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Pre-Season: Sophistry in Coaching

Can an old dog learn new tricks, and can a slow, aging team get faster? What can we expect from the carry-over coach?

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at Minnesota Wild Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Disclaimer: At this stage I feel like I should add disclaimers to my articles. Like many, this one is long (in excess of 5000 words - Sorry Ed, I know i promised less).

The Ducks have made a lot of noise since the end of last season about a brand new system of play that will have them playing a faster, more up-tempo style of play. With that in mind, they haven't dramatically turned over their roster, nor dramatically altered their coaching staff. That is to say, assistant coaches have been moved around, but the head coach remains the same. That head coach is, of course, Randy Carlyle.

Randy Carlyle has often been a lightning rod for criticism from the statistically minded segment of the fandom, both during his tenure with the Ducks and with the Maple Leafs (I’ve recently been made aware that this has been a cause for discussion among Ducks fans in the twitterverse as recently as last week). At face value this can be seen with the 4.5% swing in corsi for percentage with the Ducks transitioning from Carlyle to Boudreau, and with the Leafs transition from Wilson to Carlyle. Taking into account the numerical data at the time (~7070 corsi events per team over the season, that 53.5% of corsi attempts resulted in shots on net, 8% league average shooting, and .920 average save percentages), that 4.5% swing was the equivalent of a -27 goal swing in team results. More pointedly, having Carlyle as coach was the equivalent of having Artemi Panarin on your team and trading him for future considerations. Perhaps more relevant to the Ducks, imagine trading Rickard Rakell for a couple of 7th round draft picks.

Alongside the statistical critique comes the criticism that anyone could have coached the 2007 team to the cup, with it’s embarrassment of riches and multiple Hall of Fame players. However, this is disingenuous. Near every cup team, in any era, has iced future Hockey Hall of Fame members. Nearly all of them have had a star forward, and most in recent history have had a Norris winner (or contender) patrolling the blue line. Cup winning teams are good. The Ducks team that won was a powerhouse—there is no doubt about that. However, many good teams don't win cups. Great teams don't win cups every season. The simple truth is that Carlyle was the head coach of a team that won a Stanley Cup, and no, not anyone could have done that. Others certainly might have been able to achieve the same, but credit goes to the man who actually did it. This statement, however, isn't an appeal to authority or a statement that Carlyle is a good coach. It’s just a fact. Same as his decade of coaching in the NHL, and his relatively high winning percentage.

However this piece isn’t to judge Carlyle’s quality as a coach. Good or bad, it doesn't really matter. He is, for better or worse, the Ducks head coach this coming season. What this piece will attempt, is to look back into the past to look at what the new season might bring. Particularly in light of the Ducks GM, Coach, and Captain, all claiming (at various points in the offseason) to want to play a faster style of hockey. So then, can it be said that perhaps Carlyle is the right coach for a new era?

At face value, there hasn’t appeared to be a lot of innovation in the Ducks play over the past couple years. More than that, the roster has been built around safe, “two-way” players. This model of team building, and preferential treatment to player type, however, isn't beholden to the Ducks. Not just in the NHL, but across world hockey, there has been a trend towards safer, mistake free hockey. At present only the Finns, Russians, and Swedes seem to be playing the game and gambling on chances. Former players, such as Alexei Kovalev (see tweet below), are not impressed with the way the game is trending.

That quote however, is beside the point. In a league that is trending back towards the New Jersey Devils neutral zone trap hockey days, has Carlyle - the architect of the relatively “safe” style the Ducks have played the past 2 seasons - found a niche, and a potential purple patch in his career? With a coaching (and playing) career based upon sometimes hard to watch, but overall, winning hockey, is Carlyle the innovator that the Ducks require going forward? Bob Murray believes so, and has expressed faith in his coach.

It should be noted that Carlyle has shown the ability to change his ways in the past. When he originally came back to the Ducks, he did so as a changed man. At least somewhat. He was originally drive out of Anaheim, due to his harsh taskmaster outlook and his propensity to blow a fuse. He promised that he wasn't that man when he returned, that he was a changed coach. In many ways this appears to be correct. There haven't been reports of bag skates, as there were back in his original go-around with the team. Additionally, during games, there haven't been the outbursts that fans (and players) came to expect last time. Instead, we see a quieter, if not calmer, coach glancing at palm cards at the times he would have once blew a fuse. Whatever these may say however, it appears that they have worked in calming the savage beast. Still, a changed outlook isn't a change in system, and a change in system is what the Ducks have been crowing that they are all about.

