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On Paul MacLean: Roles and Expectations

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Curtis Lazar does a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
Curtis Lazar does a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
Derek Leung/Getty Images

Paul MacLean had a number of interesting things to say a couple of weeks ago during his Monday segment with TSN 1200 and inspired this piece because he touched on something that I've been thinking about recently - how much of an impact can a coach have on his players outside of in-game management? Most analysis tends to discount things like player psychology, character, the importance of the 'atmosphere' surrounding the team, practice time, etc. but just because something is hard to quantify, doesn't mean that we should discount it. Joe Posnanski had a great feature on the 'founder' of baseball's "analytics movement", Bill James, and here's what he had to say:

role james

In addition to leadership, I think something like the setting of roles and expectations by management and the coaching staff can have an impact on player performance, and it's certainly something that plagued the Senators last year. From Elliotte Friedman's 30 thoughts column:

Some interesting quotes out of Ottawa about Paul MacLean and his relationship with the players. Both sides have talked a lot about how things went awry in 2013-14 and how everyone's worked to make sure that does not happen again. "We've spent a lot of time defining roles," the GM said. "Last year, no one seemed to understand where they stood. The relationship from the coach, to the captain [the new-traded Jason Spezza] on down, was not good, for whatever reason. We've addressed that properly this time. Everyone understands their role." This kind of conversation was critical in Bobby Ryan's re-signing.

We all loved MacLean during his first two years with the Senators (2011-12/2012-13), but things changed in 2013-14, where the team ramped up expectations by trading for Bobby Ryan and seemed ready to make the next step after winning their first playoff series in quite some time against the Montreal Canadiens.

However, a lot of things went wrong, and we can all identify many instances of questionable player usage and ice-time distribution from last year. Although it's too early to look at differences in that area yet, I thought we could examine another frequent complaint about MacLean last year and to some extent this year, his coaching philosophy. When he was hired, MacLean was lauded for being a fantastic communicator, and through two seasons, that's what we saw. Inexperienced players were given opportunities, offensive players were allowed to be creative, and the Senators were described as "fun". What changed in 2013-14? By his own words, MacLean started to expect more from his players, which he justified by saying that in his third year coaching, he felt that it was necessary to make some adjustments to take the team to the next level. Given that explanation, and the fact that both management and ownership publicly said that the team was ready to contend and handed MacLean a three-year extension, I think it's fair that MacLean thought that it was time to expect more out of his young, but talented group. However, it appears to me that this change in expectation manifested itself more when it came to evaluating the play of skilled players than when it came to evaluating the play of depth players. There were multiple instances where Colin Greening and Chris Neil were playing more than Mika Zibanejad. How does that happen?

I think one of the issues with MacLean, and coaches in general, is how they handle skilled, young players. In MacLean's case, this could easily just be because he was groomed in Detroit, an organization that loves well-done steak players. Our memories love to remember the "big event". A turnover that leads to a goal against, a game-winning goal in overtime that signifies "poise". What we get to keep from our experiences is a story created by our memory of the experience, and a critical part of a story is how it ends. This is one of the reasons why we're suddenly a bit worried about Erik Karlsson this season, despite his best shots/game rate of his career and the fact that he's played with third-pairing or AHL talent for the whole season. He's expected to do more. Players who excel at puck possession handle the puck a lot more, which increases the chance that they may be victimized by a bad turnover or score a highlight reel goal. Going back to last year's example, it's much easier to get Colin Greening and Chris Neil to go dump the puck and hit some players than it is to get Mika Zibanejad to generate something offensively. Despite the fact that Zibanejad spent way more time in the offensive zone last year than both Greening and Neil, he was evaluated based on a different set of expectations.

MacLean has clearly tried to work on this in the offseason. For example, here's what he had to say about the kid line in the TSN1200 interview linked above:

They've given a good account of themselves. I'm happy to keep them together and keep playing them because they give us a dimension of speed and energy once they're playing and when we put them on the ice, I think the energy of the team goes up and that's an important role they have on our team and being young guys, they should be able to play lots and be ready to go.

The kid line has an extremely important role on the team, with both Hoffman and Stone contributing to the Senators league-leading goal totals from rookies with seven and five respectively. Understandably, MacLean has been extremely patient with his usage of the kids thus far, with a range of ice time between 10-12 minutes, and the real test will be if the kids continue to play better than the veterans who are currently getting more minutes. Will MacLean be a progressive coach and give them the minutes they deserve?

A hint to how MacLean evaluates players can be seen in the next comment about Curtis Lazar, and whether he sees him as a centre or a winger as a young player:

Well he's obviously played the position his whole life and he's focused on that part of the game because he knows that if he does this, then he has a chance to get that. Because if you're playing for the coach and you don't give the coach this, then you'll never get to do that. And I think he has a very good understanding of that from wherever he started out with coaching. The most important thing young players have to understand is "what I have to do for the coach to put me on the ice is not what I can do." Like I can shoot it top shelf and I can stickhandle but if you can't do what the coach says to get it out at the blueline and get it in at the blueline and drive the net then you're never going to get the chance to drag it and shoot it so the biggest thing they have to understand is give the coach this, and you have a chance to do that.

