Yesterday, Timmyf published his take on John Anderson as Head Coach of the Thrashers. Timmyf chose to come at the question by looking at how players have performed under Anderson and the type of systems he likes to employ. Today, I thought I'd approach the same question but take a different track.
Within the baseball statistician community there is a general consensus that coaches have a limited impact on the long run seasonal outcomes because in baseball, every player has to come to bat and once the batting order is established, much of the game is outside the coach's control. The core of baseball is pitching and hitting, and the coaching strategy works around the margins of those two major components.
What sort of impact should we expect a NHL coach to have? On the one hand, the sport of hockey is an improvisational game which generally lacks repeated set plays that we see in the NFL and NBA. If you consider how often the puck changes hands or how often it takes a strange bounce, you might despair that any coach could have a meaningful effect on the outcome.
On the other hand, a NHL Head Coach can constantly tinker with who is on the ice--ice time is their primary tool. Some coaches might focus on matching lines. Other coaches might pay more attention to who goes out for faceoffs in the Offensive and Defensive Zone. The coach must manage the goalie rotation. And the coach can also work on team strategies when his club is up or down a man.
When I grade a coach I tend to ask these questions: 1) Does the power play function effectively? 2) Does the PK work? 3) Are the goalies managed so that they stay fresh and sharp? 4) Does the team look motivated and play with passion and intensity?
Special Teams Under Coach Anderson
I've created a table below which shows the Atlanta Thrashers Special Teams Goal Differential, Even Strength Goal Differential and Overall Goal Differential. Why the focus on Goal Differential? Because it predicts the NHL points standing with 95% accuracy. Good teams have a plus GD and bad teams have a negative GD.
If you look at the Thrashers under Coach Fraser, the team was hammered both at Even Strength and on Special Teams. Under Bob Hartley the club made major strides on the special teams front and actually had a positive number the seasons just prior and after the lockout. This improvement deteriorated after Marc Savard departed in the summer of 2006 and the special teams were poor for the next three seasons under Hartley, Waddell and Coach Anderson's first year.
The Thrashers Penalty Kill has been weak during most of the history of the franchise. During the off season, Anderson and the coaching staff undertook a study of good PK units around the NHL and made some adjustments which have produced a major improvement. The team is on pace to reduce the combined PKGA + SHGA by 33 compared to last season--this is an astonishingly positive change in a short period of time.
If you look at the table above you can see that in Coach Anderson's first season the team made strides at becoming more competitive at Even Strength. Despite losing Marian Hossa from the roster, the ES goal scoring actually rose from 142 goals to 168 in Anderson's first year. The ES defense showed no change, so the team improved the ES GD from -39 to -13 which is a major change for just one season. In his second season, the Thrashers are on pace to lose a little ground in their ES GD, but they have made major improvements on the PK to the point where special teams is now a break even proposition. In season one under Anderson, the Thrashers total GD improved from -59 to -29, and in season two they are on pace to go from -29 to -16, which is consistent progress in the right direction.Goalie Management
One of my biggest complaints against Bob Hartley as Head Coach of the Thrashers was his mismanagement of the goalies. Instead of developing a regular rotation that would keep both goalies fresh and sharp he would often play one guy until he fell apart and then expect the cold goalie to come in and play well. It seldom worked out very well and I think he failed to get the most out of the netminders on his roster.
In my opinion, Coach Anderson has done a much better job of rotating both guys and seeing that everyone gets action on a more regular basis. Because of his approach, I think Anderson has gotten more out of the guys on his roster.
As a team the Thrashers have always been hot and cold in their intensity level. It was true under Fraser, Hartley, Waddell and Anderson. But under Anderson they simply were not very good for the 1st period or even the 1st half of hockey games. Anderson gets credit for prodding them into 2nd half comebacks, but he also has to take some blame for their flat starts. In the five games after the Kovalchuk trade the effort level was pretty terrific, the big question is whether they will continue to play with intensity in March.
I give Coach Anderson a plus for fixing the PK and his management of the goalies. I give him a minus for the team's struggles in the 1st period. Power plays run hot and cold and the Thrashers PP became stale and one dimensional before the trade (and now it needs Kane and Bergfors over White and Kozlov), I'll grade the PP as average.
Overall I think Coach Anderson rates as a net positive. He does some things better than others. It is obvious he brings great passion to his job and seems clear to me that the guys in the locker room care about each more than in the past. In my mind, the question is whether his uptempo system has enough defense to work at the NHL level. But the team has shown significant improvement in Goal Differential the last two seasons--enough improvement that I want to see if he can keep the ball rolling in the right direction in the post-Kovalchuk era.