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Revisiting the 2010-11 Dark Age: How Much Blame Did MacLean Deserve?

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The general narrative behind the Devils 2010-11 season is that MacLean took a historically great team and tanked it, before Jacques Lemaire rectified the season. To what degree is that true?

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

If you were to poll the Devils fanbase as to how likely they’d be to fire Hynes were the decision theirs to make, I’d probably be in the bottom 5% of respondents. I’ve planted the flag on that position multiple occasions whether it’s distributing the blame, explaining lineup choices, or opining that the team is better than their results.

One historical reference that has been brought up a few times as an argument in favor of Hynes’s dismissal was the performance of the Devils in the depressing start to the 2010-2011 season. I should say, that, despite how I cam upon this topic, I will not be attempting to use this season as an argument for or against Hynes. This is an intrinsically interesting topic, independent of the ramifications for this particular moment.

That said, let’s set the seen for those who don’t remember or weren’t paying attention at the time. Heading into the 2010-11 season, the Devils were coming off a pair of decades that saw them make the playoffs 19/20 years which included 3 Stanley Cups. At this point, the top of the roster included Zach Parise in his prime; 33-year-old greatest Devil forward ever, Patrik Elias; the newly acquired former Rocket Richard winner, Ilya Kovalchuk; and the winner of 4 of the last 6 Vezina trophies at the time, Martin Brodeur. There was no reason to think this team would not be competitive — they did after all make the Stanley Cup Final the very next year with, largely, the same crew. But the start to the season was not at all what the Devils had hoped.

The Devils opened 3-9-1, then lost Parise to a torn meniscus. Ultimately, the Devils would find themselves not only at the bottom of the NHL with a 9-23-2 record and a 29.4 Pts%, but so far in the basement that the 28th ranked NHL team managed a 42.4% or 13% higher than our Devils. Change needed to come, and that was in the form of the dismissal of rookie Head Coach, John MacLean and reinstating the previous year’s head coach, Devils coaching legend: Jacques Lemaire.

The impact was prompt and palpable. The Devils rattled off wins in 24 of the next 36 games — good for 2nd best in the NHL before fizzling out down the playoff stretch and ultimately settling for the 9th best team, post-MacLean, through the end of the season. The narrative was essentially that, had MacLean not tanked the season open, the team would’ve contended once again. If Parise was healthy, we were definitely one of the 18 best teams on talent.

So what happened? How did a team composed of essentially the same players, improve their results so drastically? Was it all the coach? If we dig into the metrics, we get a somewhat complicated picture.

Here’s one data point — the Devils goaltenders opened the season with a .887 Sv% under MacLean, good for 29th in the NHL. In particular, Martin Brodeur had cost the Devils 14.74 goals against league-average with his play up to that point — he was the most harmful goalie in the league. Reminder: Martin Brodeur had won 4 of the last 7 Vezinas, was regarded as the best goalie in the league during that time, and was fairly unambiguously a top 3 goalie.

In the post MacLean era, Marty still struggled, but nowhere near as much, and with exemplary play from backup, Johan Hedberg, the Devils went from league-worst, to above-average goaltending. So, if you want some historical precedent for how even terrible goaltending can sometimes even out a change a team’s fortunes, as I’ve argued may happen to this year’s team, the 2010-11 Devils are your guys.

But that can’t be it. The Devils were THE WORST team before the coaching change, and became the 2nd best team (behind Vancouver) for a stretch immediately afterwards. How much better did the Devils get? Using Evolving-Hockey’s new date filters, I created the chart below. The number in parentheses is the NHL rank of the Devils performance in that metric, and every metric cited has been adjusted for score and venue.

A couple things stick out immediately here, the first one being the indescribable impact of goaltending. The Devils were the best in the NHL at limiting 5v5 and total shot attempts both before and after the firing of MacLean. But they went from the worst 5v5 Sv% in the league to the 2nd best. Now, the Devils did increase the gap between themselves and #2 as you can see (CA/60 went from 48.85 to 43.02) and there was likely a trickle-down impact on xGs since the improved 5th to first in that respect, but I think a fair description of what happened here was that an already-good defensive team finally goaltending average enough to get results that reflected it.

The goaltenders are a big part of what happened here. What goaltending did for the defensive numbers, shooting did for the offensive ones. The xG numbers for the Devils were largely unchanged, and actually slightly worse at 5v5, but the shooting was lights out. The Devils improve by only 0.01 xGF/60, but their GF/60 shot up by 0.63. In layman’s terms, the Devils were either shooting terribly, or colossally snakebitten for the first portion of the year, and then their shooting was not excellent, but fine the rest of the way. And, just as we saw with goaltending, going from league-worst to league-average can make a hell of a difference.

So in terms of actual per minute on-ice shot results, I’ve depicted a season that consisted not of bad coaching and good coaching, but of historically unlucky (MacLean) and league-average (Lemaire) results. This would lead you to believe the Devils didn’t improve, they simply stopped being tragically unfortunate. Allow me to through a grain of doubt upon this conclusion.

You’ll notice that, despite rather modest differences in the defensive and offensive results, the actual ratios here balloon. The Devils were 22nd in the league in xG ratio under MacLean and shot all the way up to 4th under Lemaire. This is not simply lucky vs unlucky. The anatomy that produces this is two-fold.

The first thing is that the Devils were already good defensively, but they went insane down the stretch. Just seeing “1st” doesn’t do it justice. We allowed 1.94 expected goals per 60 which was more the 0.2 xG better than the next best team. The were over two and a half standard deviations above the mean which would translate to the 99.5th percentile. To readers that didn’t take an Intro to Stats course, this means that if there were 200 NHL teams instead of 30, the Devils STILL would’ve been the best defensive team under Lemaire.

The second thing is that even though the xGs didn’t change THAT much in each situation, the amount of time the Devils spent in each situation did. Devils went from a -10 penalty differential under MacLean (8th worst in NHL), to a +10 one (9th best). Playing a “disciplined” game with regards to penalties is often viewed as a trademark of good coaching in hockey as well as other sports. Penalties are pretty random, so it’s possible this wasn’t as attributable to coaching as I’m making it out to be — but it’s certainly possible.

As to the titular question of this article, it seems fair to attribute some blame for MacLean. Under Lemaire, the Devils penalty differential improved fairly notably, the defense went from very good to the nest in the league by far, and it’s fair to wonder if there’s maybe even some extra things that xG doesn’t capture (pre-shot movement, passes, etc.) that the Devils improved at under Lemaire as well. That said, it is still worth it to note that the Devils were fairly likely to get significantly better regardless. By simply regressing to league average percentages, they were likely to be an average NHL team. Lemaire’s tutelage may very well have made them an exceptional one, though.

What do you guys think? Care to regale us with any memories from that season? Do you recall any specific changes that felt particularly noticeable? What do you recall about the coaching change? How do you think this is applicable to the 2019-20 Devils, if at all? Leave your thoughts to these and any other questions in the comments section below, and, as always, thanks for reading.