    I think we need a follow-up here looking at the actual roster and how they get to 50%. We were sub-50% last year and just lost our best possession player. From whence is the improvement supposed to come? Not from B.O., that’s for sure.

  • Myan

    Eh, I saw them play against the Wild a few times, Carolina, Yotes, Blues, Avs, Rangers, Caps and a few more. The only game Preds outplayed their opponents was the one against the Caps…unfortunately.

  • KG

    Care to give opening day line predicitons?

  • goph94

    So…fundamental or technical analysis?