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Bruce Boudreau: The Value of a New Head Coach

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New head coaches are a fact of life in the NHL, but how much change do they really bring?

NHL: Bruce Boudreau, head coach of the Minnesota Wild Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Heavy turnover of head coaches is frequently seen in the NHL. The Ducks, Flames, Senators, and, of course, the Wild have all hired new head coaches this offseason. The sudden resignation of Patrick Roy means the Avalanche head office will be hiring a new coach this offseason too. The Penguins and the Blue Jackets also made head coaching changes during last season. A new head coach is almost always indicative that the team was not performing up to the expectations of the general manager. The new guy is supposed to come in, make changes, and improve the performance of the team. But how well does that actually work?

Methodology and Results

To determine the impact of a new head coach on a team’s performance, we'll look at the difference in standings points from the first entire season under the new head coach compared to the team’s prior season. Even if the new head coach replaced the previous coach midseason, looking at the first complete season under the new head coach allowed for an even comparison across all teams and situations. The assessment period for this analysis began in the 2005-06 season with the introduction of the shootout and goes up to this last season. Standings point totals for the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season were prorated to an 82 game season. The information was all pulled from www.hockeyDB.com.

There were 83 instances of new head coaches starting their first complete season with a new team in the assessment period. In individual team seasons, the results varied wildly. The best improvement from one season to the next under a new head coach was seen by 2006-07 Penguins under Michael Therrien. They finished 47 points better than the 2005-06 team led by Ed Olczyk, who was replaced by Therrien midway through the season. The worst change in performance was the Tony Granato-led 2008-09 Avalanche that finished 26 points worse than the prior season.

On average, teams with a new head coach improved on the previous season’s results by 5.76 points. Sometimes averages, or means, can be misleading as significant outliers can drag the average up or down. The median, or middle, number can be a sanity check and show how close the average is to the actual middle point of the data set. In this case, the median was 5, so the average is reasonable.

Here are the top ten results:

Team

Season

Point Difference

Coach

Penguins

2006-07

47

Michael Therrien

Avalanche

2013-14

45

Patrick Roy

Flyers

2007-08

39

John Stevens

Ducks

2012-13

33

Bruce Boudreau

Lightning

2013-14

33

Jon Cooper

Canadiens

2012-13

30

Michael Therrien

Blue Jackets

2012-13

29

Todd Richards

Coyotes

2009-10

28

Dave Tippett

Sabres

2015-16

27

Dan Bylsma

Avalanche

2009-10

26

Joe Sacco

Some interesting things jump out of this list. Therrien appears on the list twice. Patrick Roy’s Jack Adams-winning first season with the Avalanche is #2 on the list. Former Wild coach Todd Richards is featured on the list for his first season with the Blue Jackets. Most important for the Wild, though, is the presence of Bruce Boudreau at #4 for his work with the 2012-13 Ducks.

One other interesting result sprung out of the data. Although teams on average experienced an improvement in their standings points under a new head coach, four teams have always faced a drop in standings points with a new head coach: the Hurricanes, the Blues, the Flames, and the Wild.

How Boudreau Fits In

From the 2005-06 season onward, Boudreau has been the new head coach of a team twice. His first NHL head coaching position was for the Capitals. He took over midseason in 2007, replacing Glen Hanlon. The Capitals finished the season with 94 points in the standings. Boudreau’s efforts over the 2007-08 season won him the Jack Adams trophy for best coach in the league that year. His first complete season as head coach in Washington saw the Capitals finish with 108 points, an improvement of 14.

Boudreau was fired 22 games into the 2011-12 season, but was quickly hired to be the head coach in Anaheim. Although the Ducks didn’t make the playoffs that season, they soon enjoyed a significant jump in performance and finished every following season under Boudreau as the Pacific Division champions. The 2012-13 season saw the Ducks end up with 66 points during the lockout-shortened season. Prorated to an 82 game season, the Ducks would have ended the season with 112.75 points which I will round to 113 points for an improvement of 33.

Boudreau’s teams saw their standings points increase by an average of 23.5, well above the league average under a new head coach of 5.76. The disparity doesn’t appear to be the result of uncharacteristic outliers in his teams’ performances that happened to coincide with his first complete season with a new team. In seasons where Boudreau was the head coach for the entire season, his teams averaged 110.96 points per season.

Implications for the Wild

Fans of the Wild should expect to see an improvement in the team’s standings points at the end of next season. If the Wild enjoyed just the league average improvement, they would finish with 92.76 points. At this score, the Wild still would have finished as the second wild card in the West last season. The impact Boudreau has on a team, however, is greater than the league average by 17.74 points. If the Wild’s standings points from last year increased by the average improvement Boudreau’s previous teams experienced, the Wild would finish with a franchise-best 110.5 points which would round up to 111. That would have been best in the Central Division and Western Conference last year and behind only the Washington Capitals in the entire NHL. That would have meant home ice advantage for the duration of the playoffs until at least the Stanley Cup Final.

Now, expectations should be tempered. After all, the Wild are one of the few teams that have always performed worse with a new head coach than the previous year, i.e. the season that went badly enough to get the old head coach fired in the first place. The effect Boudreau has had on his previous teams is based on two data points. Small sample sizes leave a lot of room for coincidence and outliers, like the Avalanche’s outrageous improvement during Patrick Roy’s first season as head coach. Moreover, Boudreau’s teams likely benefited from playing in weaker divisions. Boudreau’s Capitals played in the Southeast Division which was probably the weakest division in the NHL during that time. The Ducks benefited from playing in a Pacific Division that has boiled down to a three-horse race between the Ducks, the Sharks, and the Kings virtually every season during Boudreau’s tenure. The Central Division is a different animal entirely with every team in the division having participated in the playoffs at least once in the past three seasons.

Still, there is reason to expect that Boudreau will produce a marked improvement in the Wild’s performance for the simple reason that Boudreau is an excellent coach. Boudreau demonstrated last year that he has the ability to adjust his system to fit the team’s performance and maximize wins. A finish of over 100 points by the Wild would not be an outlier, but rather fit right in with Boudreau’s career averages.