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What John MacLean & His Staff Can and Can't Control - A Discussion

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The New Jersey Devils are sitting at 5-11-2 and already playoff hopes are beginning to look bleaker by the game, as the team continues to drop points.   The Devils are beyond just having a slump or even being a joke, but an outright target of pity.   As such, nearly every Devils fan (myself included) and outside member of the media (e.g. this John Buccigross article at ESPN that was FanShotted by NjDeViLs33) immediately points to their pet theories, confirmation bias, and many more terms that Kent Wilson described at this impressive post at Houses of the Hockey as to figure out what's wrong with New Jersey.  This is understandable and to be expected.  The team sucks and we, as fans, inquire and postulate why they suck and how not to suck.

Let me propose the following for us (and it is us, it applies just as much to me as it does to you) going forward: If we're going to be negative, then be negative - but be rational.

In the latest example of failure, the Devils lost to the Boston Bruins 3-0.  The comments to the ILWT recap are especially telling.  The issue of whether head coach John MacLean needs to be axed came up, and was carried out in a reasonable manner.  So much so that I think it warrants a more detailed discussion.  

It's easy (in theory) to fire the coaches and hope the players respond by winning some games.  However, I'm not interested in whether MacLean will still have a job if the team keeps sliding.  I'm more interested in the larger question of what the coaches - not just MacLean but his staff - can actually control.   Are the Devils losing these games because of what the coaches can control, or are uncontrollable factors at play?   From there, I think we can determine whether firing MacLean and/or his staff would do some actual good.

The Coaches Can't Control: Shooting Percentage  The New Jersey Devils are currently 7th in the NHL in shots on goal for with 541.  The team as a whole, has been putting pucks on net. The team's current leader in shots on goal isn't even a top two-line player, it's David Clarkson with 54.  That's not to say the top forwards are gun-shy.  The active top forwards are Jason Arnott (51), Travis Zajac (48), and Ilya Kovalchuk (47), and Patrik Elias (38). They have been putting up a decent total as well. I repeat, the team is generating shots.  However, the team has scored just 33 goals.  That's a team percentage of just under 6.1%, largely thanks to putting up 8 goals in their two games last week.   Most of the team is still shooting below their career percentage, which belies more bad luck plaguing the team. 

And if you don't like reading that four letter word, then consider it as transient - the term used by Gabe Desjardens when he broke down what a player does and doesn't have control over shooting percentage in this first post and this follow up post at Behind the Net Hockey.  

If the player doesn't have that much control over it, then how can the coaches - who aren't even on the ice in the game - have any more say in the matter?  To be frank, if the Devils fired MacLean tomorrow and hired Coach X and the team suddenly starts potting more goals, then Coach X looks good only because this team finally got some luck when it comes to shooting.   In my view, this is one of the biggest problems for the Devils and it's especially frustrating in that there's nothing that can be done about it other than to keep shooting.

The Coaches Can Control:  The Puck Possession Game  Since there isn't a time of possession stat or area of possession chart, Fenwick (shots on goal + missed shots) and Corsi (Fenwick + blocked shots) are the closest approximations.  They represent a plus/minus for shooting attempts when on the ice.  Generally, it's desirable to have more positive values at 5-on-5 hockey since it suggests that they are doing more with the puck and keeping it in the opposition's end more than the other. 

However, it's not an be-all, end-all stat.  The Devils have had games this season where some players would have some great Fenwick or Corsi values, but it's all for naught since the team lost.   That's the result of score effects. Teams that are losing are going to be more aggressive to try and come back from a deficit; whereas a leading team will not.  So how have the Devils done when the game is close would be more useful to know.  Not good. The Devils' Corsi percentage is 48.8% in close games according to JLikens of Objective NHL.   In other words, the opposition has taken more shooting attempts when the game is close than New Jersey. 

