When Luke Richardson was named the head coach of the Binghamton Senators of the AHL, Sens fans were excited. They were presented with a well-liked former player who professed to have the same coaching philosophy as the mustachioed folk hero of last year's surprisingly resurgent squad. Richardson has since led the team to the second best record in the AHL, sitting fourth in the Eastern Conference (due to divisional seeding and the Syracuse Crunch.) At the halfway point in this AHL season and with a few of the team's top stars readying to report to Senators' training camp, now seems a good time to take stock and assess the job Richardson has done thus far.
It's difficult to assess coaching, but here's a way to take a stab at it. Has he implemented the style he said he would? Emphatically, no. Has the team played well? Resoundingly, yes. More on that later. Predictably, we are left with a mixed bag. On one hand, the team has not been the puck possession squad fans expected. On the other hand, Richardson clearly has his team playing a certain style, and they're winning hockey games. Most of them. So, Luke, you've put me in a tough spot here. Your team is on top of the league and you've been recognized to be a coach at the AHL All-Star Game. Meanwhile, your team spends too much time on a nightly basis hemmed in its own end chasing the puck, when fans thought the team would possess it. How am I possibly supposed to make sense of your tenure?
Certainly, hockey at the NHL level is a different game from the AHL. The pace and the physicality are on a different level. But, for a moment, suspend your disbelief somewhat and consider this year's Binghamton Senators in the same light as last year's St. Louis Blues. Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak both posted exemplary figures behind a team Ken Hitchcock had running like clockwork. Ottawa fans know Elliott is capable of competent 'tending behind a good team and Montreal fans well remember Halak's dominant playoff performance (or they at least recall screaming his name at an intolerable pitch with thousands of others on St. Catherine's. I digress.) but neither goalie has shown themselves capable of putting up lead-leaguing figures. Not until last season, at least. Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop are similarly having standout seasons. The tandem is more dominant in the AHL than Halak/Elliott have proven to be in the NHL, but I would caution there's more to this than a product of close competition between two players vying for the job as NHL backup.Like Hitchcock did last year, Richardson has offered this team a well-structured and sophisticated hockey defence, coached to it and seen results.
Without the benefit of access to anything beyond the most rudimentary statistical measures, it is difficult to make nuanced claims with any authority, so allow me some unsubstantiated subjectivity. The Binghamton Senators have an impressively structured means of restricting oppositional play to the perimeter, collapsing around their goaltender and clearing the puck from danger when necessary.This is in contrast to the team Binghamton iced last season. Robbed by the big club of its most reliable weapons, the B-Sens floundered. The only consistency they offered was in losing games and being outshot. So far as championship hangovers go, Binghamton had the variety where you shut the blinds and stay in bed all day, throat and mouth dry, your body a hub of soreness. You get the picture. Predictably, the losing environment was not a good one for goaltenders. After all, the B-Sens weren't just outshot- they were buried. Robin Lehner and Mike McKenna were both chased from their crease too often. This cannot be blamed solely on a lack of confidence or an off season, but on the 'tenders being exposed too often to opportunities in the slot. I have no scoring chances chart, but needless to say, McKenna and Lehner were left to handle too much: they were hung out to dry in monsoon season. If we are going to credit something more than Robin Lehner's mental fortitude for his complete 180, we should be looking to Luke Richardson's coaching on the defensive side of the puck, forcing the play, and shots, to the outside more often than not. However, as much as this is all positive, it has some severe limitations. Also, it is the point where the Binghamton/Blues analogy really falls apart: Bingo gets outshot. Often. Badly.
Both Nichols and Scott at The 6th Sens have broken down Bingo's interesting (read: totally, incomprehensibly bizarre) phenomena of what we will call getting-outshot-on-a-nightly-basis-but-still-winning-games-to-be-a-top-team-in-the-league. What it effectively boils down to is this:
Also reason to be skeptical the B-Sens are hugely limiting "shot quality", because in the long run; shots and scoring chances correlate very strongly.
- Nichols, in transcribing a Luke Richardson interview from January 3.
So, as much as one can credit Richardson for offering a semblance of structure in Bingo (and I have, plenty), the current negative shot differential is fundamentally unsustainable. I'm quick to admit the guys at The 6th Sens have more nuance on this subject than I can offer, and I strongly suggest you read Nichols take here, which analyzes the question more thoroughly.
The Binghamton Senators under Luke Richardson have not resembled Paul MacLean's Ottawa Senators. But that's okay. As much as I am smitten with MacLean's '200 foot, puck possession game', Luke Richardson has built a plan of how to win games, relying on his area of expertise in the game, and executed. It is important to have a coaching philosophy that permeates different levels of the organization, and to a large extent, the Sens' NHL and AHL coach see eye-to-eye. Both former players, they profess the importance of open lines of communication with their team. Arranging the X's and O's differently is a good thing. It allows for Senator prospects to develop a well-rounded, versatile and dynamic game. The organization's top priority in upstate New York is to create a team that, winning or losing, is a positive and constructive environment for the development of young players. Luke Richardson has thus far served the Senators well in that regard, although with the return of the NHL, as Mark and I discussed on Monday, his biggest challenge awaits: get the same output, even slightly improved in some facets of the game, from a shallower talent pool. In many ways, this second half will tell us more about Luke Richardson than the first did. We will have the opportunity to see what he can do with a roster deprived of Jakob Silfverberg, at least one (and perhaps al) of the team's most important defenders (Patrick Wiercioch, Mark Borowiecki, and Andre Benoit), and either Bishop or Lehner.
As this team develops, the rookie coach will further grow in his abilities as bench boss. Though there are some alarming figures that dampen excitement about the team's likelihood to maintain its success, Richardson has shown fans and management he has the wherewithal to get his players working in a clear, unified system. Now he has to show us he knows how to tweak it.