The Chart below may give us some insight into what to expect from the Ducks under Carlyle next season. The obvious missing points are the seasons in which he was fired from the Ducks, Leafs, and the season he didn't coach. Without entering that data, each of the fired seasons show a dramatic loss of standings points comparative to the league average at the time (approximately -27%). However, what is apparent, is that Carlyle seemingly makes a big impact in his first season with a “new” team, and then steadily slides into the negative.

The number of wins, expressed as a percentage relative to the mean, Carlyle’s teams have had in each of his full seasons as a head coach dating back to the 2007-2008 season.

There are of course reasons for the slide that this chart certainly cant tell us. With the Ducks initially, it was management dismantling the cup team. Toronto just wasn't a very good team to begin with. The Ducks last year were horrifically injury struck. Yet Carlyle doesn't coach in a world of excuses, he must coach in a world of results. The chart cant be filling anybody with a lot of hope going forward. Carlyle was brought in on a short term contract to attempt to get a team struggling in the postseason over the hump, and by all appearances had the coaching chops to do just that. However, now its 2 seasons later and the teams best players have gotten a little older, a little slower, and a little more injury prone. When taken with the trends shown in the above chart and it seems at least plausible that Carlyles star as a winning coach may start to lose its luster. However, as stated above, each of those dips have a somewhat plausible excuse, that cant be seen in the above chart.

The first port of call might be to look at PDO. Not as a predictor of luck, as it’s sometimes used, but as a snapshot to determine whether there might have been a dramatic drop off in either shooting percentage or save percentage in any year.

PDO expressed as a percentage in each of Carlyles full coached seasons. The “0” is considered “100%,” and the range of scores is 99-2013% in each season.

For the most part however, it appears that Carlyles teams have worked the PDO angle, and appear to have worked out a reasonable system for staying above the average of most teams. In fact in no season (partial [read: sacked] season or full season), did Carlyle’s team recieve goaltending under league average. That is a huge help and likely a big reason why Carlyle has remained employed in this league - that isn't to say the goal tender succeed in spite of Carlyle, just that he’s had exquisite netminding each season. The 2017-2018 season perhaps being the best yet.

Raw shooting percentage of Carlyles teams, opposed to the league average in each of his full seasons.

Additionally, Carlyle’s teams have traditionally shot the lights out in each of his full seasons as well (only the 2014-2015 season below the league average [97% of the league average]). This finding probably shouldn't be a huge surprise given that he’s traditionally been the coach of players such as Teemu Selanne, and Phil Kessell. Yet it often seems to slip under the radar.

At face value it seem like Carlyle should be a big time coach that has fans raving about him all night and part of every day. So why then does he fall down in many estimations?

The chart directly below may, more or less, explain it. Simply put, for most of his coaching career, Carlyles teams have scored less goals, and let in more goals, than the average across the league. In fact, in only one season, did Carlyle have his team scoring more than the league average.

The raw number of goals scored by Carlyle coached teams, and against his teams, in relation to the league average (represented as “0”). Positive seasons are presented on top of league average mark, and poor seasons below it, for both goals for and against.

Goals against, too, has an interesting narrative. In his early Ducks days, Chris Pronger, and soon to have his number retired Scott Niedermayer, patrolled the blue line and theoretically limiting scoring chances against the Ducks. When those players left, so to did, the teams goal prevention rates decline. In the more recent seasons with the Ducks, he was able to lean on all-world netminder John Gibson to carry the load.

Those looking for a little hope in the coaching ranks coming into the new season however, will notice that both goal scoring for, and against, both trended upwards between the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 seasons. It seems plausible that they could continue to rise, particularly if Carlyle can continue to have his team perform above the mean in shooting and save percentages.

So far, we learn that Carlyle’s teams have incredible shooting percentages, and save percentages, yet often struggle to prevent goals. They always struggle to score goals. Which leads into the hard question, which is “WHY?”