The coaches do have some control over this. How they line up the players definitely has an effect of how possession game goes.  It's all about figuring who's skill set works best with who along with what they can do on the ice.  Way back in May, I showed that Ilya Kovalchuk was not a great puck possession player based on adjusted Corsi. This is not news.  He either needed to play against weaker competition and/or play with players who are good puck possession players. Given that he has been defended tightly, then his linemates need to be encouraged to shoot more.   Yet, MacLean keeps moving Kovalchuk around and with little adjustment for who he is with. According to today's practice report from Tom Gulitti, he was lined up with Alexander Vasyunov (a rookie so he's unknown goods still) and Dainius Zubrus (who has a high Corsi still after the Parise injury).  I guess we'll see this for a couple games.  If (or when) this doesn't lead to the desired results, there will be more changes.  Since this seems to be the case, why should I complain that Kovalchuk's not a fit on this team because the coaches keep moving him without seemingly thinking the whole matter through?  Why is this not seen as a failure by the coach?

And if the Devils are doing that with Kovalchuk, you can be sure others are effected as well.  It's saddening that after training camp, preseason, and 18 games in the regular season and I'm not getting the sense that the coaches know what they have here. Sure, Jacques Lemaire changed up the forwards a lot too, but most of those changes made some sense - if they didn't, they'd be changed - and the team still managed to get results.

The coaches' tactics also play a large role in how the Devils possess the puck.   They've struggled at times with opposition forechecking yet they do not adjust by dropping a player back to give the breakout man a safety valve.  There's no consistent forecheck of their own - sometimes they'll rush one, sometimes two, and sometimes none at all.  The team tends to dump and chase regardless of how the opposition handles it, so there's that.  Overall, though any complaints about a lack of a consistent system are totally valid.  This undercuts the Devils' possession game, it reduces opportunities to shoot, and it dulls the attack while putting more pressure on the defense.

Of course, it's not all of the coaches' fault here.  I do agree from the comments in the Boston recap that passing has been especially poor.  Like with shooting, that's largely on the players.  Even if MacLean puts out a total mismatch of a line, these guys have been playing hockey since they were kids and they've been together since September. They should know how to make simple passes to each other and to not force them when there is a defender almost literally in their face.   The coaches can't be on the ice in that regard and changing the coach isn't going to suddenly make the players recall what they've already learned years ago.

The Coaches Can't Control: Leadership  Perhaps this should be "won't control?"  Since Jamie Langenbrunner was handed the "C" in the 2007-08 season, there's been no doubt as to his position as team captain.   When Lemaire scratched Langenbrunner for one game last season and offered to Colin White to act as the captain for just that one game, he flatly refused, as reported by Rich Chere back in May.  While I've certainly questioned whether the team has been listening to Langenbrunner, there's little reason to believe there is an issue with the captaincy.  I don't think it's an accident that no one has been given the "C" while Langenbrunner has been out in recent games.

Moreover, John MacLean, Larry Robinson, Adam Oates, and Scott Stevens (among others) can't just demand someone to step up and lead.  Given the current record of 5-11-2, the team's confidence can't be all that high and for MacLean to undercut Langenbrunner entirely to install a new captain could be his great undoing in the back.  This is yet another issue that the players can really deal with, not the coaches, regardless of how we may feel about Mr. Langenbrunner's performance.

The Coaches Can Control: Preparation & Adjustments  While a team leader may be ideal, I'm not seeing the evidence that the Devils are properly prepared in the first 40 minutes of the game.  Over these 18 games, the Devils have been outscored 15-8 in the first period and 29-12 in the second period.  Hammering home the latter stat further, the Devils have given up the most goals in the NHL in the second period this season.  The Devils are 1-11-0 when trailing after two periods this season; and the team last season was 4-22-0 at it (and 14th in terms of point percentage in the league).

Basically, trailing after the second period is exactly what most teams should be working to avoid.  Yet, 18 games into the season, the Devils have been in that situation two-thirds of the time.

Given how scoring effects a team's attack, it's no surprise the Devils seem to come out fighting in third period.  They're usually trying to salvage the game somewhat.  I don't know about you, but I have to ask where is the effort after a first period performance or within the second period?   What is MacLean and his staff telling the guys before the game and in the first intermission? What adjustments are being made in terms of the lines, the pairings, and the tactics to prevent opponents from owning the second period?  From what I've seen, whatever it is, it's not working.    It reflects poorly on the coaches that the team gets thrown into a ditch early only to not rise up; despite the team's lack of puck luck at shooting and the following point.

