It’s become de rigure for Sens fans, and perhaps more surprisingly the media, to criticize Guy Boucher in recent weeks as the team has tumbled down the standings to the point of jeopardizing their chances at the post-season. The change in attitude towards the head coach is something to behold considering that a mere six months ago the team was but a goal from the Stanley Cup final and reverence was at an all-time high. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find too many people imploring others to Trust The System.
Our Five Thoughts, then, are dedicated to Guy Boucher and his coaching:
So, What’s Different from Last Year?
In order to assess whether it might or might not be fair to criticize Boucher for his coaching performance this year, we first need to establish a baseline for comparison. What’s gone so wrong this year with a largely unchanged roster and another year to perfect The System?
Regular readers will know that I’m partial to shot metrics and other “analytics” so let’s start there. Their 5v5 score-adjusted CF%, that is their percentage of the shot attempts including blocks, was 47.77% before Thursday night’s game as compared to 47.39% last year. Neither is a stellar number, and those who last year cried that the Sens were a paper tiger will surely take delight in being “proven right” this year, but if we want to explain the difference in the Sens’ record to date that wouldn’t seem to be it. By stripping out blocks and using FF%, their share of attempts has actually risen this year from an abysmal 46.73% last year to a near break-even 49.66%. The team’s xGF, expected goals for, is down a bit from 47.64% to 47.13% but, again, that’s not a massive fall-off. So, we have two measure that are nearly the same and one that’s been improved upon. Why are the results, goals and wins, then so different?
This won’t be news to anyone, but the Sens’ goalies have not played well at all. Entering Thursdays night’s contest vs. the Los Angeles Kings, they had the second worst overall save percentage in the league. Add in that the team has gone ice-cold offensively for nearly a month now and you’re left with a team that’s getting outscored at 5v5. Say what you will about riding the percentages last year, but the Sens were a positive goal differential team at 5v5; the underlying number may not have been pretty but the results were there. This year, those results are emphatically not there. Some of this is certainly bad luck (or at least worse luck than last year).
But what is Boucher himself doing that might be different from last season?
Though the bottom of the depth chart has been shuffled around a bit, the players getting the majority of the ice time remain mostly unchanged with two exceptions: several players have had to step into the void left by Marc Methot and Matt Duchene has been swapped in for Kyle Turris. Erik Karlsson continues to play by far the most of any Senator, and the forwards fall into roughly the same order as last year’s team. The one area Boucher could reasonably be critiqued here is his handling of Fredrik Claesson. By this point, Claesson has more than proven himself to be a capable defender and given the state of the rest of the Sens’ blue line depth he should never really be a consideration for a healthy scratch. Other than that, however, it’s hard to be too picky about who Boucher has chosen to dress each game. Next.
The obvious, and fair, criticism of Boucher pertains to his use of Cody Ceci in a checking role. This has been discussed ad-nauseam so I won’t re-visit it here, but needless to say it was a bad idea last year and it’s a bad idea this year. He should stop doing it immediately. That being said, there is another interesting match-up consideration that might tell us more about why this year has gone differently than last.
Boucher’s a well-known line juggler, a notorious outlier even in a league where every coach does some amount of blending. The one thing that does remain constant with Boucher, however, is that he aggressively matches his checking line and his shutdown pair against the other team’s top line. The results for his most preferred checking line is probably the most obvious difference between this year’s squad and last year’s iteration: last year the Jean-Gabriel Pageau - Tom Pyatt - Mike Hoffman line was a remarkable +12 in their nearly 300 minutes of 5v5 ice time together. The picture wasn’t all roses, they were fairly badly outshot, but if your third line is putting up a huge positive goal differential playing primarily against the opposition’s top line you are well on your way to victory. This year, the trio is -1 and has been absolutely clobbered on the shot clock to the tune of a 36.71 CF%. That’s so bad that in recent weeks Boucher has been hesitant to go back to his favourite trio and I think that plays a big part in his handing of the team’s overall strategy.
Strategy and Tactics
By now we’re all familiar with the basic premises of Boucher’s strategy: stack four skaters back in the neutral zone when defending a breakout, keep the third forward high in the attacking zone so as to not allow odd man rushes, and limit shots off the cycle to the outside by playing a 4+1 box where your defenders do not aggressively pursue the attacker if they are in full control of the puck. None of this has changed from year to year but what has changed, to my eye at least, is how much less frequently the team is able to generate turnovers in the neutral zone and thus rush chances. There’s a lot of possible reasons that opposing teams aren’t coughing it up as much in the neutral zone: having a full season’s worth of tape to scout can’t be helping the Sens’ cause, for example. What I’ve noticed a lot less this season, though, is how much less aggressive the Sens’ defensemen are in stepping up in the neutral zone. Part of this is that Mark Borowiecki has missed substantial time, but I’ve been keeping an eye out for that type of aggressive pressure from the other defenseman and I’ve seen a lot less of it.
It’s difficult to quantify this sort of thing without a lot of microstat tracking that isn’t readily available to the public but I have a sneaking suspicion Boucher’s instructed his players to tone down what was the riskiest part of The System. One of the consequences is fewer turnovers and thus, fewer grade A chances off the rush.
Ottawa’s performance on special teams last year was probably the only area for which Boucher caught any flack at all; both the power play and the penalty kill were in the bottom 10 in terms of efficiency and the underlying numbers weren’t any more flattering. One would have had to believe that this year there was only room to improve but somehow things have gotten worse. The one caveat I would add here is that since the Duchene trade, the top unit of Erik Karlsson - Mark Stone - Matt Duchene - Derick Brassard and Mike Hoffman has looked very good and very much has the personnel and underlying metrics to go on a prolonged scoring binge. Fortunately for Ottawa, the Sens have avoided too much special teams trouble by taking so few penalties. There’s area for improvement here, certainly, but also no monumental changes from last season.
So where does that leave us at the end of the day? The team looks very similar at the core, and it’d be tempting to chalk up the under-performance to a random run of bad luck but that probably ignores a few real changes from last season in the way that Boucher has managed the team: less success from his hard line matching and fewer turnovers neutral zone has really hamstrung the offense, especially during the slide. If you want to blame Boucher for anything there’s meat there. Otherwise, I’d say he’s done pretty much the same job as last year — whether you believe that’s a good thing or not is going to be mostly up to you.