Note: The other thing that isn't stated and shouldn’t need to be, is that coaches get fired in bad seasons. The seasons that haven't been presented were train wrecks for the most part. You don't really need to see them, but if curiosity gets the better of you, has you covered.

For those who have read anything I may have written in the past about Carlyle, this may be somewhat of a refresher crash course. For that I apologise. There are only so many ways to skin a cat after all.

As mentioned at the top of this article; when Carlyle originally left the Ducks for the Leafs, the Ducks saw a ~4.5% improvement in corsi for percentage. Similarly the Leafs corsi for percentage dropped by ~4.5. Mathematically speaking, this should equate to roughly 27 goals lost (comparative to the league average) by employing Carlyle as a coach.

This should be taken with a grain of salt, and in fact, Carlyles teams over his coaching career have finished with a total of 5.5 actual goals above the league average over this time. It does however highlight a potential mechanism for concern. If Carlyles teams are able to shoot at a high percentage, yet struggle to actually score it seem plausible that they’re not particularly adept at shooting the puck or getting into positions to score.

Corsi attempts, for and against, for Carlyle’s teams over his career. Seasons in which they performed better than league average (“0”) are presented above the “0” line, and those worse than the average are presented below.

This seems to clinch it. At least at face value it can be said that Carlyles teams are weak with shot metrics overall. A lot can be said for shooting, and stopping, the puck well. However sheer volume of shots is also going to come into play. Corsi against, very neatly follows the trend set for goals against. Despite having excellent netminding each year (according to overall SV%), facing a high number of attempts is bound to have some go through. This trend of course was somewhat arrested by none of than Big Daddy Gibson. The Ducks give up more attempts then they should as the players stand around watching Gibson play hockey. Gibson says to hell with it, and stops them all anyway. Should have won the Vezina, and Randy Carlyle should start every day with a little prayer to the hockey gods in thanks of having him.

Ducks fans could consider the 2013-2014 season as a warning sign, however. Like every year, Carlyle’s netminders provided at least league average goaltending overall. Yet the sheer overwhelming weight of numbers (i.e. corsi attempts) correlates nicely with scoring chances, high danger chances, and ultimately goals against. Where Gibson was able to take the Ducks from a theoretical 6th worst in the league record (with league average goaltending) to a playoff position, the Leafs netminders were not able to achieve that same thing. While not a kiss of death by any means, it should highlight the flaws of a system that is heavily reliant on a single player exceeding the league average mark. Or rather, it shows that there is little room for error, and a razor thin margin between “success” and “failure.”

Corsi for doesn’t really appear to have a strong trend with goal scoring, yet it is somewhat notable that this has been (linearly) trending up overall since the 2010 season. It’s been nearly 10 years, and but its gone from -14% (2010-2011) to a more reasonable -3% (2017-2018)... just think if he’s still here (or back again) in 5 more seasons the Ducks can be on the positive side of the ledger! Hyperbole aside, it is a steadily improving trend, and while it is probably a little much to ask for the Ducks to get into the upper echelon of teams this season, its certainly plausible that they’ll get close enough to the mean, that it wont significantly effect results one way or the other.

Like corsi for, scoring attempts and high danger scoring attempts made by Carlyles teams have typically been under the league average in most seasons hes been a head coach. For the most part this flys in the face of the narrative that he may take less shots overall, but the shots he does get his team to produce are from dangerous areas. If anything, it appears that the high shooting percentages seen by his teams are typically a result of elite players making things happen, rather than any systemic plan that is ensuring quality chances.

Positive Scoring Chances for Carlyles teams in his full seasons at the helm, comparative to the league average in those years. “Good” seasons are shown above the mean (“0”), and “Poor” seasons are presented below it.

With that said, Ducks supports can take some solace in the past 2 seasons. In a career that has largely been underwhelming for producing quality scoring chances, the past two seasons has seen Carlyle’s team produce more than the league average. Given the Ducks huge injury concerns last season, its at least plausible that with a healthy list they could make the 2018-2019 season Carlyle’s 4th season of beating the average. Remembering that more quality chances is likely to result in more goals, this can only be a positive thing.

Negative Scoring Chances against Carlyle coached teams over his coaching tenure. These are presented as percentages from the mean, and ‘good’ seasons are presented above the line, with ‘poor’ seasons below it.

