Training camp has been underway and preseason hockey is only a few days away. As a result, there's been an influx of news, quotes, and other findings as the season approaches. One change has been made among the New Jersey Devils coaching staff and I think it deserves more attention. On Thursday, Tom Gulitti reported that assistant Dave Barr will run the power play and Mike Foligno will run the penalty kill. Here's the text from Fire & Ice along with a quote from head coach Peter DeBoer giving his thoughts on the matter:
Dave Barr, who ran the penalty kill the last two seasons, will take over the power play, which Barr ran last season and Adam Oates was in charge of in 2011-12. Foligno will take over the penalty kill.
"Dave has a nice experience of having run the power play in Minnesota when he was there," DeBoer said. "He got to work hand in hand with Adam Oates and Matt Shaw on different power play philosophies, so I think he’s going to have a nice blend there. And Mike’s had a history and experience running the penalty kill, including when he was in Anaheim. So, I think it’s a good fit."
That's a rather significant change considering that the penalty kill has been remarkably stingy under Dave Barr. It makes me concerned that this may not be an optimal move. The power play had a clear-cut power play coach last season and that didn't really get better. Putting someone who was successful at something else doesn't seem to be a smart move. Last week, I pointed out that there are other concerns about the PK beyond getting better goaltending, but that should help. They should get that in 2013-14 since Cory Schneider at least replaced Johan Hedberg. So why make a change?
The quote by DeBoer provided reasoning for that very question. Both men apparently had some control with these special teams in their prior coaching positions in the league. Let's take a closer look at that, then.
Dave Barr was an assistant for the Minnesota Wild for two seasons: 2009-10 and 2010-11. Taking information from NHL.com (success rate, all power play situations) and Behind the Net (all the 5-on-4 information), here's how the team did in the seasons right before and after Barr's tenure. Numbers in parentheses are ranks within in the league, higher is better in all stats.
The Wild were quite potent on the power play before Barr joined the team. They remained potent to a degree, though they slipped a bit across his two seasons. Part of that has to do with a lower shooting rate. Part of that has to do with just less time in 5-on-4 situations, the most common of all power play situations. Part of that has to do with the shooting percentage, which was very high from 2008 through 2011. I believe the latter had a lot to do with how they remained in the upper half in the league in success rate for three seasons. It definitely had a lot to do with how their power play became far less effective in 2011-12. I doubt that the Wild letting go of Barr caused their shooting percentage to crater since it was quite high before he arrived and players don't forget how to shoot from coach to coach.
I did something similar for Mike Foligno, who was in Anaheim for one full season. It was his first NHL job since his time with Sudbury in juniors. He was fired along with Randy Carlyle early in the 2011-12 season so I've only highlighted the 2010-11 season for the Ducks' penalty killing stats. Data comes from the same sources. The ranks in parentheses for the 4-on-5 values are in reverse order - lower is better.
Anaheim simply wasn't all that better in shorthanded situations. It is true that the team's success rate improved from the prior season when Foligno was on the staff. However, the 2009-10 Ducks PK were just colanders. Other teams just pounded them with shots on net. Even with median goaltending, that means plenty of pucks were bound to drop in, and many did. That didn't get much better in 2010-11. Their save percentage was just a bit below median, but their rate of shots allowed was still very high. Therefore, they still had a lot of goals allowed in shorthanded situations. The Ducks got much better in both regards in 2011-12. Only the team's save percentage in 4-on-5 situations - the most common PK situation - got a little worse. The Ducks' defense tightened up more and so they had a significant reduction in goals allowed and their success rate climbed to around the league median. This suggests that Mike Foligno didn't really help the Ducks get better on the penalty kill.
However, I would recommend taking both charts with a grain of salt. These results are all that we have to judge coaches on special teams. Yet, while DeBoer said both assistants did this work in the past, we cannot fully determine whether they were in complete control. DeBoer's quote also noted how Barr worked with Adam Oates and Matt Shaw on the power play in the last two seasons with New Jersey. That suggests that while a coach may be responsible, he does get contributions and insight from others. I'm sure their head coaches, Carlyle and Todd Richards (Barr's head coach in Minnesota), had plenty to say as they each oversaw how the team's tactics and usage. So I don't think Barr or Foligno were totally on their own with their respective teams. Therefore, it's hard to pick out what was and was not a function of their work.
Moreover, one must consider the teams themselves. To use a cliche, "It's not the X's and the O's, but also the Jimmies and the Joes." Barr nor Foligno could control who they had to work with on their respective rosters. They had to utilize the talent provided by management. Let's go back to Foligno's one season with Anaheim. The Ducks weren't just giving up a lot of shots in 4-on-5 situations, but also in general as they gave up an average of 32.3 shots against per game that season. Even if Foligno's strategies for the penalty kill were sound, the team wasn't exactly putting up relative walls in their own end. The Ducks also gave plenty of shorthanded ice time to a lot of different players in that season, presumably in the hopes of finding some success. They did not. In 2011-12, Anaheim had Francois Beauchemin for a full season (he was acquired in 2010-11) to lead the PK along with Toni Lydman and they cut down on how many players had to take a significant shift on the kill during the season. There weren't any call ups who got big shorthanded minutes right away. The team's overall defense was stingier as they dropped to 28.6 SA/G; and so went the penalty kill. My point is that Foligno could have used that Jimmy/Joe named Francois and some fewer guys who couldn't do well as X's or O's.
With respect to the Devils, both realities dull my concerns so to speak. Foligno will have Barr right by him for any help on the PK along with the other coaches. Likewise, Barr won't be all on his own and he does carry his previous work with Oates and Shaw plus his past with Minnesota on the power play. Most of all, I believe the success of either special team is going to come from how the players execute the gameplan. If, say, all four penalty killers move to one corner and the puck gets out to the slot to a free opponent, then that's not on Foligno. If the skaters on the power play just botch entry passes or hesitate to shoot, then that's not on Barr either. Again, I've raised my questions with the personnel for the PK last week. For the power play, how they'll structure it without Ilya Kovalchuk and whether they can structure a decent second unit remain my biggest issues. Barr's tactics and philosophies will play a role, but again, the players have to be able to succeed for the game plan to work.
We shall see how both units will perform during preseason to get an idea as to how both coaches will approach the issue. Results in 2012-13 were going to be followed anyway, with the new coaching assignments, it's another aspect to keep in mind when we do look at that. In the meantime, what's your take on Barr taking power play duties and Foligno taking Barr's former duties on the penalty kill? Are you concerned about the change? Do you think it will matter much? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about either special team in the comments. Thank you for reading.