Every year, coaches make good decisions and bad decisions. We've seen goalies start for longer than should have been expected, players incorrectly and correctly used in special teams situations, and we've seen skaters who have received too much or too little time on the ice. Sometimes these mistakes comeback to hurt a team, while at other times they have very little impact on a team's record. Taking into account all of the decisions that have been made by coaches throughout the National Hockey League, who is currently the best coach and who is currently the worst coach?
Jacques Lemaire, New Jersey Devils
This past offseason, the biggest change in the Devils’ roster was the loss of top six forward Brian Gionta to Montreal in free agency. As no appreciable on-ice additions were made, many pundits projected New Jersey to be a lower tier playoff team in 2009-10. The thing is, there was a significant addition made, and that’s behind the bench. Old friend Jacques Lemaire returned to the Devils, the team that he guided to winning the 1995 Stanley Cup while implementing hockey’s most infamous four letter word (“t-r-a-p”). After starting a listless 0-2––which didn’t seem to bode well for the coaching change––New Jersey has gone an NHL-best 21-5-1. That’s not a hot streak, that’s a slow boil. And the Devils’ supremacy has been underscored by Lemaire’s specialty – defense. New Jersey has now passed Ryan Miller and the stingy Sabres for the best GA per game in the NHL, at 2.17. Keep in mind that essentially the same roster––albeit with Martin Brodeur missing significant time––put up an impressive, but not dominant 2.55 GA per game last season. The Devils are going to give both the President’s Trophy and the Stanley Cup a run for the money this season, and that’s in large part due to the return of Jacques Lemaire to New Jersey.
- Timo Seppa
Jacques Lemaire, New Jersey Devils
Jacques Lemaire left the Minnesota Wild and replaced Brent Sutter as coach of the New Jersey Devils. Brent Sutter would go on to coach the Calgary Flames and under Sutter the Flames have enjoyed a significant improvement and have one of the best records in the league. Given Sutter's obvious success as a coach over the years, it would take quite a coach to make any kind of improvement on the team he left behind. And Jacques Lemaire is quite a coach, having accomplished just that.
It's not new for Jacques Lemaire. As we explored in our recent attempt to use statistics to measure coaching abilities, the 2-time Jack Adams Award winner is the 4th best coach since the 1992 expansion, having added 78.2 points over 14 seasons to the clubs he's coached. If you're not convinced, look at how Minnesota has fallen apart with his departure. The NHL is blessed with a wealth of great coaching talent, but in my eyes Jacques Lemaire still stands above the crowd.
- Robert Vollman
Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh Penguins
Putting aside a hot stretch of five games from March 15 - March 25, Dan Bylsma’s world-beating Pittsburgh Penguins were a tepid 14 for 87 (16.1%) on the power play during their magical 18-3-4 run to close out the season, a poor performance masked by overall success. 16.1% was also the Penguins PP% under Michel Therrien in 2008-09, but that was without the contributions of power play quarterback Sergei Gonchar––Pittsburgh’s third best GVT per game––for all but two of those games. We can ignore the small sample size right? Actually, no. The star-studded Pens are even worse now – an unfathomable 29th on the man advantage in 2009-10, based on a dismal 18 for 134 (13.4%) success rate. That’s a combined 40 for 246 (16.3%) under Bylsma––and sinking––compared to 211 for 1089 (19.3%) in the two and half years preceding this tenure. We expect a team with Crosby and Malkin to rank 4th or 5th on the man advantage, as Pittsburgh did in 2006-07 and 2007-08, not in the bottom third. Coincidence is starting to look like correlation regarding coaching the power play.
In addition, the Penguins’ talent shines through despite Bylsma’s puzzling decisions on playing time, such as his continuing infatuation with replacement level Craig Adams (0.6 GVT in 30 GP, 12:09 TOI) while underutilizing superior talent such as Tyler Kennedy (2.6 GVT in 16 GP, 12:52 TOI). Limiting Alex Goligoski (5.7 GVT in 21 games in 2009-10, equivalent to a 22.3 full season GVT) to only two playoff games in 2008-09 told you pretty much everything you needed to know about Bylsma’s abilities of talent evaluation. Who’s to say they couldn’t have defeated the Capitals or Red Wings in fewer than seven games by maximizing the ice time of their best players? Put Bylsma as coach of the Wild or the Islanders, and his public perception would radically change.
- Timo Seppa
Paul Maurice, Carolina Hurricanes
Eyebrows were raised when Peter Laviolette, one of this generation's greatest coaches, was replaced mid-season by one of the most hated men in Toronto. Paul Maurice had coached a team to the playoffs only 3 times in 11 seasons, but when he guided the Hurricanes to the Conference Finals, a lot of us were eating crow. Now we're wondering if we were right about him all along, and maybe last year's playoffs were just a fluke.
What can I say about the Carolina Hurricanes that hasn't already been said? They have the worst record in the league, score the fewest goals, allow the most, and have the 3rd worst power play. The roster may not exactly be the next Detroit Red Wings, but they certainly have enough talent to finish 14th overall as our VUKOTA system projects. So what happened? I think it's safe to say that Paul Maurice has failed to get the most out of all but a few of his players, and many of them are actually playing their worst hockey ever. It's too bad the Flyers snapped up Laviolette before the Hurricanes could wake up and correct their mistake.
- Robert Vollman
Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics. Follow Timo on Twitter at @timoseppa.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.