Like scoring chances ‘for,’ Carlyle coached teams have not typically been good at preventing opposition teams from getting into good positions to score. This inability to prevent chances against them has been evident over the past 2 seasons in Anaheim, and particularly so last season and in the playoffs. On many occasions, it very much seemed like the entire team stopped to watch in wonder as Gibson made stop after stop. Yet this is a hallmark of Carlyles career at every stop, and not just condemnation of the Ducks team.

Which leads further into the “WHY?”

So far we find that Carlyle’s teams typically have good netminding, and good shooting, but give up a lot of scoring opportunities without generating many of their own. Given the breadth of the sample it seems likely that these are systemic issues, and not outliers brought about by “one” bad or unlucky season.

With that said, lets take a short walk down memory lane.....

Note: I apologise for my shoddy penmanship in the screenshots. Additionally, a lot of the following information I, and others before me, have written in the past.

2007 Stanely Cup Finals. Carlyle’s Ducks are in black

In the above picture, we see 4 Ducks attempting to produce an “overload” in one quarter of the ice. Essentially, they are trying to create an odd man advantage by outnumbering their opposition and thus creating a turnover. In this instance the puck was passed back to the player rushing in from the top of the screen, resulting in an Ottawa goal.

2007 Stanley Cup Finals. Carlyle’s Ducks are in black.

Further into the cup finals, we see a similar set up with 4 Ducks attempting to overload one quarter of the ice. In this situation again, the puck was passed back to the point and a clean shot was taken (in this case, no goal was scored).

2013-2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Carlyles Leaf’s are in white.

In the above screen capture, we see the same strategy that was employed by the 2007 Ducks. In this case the strategy was “successful” with the high forward (my pen mark labels them as #5) swooping in late and pouncing on the loose puck, created by the contest. In this scenario, the player with the puck runs into a defenseman mid way into the neutral zone and dumps the puck from there into the offensive zone, alleviating the pressure on the defence.

Why, then would a system that results in getting the puck back and alleviating defensive pressure result in a coach having a systematic issue with scoring chances against them?

The clues are within the screenshots from the 2007 playoffs (above), but may be better described in the sequence below. As with the screenshots of the 2007 Ducks, the below picture, shows a failed attempt at overloading the puck and the offensive team regaining possession. In this instance the puck is passed back to the defenseman floating along the line.

March 18, 2018. Carlyle’s Ducks are in Black

By moving the puck in this manner, the offensive team has created an “accordion” like effect. By this I mean that the Ducks players who had closed in on the contest, now have to make a sharp turn around and move back out to challenge the puck handler - that is to say, they are moving in and out, like the playing of an accordion. This manner of defense creates two issues; primarily, there is now an open man with a puck. However, having to skate in this manner continuously builds fatigue in the defensive players. In this instance, the open player passed the puck and the pass-receiver took a shot, which resulted in a rebound.

As a side note, observe that Corey Perry (designated as #4 in my handwriting, in the above picture) is situated, more or less, in the centre of the defensive third. This too, is an affect of Carlyle’s coaching. and flows into the above strategy of collapsing down low. We’re reaching back quite a way, but Bobby Ryan was quoted as having issue adjusting to (at the time, Ottawa Senators coach) Paul MacLean’s coaching style. MacLean wanted his forwards to engage with the floating players in the high slot, and those who moved to the half wall. Ryan says then-Ducks head coach (his first go-around) Randy Carlyle demanding the forwards stay in the middle of the ice. “If the goalie can’t stop it from out there, we’ll get another one,” Ryan said Carlyle would say. As we can see in the 2018 picture, and those dating back to 2007, that attitude seemingly hasn't been altered a great deal.

Note: If I may be so bold to say, awfully strong words from a coach who cant get his teams to score the league average number of goals over a season.

The below picture is ~5 seconds after the one above. In this we can see the Ducks scrambling to get back towards the new puck handler. However, due to having to move in for the initial defensive play, then out to challenge the open puck handler (in the above photo), they then have to turn back once more to challenge the puck handler in the screenshot below. An accordion effect indeed. Unfortunately, the constant change of direction has resulted in players being slightly slower, getting back to their defensive assignments.

