There are many things that coaches take the blame for when their teams do poorly, and most of the time, it’s out of their control. They can’t make their goalies have a .920 SV% or their players shoot 15%. The NHL is a cut-throat business where coaches get fired left and right for reasons that they simply could not avoid.
But one area that they can control a lot more is special teams.
No, they cannot necessarily make their skaters better, but they can at least put a system in place that leads to more goals or more saves. When Guy Boucher was hired in May of 2016, many people were optimistic that his new style of play would be a big boost to the power play and penalty kill, which finished 27th and 29th respectively in Dave Cameron’s final season as head coach.
After 158 games coaching the Ottawa Senators, we have a big enough sample to say that Boucher has been completely ineffective at resurrecting the special teams. In these two seasons combined, the Senators power play sits at 17.0%, and their penalty kill sits at 77.8%, which are tied for 27th in each category.
It’s not as if one season was dramatically better than the other, as last year their ranks were 24th and 22nd, and this year they are 26th and 28th. So clearly that is one massive weakness on this team, because many times in the playoffs when the margins are so thin, the difference between winning and losing is good special teams.
The shot metrics don’t suggest that they’re getting unlucky either, as (heading into last night’s action) their shot attempts for per 60 at 5v4 is 25th in the league, and their expected goals per 60 (which takes into account shot quality) is 30th. On the penalty kill, it’s a similar story with their shot attempts against per 60 at 4v5 sitting in 26th, and their expected goals against per 60 sitting in 18th. Essentially, their poor conversion rates on special teams are due to poor play at those times and in no way would I expect it to ever improve unless the team gets drastically better or a new system is implemented.
One of the most jarring ways of looking at how bad it has been is to look at Hockeyviz’s heatmaps. And boy are they ugly:
That powerplay is...incredible. It seems that the only plan is to give it to Mike Hoffman for the one-timer. It works a decent amount of times because of how good he is, but the front of the net should not be dark green. As for the penalty kill, it doesn’t look much better.
Overall, since the beginning of 2016, Ottawa has been +71 on the power play in goal differential, and -89 on the penalty kill. That easily puts them near the bottom of the league, and an improvement to just slightly above average could mean a difference of about 10-15 goals per season. That’s not insignificant at all.
Now, are these poor results 100% Boucher’s fault? No of course not, he isn’t the one playing the game. Furthermore, assistant coaches Marc Crawford, Rob Cookson, and Martin Raymond play a role in the teams systems, so they deserve some blame here as well. At the end of the day, it is up to the players to execute the system put in place, but if it isn’t working, then a great coach should be able to adapt to his team and give his players the best chances to succeed.
I’m not going to say that’s an easy thing to do, especially on a Senators team that ranks 22nd in 5v5 offense and 28th in 5v5 defense over the past two seasons. However, being this bad should not be tolerated, and even if there weren’t other problems such as lineup construction and favouring untalented veterans, Boucher’s abysmal special teams are certainly grounds for a firing.
I think it goes without saying that the team on the ice needs to get better as well, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask from a coach to have at least average special teams. If you wanted to make a case that a new coach should be coming in, this is definitely damning evidence on Boucher’s part.