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Study: Firing an NHL Coach Unlikely to Improve a Team's Performance

Now that a little time has passed since news broke that Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile somewhat unceremoniously dismissed former Associate Coach Peter Horachek, only to announce the hire of American-born hockey legend and new Assistant Coach Phil Housely a day later, we can examine whether or not a coaching change will help vault the Preds back into perennial playoff contention.

Rich Lam

It's no secret that the 2013 Nashville Predators underwhelmed fans and media alike, and it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise after David Poile lost Norris Trophy candidate Ryan Suter to the Minnesota Wild via free agency last summer.

But beyond Suter's absence alongside team captain and Predator-for-Life™ Shea Weber, special teams lagged as the power play fell from a league-leading 21.6% last year to a middling (at best) 17.1% this season, and the penalty kill dropped from 83.6%, good for 10th overall last year, to an abysmal 75.7% this year, only slightly better than the Florida Panthers' league-worst 74.2%. Worse, in the total scoring department, Nashville's goals-for per game dropped from an 8th-best 2.86 last year to tying the league's worst (Florida again) with 2.27. Rounding out the trifecta of team turbulence was the team defense, a category in which the Preds saw a T-8th-best 2.50 goals-against per game metastasize into an 11th-worst 2.77 goals-against per game.

In other words, David Poile's bold strategy of "going with what's in the cupboard" didn't pay the dividends any of us had hoped, despite the promise that many youngsters like Roman Josi and Colin Wilson showed in the early goings of the demi-season. As the old saying in politics goes, "personnel is policy," and while the Preds faithful annually clamors for more capable on-ice personnel, everyone seems to have come to terms with the fact that, despite the current owners bringing the organization back into the black, Poile's player recruitment strategy will be hamstrung by budget constraints for the foreseeable future. Others still clamor annually for a coaching change, which wouldn't cost the team as much money as a top-flight free agent.

The New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks both terminated head coaches John Tortorella and Alain Vigneault, respectively, after another year for each leading their squads to an untimely playoff demise. Conventional wisdom, after all, says that a general manager can't fire the whole team ... but perhaps firing a coach will motivate or "shake up" a team. You know, "change the puck luck," as Nashville bench boss Barry Trotz likes to say from time to time.

But would a deliberate coaching change help? While that particular chapter of the Nashville Predators' story has yet to be written, a 2006 article (PDF) in the journal Managerial and Decision Economics by Rick Audas (Memorial University of Newfoundland), John Goddard (University of Wales), and W. Glenn Rowe (University of Western Ontario) explores this very question, after analyzing coaching changes in the NHL over time. They find that

The empirical results suggest teams that changed their coach within-season tended to perform worse subsequently in the short term than those that did not. However, the detrimental effect appears to be short-lived, and over a longer time horizon the effect is almost neutral. In the broader context of the debate concerning the managerial influence on organizational performance, the results suggest that a change of management in the midst of a crisis is unlikely to improve performance by more than might have been expected through the natural tendency for mean-reversion after a spell of poor performance.

(Stick-tap: Freakonomics)

The authors of this study emphasize two main findings here:

  1. Firing your coach midseason is, on balance, a worse idea than waiting until the end of the year; and
  2. More broadly, when the chips are down for a team, a coaching change doesn't really improve the win-loss numbers in any meaningfully significant way, over and above just letting a team grow up.

That second finding would probably be particularly disheartening to Peter Horachek, and you can understand why Suter didn't want to hang around for "another rebuilding phase." Those things take time, and time is the one thing they aren't making any more of.

It seems almost intuitive that at the NHL level, where your players are the best they are anywhere else in the world, that an individual coach or particular assembled coaching staff has very little to do with actual chemistry between players, or with the interplay of individual players' relative skill sets with other guys' skills on the team. Longevity and consistency of a core group of players is probably more instrumental to a team's long-term success than who's behind the bench. A coach can set the tone of team meetings, and offer advice to the captain and his alternates. But ultimately, it's the general manager's job, with the aid of his scouts, to ensure that the on-ice product is likely to have chemistry and a useful skill mix.

As welcome as a personality and talent like Phil Housley might be at 501 Broadway, to fans, players, other coaches, the front office, and media alike, it is unlikely that his addition to the coaching staff will have any immediate impact, or that his impact will be as significant as, say, what David Poile and the Predators scouts do in the offseason, how current players continue to train individually and gel as a group, or as a number of other exogenous factors. With apologies to Canucks, Preds, and Rangers fans, right now, we all just have to be patient.

Your moves, Messrs. Gillis, Poile, and Sather.