March 18, 2018. Carlyle’s Ducks are in black

From the above scenario, the puck is slide across crease to another open man (in this instance Mike Green), which moves the netminder laterally. The pass-receiver with no defensive pressure, gets a open shot on net, against a moving netminder. In the scenario above, Green scores, and Detroit go on to win the game 4-2.

This should highlight, at least in part, some rationale to why Carlyle system gives up multiple corsi attempts, and high number of scoring chances. In this frame there was the initial shot (from roughly the right circle) that created the rebound and would have been counted as a scoring chance, and the second shot which resulted in a goal, that would have been counted as a high-danger chance.

That the same defensive system is being employed over a decade after Carlyle originally employed it, and that the same issues are present should be cause for some concern. Interestingly, the Ducks GM, Bob Murray, seem to believe that Carlyle is capable of altering his system to play a “faster” style. This of course, highlighted defensive schemes, so what about the offence?

Unfortunately, defence tends to flow into offense. John Chayka (the Arizona Coyotes General Manager), made a statement a couple years back, that the job of the defence was to recover the puck and begin to produce offense. Carlyle’s system is strong on the puck retrieval concept. Afterall, its the entire point of creating odd-man contests: Create a man advantage, and force the turnover, retrieving the puck.

This is also true on the offensive end, although due to slightly different circumstances.

2012-2013 Leaf vs Bruins

The above screenshot doesn’t quit capture everything that is happening in the sequence, although it does come on the back of a successful defensive play. There is the typical overload, that we see in the above screen shots, and the puck is “passed” almost by accident from the contest along the boards (#48) to the floating high wing (#81). From here, #81 drives towards the boards, and through the neutral zone having been sprung on a partial breakaway. This allows #81 to get to the top of the offensive circles before the defenseman can get over to cover him. In this instance, the defenseman gets to #81 late allowing him to drive into the offensive zone carrying the puck (this doesn't result in a shot on goal, although that's due to the pass made within in the offensive zone, and not with the offensive system itself). However, in other cases, the defenseman may get to the rushing player prior to, or within, the neutral zone. The player has chosen to move along the wing, and due to the other players being further back in the defensive zone (in order to force the initial turnover at the contest) the high wing (in this case #81) has no where to move, and no one to pass to. Thus the puck is dumped into the offensive zone, and a if everything goes well a 50/50 puck battle ensues, and if that goes well, a cycle can then be established.

That is to say, give up the puck, chase the puck, retrieve the puck. However, the puck retrieval on the offensive end only comes about when things don’t go to plan - at least most of the time. I don’t deny that actively looking to initiate the dump and chase, and subsequent cycle, is part of the game plan occasionally.

When coaching a team of highly skilled forwards (say for example Teemu Selanne, and Phil Kessel), these partial breakaways and scoring opportunities look fantastic. Due to the skilled nature of the player, and potentially quality shot they’re allowed from a breakaway (or partial breakaway) opportunity, shooting percentages tend to be quit high. That is to say, they’ll either get a good shooting chance, or they wont be able to shoot at all. This lends some credence to the data above, which has shown a history of above average shooting, but below average shooting attempts.

When the (assumedly successful) defensive play and subsequent partial breakaway, results in a dump and chase, the results become a little more...iffy. Firstly the offensive players have to chase the puck and retrieve it. To do so, often requires a moderate-to-high skating speed. For a team that is low on this attribute, puck retrieval becomes somewhat problematic. But lets say the offensive player goes in on the forecheck, recovering the puck they just gave up, and begins to establish the cycle. On a team with some prime aged power forwards who can create havoc with the opposition netminder, the cycle game is likely to produce results relatively often. Although it should be taken into consideration, that even when coaching prime aged Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry (who lest we forget was one of the leagues brightest goal scorers for near on a decade), alongside 30 goal scorer Bobby Ryan, and with Teemu Selanne in the mix, Carlyle’s team dropped below league average for goals scored. Why?

In many cases, the cycle results in a shot from the point by a defenseman. The tweet below shows one of the issues with that.

The 1.9% expected rate of scoring, mentioned in the tweet, is inclusive of direct- and tipped-shots. However, even adding rebounds and the chance of goals scored off rebounds (which is high), the chance of a point shot scoring only goes up to ~2.4%. That is to say, the chance of scoring is relatively low. The risk is taking such a shot is also quit high, when the chance of a turnover and subsequent breakaway (which would be a 16.9% chance of being scored on) is nearly as high as the chance of scoring.

