The NHL Systems Argument: Comparing Bruce Boudreau, Alain Vigneault, & Lindy Ruff

Bruce-Alain Ruff. Looks like the ghost of Gene Hackman. You're welcome for the nightmares.  Composite of images by

“Bruce-Alain Ruff. Looks like the ghost of Gene Hackman. You’re welcome for the nightmares.” Composite of images by “DSCF1837” (Vigneault), Michael Miller (Boudreau), and Arnold C. (Ruff), via Wikimedia Commons*

Systems are without question the most elusive, yet most important, part of our understanding of hockey and the application of analytics. What works and what doesn’t? To what degree can a coach or team apply a strategy?

This led me to think about where we might most convincingly see evidence of a system at work. In the past, we here at HG have had a lot of skepticism about a number of elements of a “system.” For example, Garik’s pieces on competition-matching lines (here and here) and the use of the “defensive shell” to protect a lead, neither of which presented themselves as particularly effective ways of looking at or implementing systems. I have shown in the past that attempts to use extreme deployment in terms of zone starts doesn’t move the needle beyond a 60-40 range of possession, the range of shooting shares for forwards and defensemen haven’t seemed to change much over the last 20-25 years, and a plotting of even-strength shots-for with top and bottom possession teams do not suggest a major difference in shot location.

So where to go from there? Eventually, I decided that we need to get to an extreme enough situation, with robust enough data, where a team might have the best opportunity to dictate a system — in other words, we need to look at the powerplay. The most ideal opportunity for comparison, given the workable data for me, comes from the coaching careers since 2008-09 of Bruce Boudreau, Lindy Ruff, and Alain Vigneault. They all provide at least a couple of seasons with different teams, in addition to a robust set of coaching data from 2008 to the present. Let’s see what we can see…

First off, an important plug: Greg Sinclair’s Super Shot Search has been invaluable to me for the kind of work I’m doing below. All of the images are a composite of screen captures of his plots in an overlay — made considerably easier because of the way he built the site. A person could spend hours there; I know, because I have. Check it out.

The first thing I want to do is reiterate why I’m looking at the powerplay. At the very base level, it is more difficult to dictate play without having control of the puck. This isn’t to say it is impossible to influence play when you are on defense, but the majority of defensive actions are reactive, based on an underlying instinct or (maybe) system. Because it is reactive, its influence will be contingent on the outcome of that reaction, which could be success, failure, or minimal impact. On the other hand, having the puck would be immediately executing a system and underlying instinct all-in-one — particularly on the powerplay, where a player will have the time and space to do it.

The first thing I want to look at is whether we see a change in the location of shot generation when a coach experiences an overhaul of player personnel. If a coach has a static system approach, the shot generation should still come from similar locations. If not, we can understand that, rather than a static system, coaches seek to optimize their personnel.

There certainly seem to be stark differences here, and when you consider the player personnel they make a lot of sense. Boudreau went from some of the best offensive talents we’ve ever seen to a good offensive team with worse possession. There doesn’t seem to be a discernible system, but instead two distinct approaches by the players, one which was more effective in getting opportunities in-close. Any Caps fan will tell you, when Ovechkin, Mike Green, and Backstrom are allowed to create on the powerplay, it is a fantastic thing to watch.

Lindy Ruff, on the other hand, went from a fledgling Buffalo squad to a bit stronger team in Dallas. Once again, distinctly different results by location, the better team providing a uniform set of opportunities in better spots on the ice.

Vigneault, as we know, has gone from a good team of his design to another good team of his design. Yet once again our locations are different — Vigneault’s Canucks had some better shooters on the point and used them, while his Rangers squad is not nearly as strong in that area.

In all these cases, we’re not seeing a retention of a system as much as a reaction to changing player personnel. What’s more, the difference is drastic enough to go beyond simple arena-to-arena recording differences.

I want to do one more chart, though, and take all the powerplay data among these coaches, through their team changes 2008-09 to present, to see if there are any marked differences.

This, I think, brings our answer around appreciably. Ruff and Vigneault mostly meld together in the distribution…but Boudreau stands out. Looking at multiple teams and sets of player personnel, Boudreau’s teams still have this impressively close grouping of shot locations. Is this a system? Or is this powerplay talent? Considering Boudreau’s success, and the players he’s had, I am leaning towards a superior set of offensive players. Ovechkin & Co. are otherworldly on the powerplay, that is no secret, and Anaheim is one of the very rare teams I was willing to say might go above-average in shooting this year (the one part of the prediction I did get right!).

Most importantly in this comparison, we have three coaches with a varied record on what they use in their coaching. Vigneault has tinkered with zone starts in drastic ways and seems to know what he’s doing analytically, while Boudreau and Ruff are more of the old school. I think the biggest difference between Ruff and Boudreau, though, could be a combination of good fortune player-personnel-wise and Boudreau’s willingness to let the players play. Three different coaches, three substantial careers with player and team changes, yet little evidence for a static system. Considering what we know about those teams and their player personnel, it seems that, even in the extreme case of the powerplay, the players you have and use dictate the on-ice play more than a system.

Consequently, this means that a coach’s greatest value seems to be less about a system, and more about player selection. And not getting locked out of your own locker room

*With no real intent to draw uncomfortable parallels, for the lead image I copied an approach used by Francis Galton to create what he considered “prototypical” criminal faces and medical cases. He ended up not getting anywhere with it, though his realization of how attractive the resulting faces were set the base for future research in how humans perceive beauty. All things considered, Galton was an extremely sharp 19th-century mind who introduced some of the first equations for the statistical principles of correlation, standard deviation, and regression to the mean; he also measured everything involving the human body, in the process creating the foundations for scientific racism through racial theory and eugenics. Oddly enough, I only recalled that somebody had used composite images to profile criminals in the 19th century, not that the same guy built the foundations of some of the most important and despicable things in our history.

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