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…

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Where NHL Coaching Changes Did, and Didn’t, Help Their Teams

If you or anyone you know have seen this man behind your player, contact the front office immediately.  (Photo by "Dan4th Nicholas", via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author)

Photo by “Dan4th Nicholas”, via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author

Michel Therrien has an interesting distinction in the research I’ve been doing about NHL coaching changes: he’s given me 4 instances where he and his replacement have coached 20+ games within the same season. He’s also replaced or been replaced in three of those instances by legit coaching talent – he replaced Alain Vigneault for the Montreal Canadiens in 2000-01, was replaced two years later by Claude Julien, and lastly was fired in favor of Dan Bylsma for Pittsburgh in 2008-09. What’s incredible about these three cases is that, in every single one of them, there was a drastic change in outcomes for the teams involved. Using 2pS%, or possession measured by two-period shots-for divided by two-period shots-for and against together, the numbers tell a story:
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