Those who choose to remember the San Jose series last season (and I don't blame you if you don't want to) should remember the Sharks springing numerous breakaways, and in many cases scoring off them. In some cases this was due to turnovers off point shots, and in others from the defenseman activating deep into the offensive zone prior to a turnover. This allowed the Sharks to leave a forward high and rush into the pass, getting in alone on the netminder.

It’s a game of risk versus reward. Does the potential risk on the defensive end out way the potential benefit of springing elite forwards on the offensive end? Statistically, it would seem to be a poor gamble, with poor shooting metrics by volume impacting overall scoring, despite high shooting percentages. Similarly on the defensive end, giving up a sheer volume of quality scoring chances appears to be detrimental to goal prevention despite having quality netminding. However, Randy Carlyle is currently the 45th most winning coach in history when ranked by winning percentage (actual points his team has won, divided by maximum points on offer), in the regular season. In the playoffs, he climbs to be the 39th most winning coach in history, by percentage. His 868 regular season games coached is the 35th highest in history (his stated aim is to get to 1000), and his 90 playoff games ranks him 31st of all time. The games aren’t won by statistics (well they technically are, since goals-scored is a statistic), and it appears that Carlyle has coached a very successful career.

So what does this all mean for the new season?

The overwhelming feeling is that the Ducks, like many of Carlyles teams in the past, will struggle to generate offense and to provide adequate defensive structures. However, there are some small bits of hope. His teams Corsi for has trended up over the past few seasons, shooting percentages have trended up over the past season, and scoring chances have been over the average for the past two seasons, all of which hint at a reasonable level of offense (although unlikely to be top of the league). Defensively, the Ducks still have John Gibson which will help them flaunt decline defensive metrics like it aint no ones business. Improved years from Hampus Lindholm (after getting in a full pre-season), and development from Brandon Montour, will go a long way towards shoring up a backend that was an utter train wreck despite the vaunted names that patrol along it.

Additionally, while when Carlyle came back and told us he had changed, in a way he had. Communication is maybe the key part of coaching, and Carlyle appeared to have changed his method of doing that. This doesn't entirely mean that he can change an entire playbook over an offseason, when he couldn't do it in a year away from coaching, but there is some hope that its possible.

Because I promised JC an apt quote from an anime/manga in my articles to let him know what he should nerd out to, now that he’s gone, dead and buried. I still can’t believe he hasnt seen Akame Ga Kill, and I’m a little offended by it.

Given that, personally, I believe that it wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see the Ducks move on from Carlyle at some point through the season. As Andre Agassi once said, “A great coach can lead you to a place where you don’t need him any more.” I’m just not sure the Ducks need Carlyle’s coaching anymore. He came in for a short time, and with the purpose of winning in that short window. That window has now passed, and it remains to be seen if the Ducks still require the services of the veteran coach.

Should it be decided that they do, it similarly wouldn’t surprise to see him being given an extension. Particularly should the Ducks present early with some good results. Quite frankly I think the most unlikely circumstance is that Carlyle coaches the full season and then walks. I think we see him sign an extension, or his walking papers, with nothing in between.

Either way however, expectations should be tempered. He has a long history of results using a play book that hasn’t dramatically changed in over a decade of coaching. Expecting a new “fast” system from a coach that hasn’t yet shown an ability to coach in that manner, or to actually change his defensive system or the results granted by that system, may be asking for too much. Certainly, I think we’ll see some tweaks to the existing system, but like the cars on “pimp my ride” you can dress it up with spinning rims and a shiny paint job, and it’ll still be a hunk of junk that barely goes and will betray you as soon as you take it out of first gear.

Regardless of our thoughts, with so much of the playing style of Carlyles dictated by the defensive schemes employed, it seems like we’ll find out whether the Ducks will be playing a new faster system very early in the piece. If you see all the Ducks in one quarter of the ice during a defensive zone play in the season first game, you’ll know what to expect for the rest of the season.

Screenshots of play are taken from

Shot metric data are taken from

*All data and descriptions are based around Even Strength Play (5v5, 4v4, & 3v3 are included).