Moreover, the same root issues that I discussed back in the last week of October are still applicable to this team, in my view.  To me, that suggests that the team hasn't really addressed them and that goes hand in hand with the seemingly lack of adequate planning going into games.

The Coaches Can't Control: Defensive Gaffes At least not directly. The coaches can't make players do basic things like cover players and keep their position.  They give them their assignments and hope they follow them as needed.  There's little Larry Robinson or MacLean can do about, say, Henrik Tallinder making a bad decision or Andy Greene getting caught out of position.   Thanks to injuries, the coaching staff hasn't had a lot of leeway to reduce a regular player's ice time, much less bench them.   Going back to Tallinder as an example, while his primary partner has changed from game to game; the mistakes that lead to goals against are pretty much the player's fault.   A coach can review film with the player to have him understand his errors, but it's up to the player to make the right decision during the game.

The Coaches Can Control: The Power Play Over at The Copper & Blue, there's an interview with coach Bob Nielsen about the diamond penalty kill.  Nielsen has put his knowledge of the game up in video and document form at Ice Hockey Drills.  It's worth your time reading. While Nielsen doesn't have much up yet about power plays, he does have a (free!) 10 minute video describing how an modified umbrella power play is run.  Please watch it.   Notice that while the primary focus is on the point man getting the shot; there are players moving down low, cycles are part of the tactic, and an emphasis on puck movement is vital for the whole system to work.  It keeps a small box PK in

Given that the Devils tend to use four forwards on their power play, they have a few who have excellent slap shots (Ilya Kovalchuk, Jason Arnott, Brian Rolston) along with others who are better suited for a gritty game down low. Wouldn't a modified umbrella be a good idea to at least try? 

I ask because the current "positional" set-up has led the Devils to only 6 out of 54 successful power plays, an easy stop for an somewhat aggressive PK, and it doesn't even consistently get set-up much less put shots on net regularly.  The coaches devised up this system and it's simply not working.  Adam Oates and MacLean have to do something different on the man advantage, unless they believe the team is magically going to run this more successfully.  Why not go with this freely available system to at least mix things up for the opposition?  Or anything else?  If nothing else, the coaching staff does need to be called out on these systemic failings.

The Coaches Can't Control: Player Attitudes  With the team at 5-11-2, the players know this is a dire situation.  They aren't morons. They read the papers, they're online reading blogs (like this one), they hear it from others about the lack of results.  The players are human too and as the losses mount and the bad starts continue, mistakes are further magnified, there's more displeasure from the fans, and it's easy to just fall into frustration and worry.  Hence, this FanPost (and ensuing comments) by TheMetalChick at Lighthouse Hockey stresses that the struggling player needs to fall back on instincts instead of second-guessing himself out of frustration or anger.

Sure, John MacLean can buy the players their own paperback copy of Dale Carniege's How to Stop Worrying and Start Living and hope they get something from it.  But seriously, no coach (current or a new one) or anyone else can change the player's mindset and attitude than the player himself.  As much as I fault the coaching staff for preparation and adjustments (or lack thereof), each player has to have and display the mental strength to not let the team's current problems get to them.  The frustration is natural and I completely sympathize, as the fans are just as frustrated, too. But freaking out isn't going to lead to better performances or winning games.

What Do You Think?  Do you agree with what I believe the coach can and cannot control?  What else can the coaches control and should be changed?  What else can't be controlled by the coaches that is causing the Devils to lose? 

Most of all: Based on what they can and cannot control, do you think changing the head coach and his coaching staff would benefit the New Jersey Devils as they are?  Yes, it may be a moot question in the near future; but please consider the question based on what a coach can do.

Please leave your answers in the comments. Thanks for reading and remember: it's OK to be negative, but let's be rational about it.  Freaking out isn't going to help anyone (it rarely does).