This is a really packed quote, and I think it supports what I was saying earlier with the Zibanejad/Greening/Neil example earlier regarding how MacLean sets expectations for players, and partly the reason why the Zack Smith line, and now the David Legwand line, gets so many minutes. The coach probably sets simple expectations for those players, which is probably along the lines of: "don't hurt the team - get the pucks in deep and get off the ice", which is a common tactic in hockey. Now, although I disagree with MacLean's logic because I think he should let the skilled players make skilled plays, I understand that he wants to be "patient" with the young players so that they can learn to play the "right way". That sounds nice and dandy but I hope that it doesn't undermine utilizing skill to win hockey games. Can we quantify the effect that this role and expectation may have on how a player plays the game? I don't think we can with the current information that we have, but let's give it a shot anyways.

Manny has been tracking the Senators performance in the neutral zone for the past two seasons over at Senstats, and among other things, we can see how the Senators players do when they have to enter the offensive zone: do they carry the puck in (the "riskier", more offensive option) or do they dump it in (the "safer", defensive option)? Many studies have shown that it is always better to carry the puck in, even with the threat of a turnover, but NHL coaches are very risk-averse, so we don't see that very often. In addition, if that did happen, tactics would eventually adjust, but anyways, let's take a look at the numbers.

Player

Rel % W/Control FOR

Stone

11.21%

Turris

10.40%

Hoffman

7.58%

MacArthur

7.46%

Ryan

7.33%

Karlsson

5.47%

Borowiecki

3.39%

Condra

1.66%

Cowen

1.20%

Lazar

0.91%

Gryba

0.74%

Phillips

-0.34%

Zibanejad

-3.01%

Wiercioch

-3.41%

Michalek

-3.96%

Chiasson

-4.78%

Greening

-7.38%

Ceci

-8.53%

Smith

-9.99%

Legwand

-12.63%

Neil

-14.48%

The Rel % W/Control FOR statistic tells us if the player decided to individually carry the puck into the offensive zone more (positive number) when he was on the ice, or whether he decided to dump it in (lose control; negative number). There's a similar trend if you look at last season numbers, but we see that the prototypical third and fourth line players are generally dumping the puck in more. Now, although coaching has an impact here, I'm hesitant to say that it has more of an impact as say, skill, because the skilled young players like Hoffman and Stone are carrying the puck in more, despite getting 4th line minutes. Perhaps MacLean is letting them play their type of quick, offensive game - as he should - or perhaps they're just using their skill to gain the offensive zone with control.

The next quote from MacLean is important to consider in the context of Lazar being a teenager in the National Hockey League - something that doesn't happen very often. Usually, the issue with young players is their inability to play a two-way game, which Lazar supposedly does very well. To Lazar's credit, he's been playing well enough for MacLean to consider using him in all situations.

Well for me it's his consistency. I think his day-in, day-out practice and games, he's been at a high level and he's stayed there throughout the game. His faceoff ability has been very good. Obviously we can trust him by putting him on the ice, anywhere on the ice and we don't hesitate to put him out in the D-zone or the neutral zone or the offensive zone and I think that's a testament to his hockey abilities/IQ/sense whatever you want to call it. He may not be sprinkled with the best shot or the best feet but he certainly got sprinkled with a great hockey sense.

This lends support to the notion that what really matters for MacLean re: playing young players is consistency. Predictability is very key in all human interactions, and things like stereotypes and cognitive biases come to exist because the brain naturally seeks predictability. We innately want consistency, and MacLean is no different. By this logic, once Hoffman, Stone, and Lazar can keep up their level of play over more NHL games, their minutes should increase. Let's check in at the end of the year.

Probably the biggest player that the Senators need consistency out of is Jared Cowen, who is expected to stabilize the second-pair and be a big part of the Senators future, which is why management hasn't given up on him. MacLean clearly has different expectations for Cowen, which are reasonable given how he's played until this recent stretch of strong play, and is definitely looking for a consistent NHL-level performance out of him.

I think Jared has been okay since he's gone back in. And I don't mean okay like he's been below-average, I think, for him, the expectation is to come in and get himself going again and so 'okay' means he didn't do anything drastically wrong and didn't do anything drastically great, he was okay and that's good for him. We've asked him to make changes and he's come in and worked on making changes to his game and he continues to work at them and we just have to continue to work on them

I think it's safe to say that MacLean has worked hard on having clear roles and expectations for his players that more accurately reflect their level of play this season. I'm not "in the room", so I don't know how to evaluate his communication, but if he's doing a good job, it should show up in the on-ice performance of his players, which it has for the case studies that we've examined here. What remains to be seen is whether he'll overcome the risk-averse coaching mentality to eventually give Hoffman and Stone the expanded roles they deserve, or whether he'll keep playing his underperforming veterans. I hope it's the former.

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Thanks for reading!