The thing you hear people who have come to understand the game more fully in the past few years talk about a lot is “The Process.”
The Process, in hockey, is everything.
It's hard to define exactly what The Process is or isn't, because people may see it as different things. For some people, it's defined by wins and losses: If you're winning, you're doing things right, and if you're losing, you're doing things wrong.
For others, it relates to goals: If the goals are going in, or being kept out, for any given length of time, that too is an indicator that a team is good or turned a corner from being bad or has had something go horrible wrong. And for some, something as simple as possession numbers indicate whether things are going right or wrong for a team.
It's unfair to wholly dismiss any one of these as being important. You can be like the Devils the last few years, and have a ton of bounces go against you all season long and lose games you should have won and not make the playoffs but still have strong possession numbers. You can be like the Avalanche last season and get every single bounce for 82 games to go in your favor, despite the fact that you never have the puck. Hockey teams are ultimately evaluated on wins and losses, and nothing more, no matter how much lip service or actual attention is paid to peripheral things.
That, in essence, is why the Oilers fired Dallas Eakins this week. They had to, at some point. No matter if he had the possession trending in the right direction, and it was obvious that his team wasn't getting a single bounce to go its way, but this is a results-oriented business and the results were a 3-15-4 record after starting the season 4-4-1. It's stupid that the team couldn't look past the actual W's and L's in the standings, but that's the reality of professional sports. The Process only gets you so far if The Results don't follow after a certain amount of time.
But if you really look under the hood on that woeful stretch of 22 games for the Oilers, from which they wrung just 10 of 44 available points, you see that no amount of coaching would have saved that team. “Luck” in the NHL, for lack of a better term, is quantified largely by PDO; that is, the addition of shooting percentage and save percentage at 5-on-5, with 100 being the normal number. When your PDO is high, you tend to win a lot of games because your team is scoring on a large percentage of its shots and allowing goals on a low percentage of the opposition's. When your PDO is low, you lose a lot for the opposite reasons. Every team in the league understands this fundamentally.
Suffice it to say that the Oilers' PDO during their losing streak was an abysmal 96.1, because the goalies couldn't save anything and the team couldn't put the puck in the net. Only Minnesota was worse from Oct. 29 to Dec. 12, and even then just marginally, at an even 96 rating, because their goaltending was considerably worse in that stretch (and what do you know: they only went 10-8-1 during that time because hockey's funny that way). If the Wild had fared as poorly as the Oilers, Mike Yeo would have been fired, without question.
But Minnesota is undoubtedly a better team than the Oilers, both in terms of actual on-ice product and in roster construction: They have better players at nearly every slot of the lineup. They are a clear playoff team, where the Oilers are very much not. Even at 10-8-1, people in the Twin Cities often acted as though the sky were crashing down around them.
And what's important to keep in mind about PDO, too, is that teams don't actually have a lot of control over it. If you were to theoretically put together a team of fourth-line guys who were barely at NHL replacement level, and put a career backup behind them, you could reasonably expect your team's PDO to come in lower than the expected, normal 100 by a pretty decent margin. But teams aren't built like that, obviously, and if anything, the Oilers actually tried pretty hard to do that (two NHL centers, two NHL defensemen, and a career backup). The resulting PDO was only a little surprising.
But what no one talked about, really, is that over those 22 games, Dallas Eakins' team had the puck more often than it didn't: 51.7 percent of the time, in fact. That's 12th in the league in that stretch, and it's not nothing. The Process states that he must have been doing something right to get a team that was that bad on paper to possess the puck more often than its superior opponents. And okay sure they obviously spent a lot of time in those games trailing, often by a wide margin — but even with the score close, they were at 51 percent.
Coaches always get fired when their team's PDO is bad for a decently long length of time. Claude Noel was fired last January, when the team's PDO for the year had been 98.8. In the month before he was fired, it was 96.4. Paul Maurice, who looks like he's transformed the team, has enjoyed a totally neutral PDO of 100 since then. That kind of improvement in player performance will help a lot.
And just as a low PDO can make good coaches (and it's hard to argue that's what Claude Noel was, at any rate) look like fools bereft of solutions for their teams' problems, high PDOs can make bad coaches look like geniuses who have found a way to turn chicken excrement into a full-course meal with the world's greatest chicken dish as the entree.
And that's why Bob Hartley signed a multi-year extension on Wednesday.
Obviously, the Flames were in a bit of a skid at that point, having lost six games straight, but it's pretty clear this was a deal that had been in the works for a while. After all, the Flames started out 17-8-2, and with the roster as it was and is constituted, plus all the injuries to key players suffered to start the season, the fact that they spent any time at all north of .500 and in a playoff spot made Hartley look like a miracle worker despite miserable possession numbers (43.5 percent).
All anyone noticed in Calgary was the comebacks — surely the result of work ethic and going to the contested areas — and the winning, and how close even the losing effort were. Hartley had instilled in his club a sense of hard work that allowed it to outperform its meager expectations. And all they needed for that first 27 games of the season was a PDO of 102. Which is not the result of hard work, or the talent that comprises the Flames roster.
(Also of note: The Leafs recently went on a 10-1-1 run in which their PDO was sky-high and their possession was in the toilet. Randy Carlyle, former president of the Wins Are All That Matters Club, told reporters after that 10th win that he was in no way satisfied with the performance; could it be that a hard lesson or three from Kyle Dubas and the last few seasons showed him the light? If Carlyle of all people can learn that this is the actual way in which the world works, then anyone can.)
Teams can, generally, have high PDOs only if they have elite-level goaltending and a strong top-six. The Bruins almost always turn in a season-long PDO north of 100 because Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask have been Vezina-quality for years, and because they generally have forward groups that can make things happen at the other end. (The latter, plus a traditionally strong defense, also leads to good possession numbers, which underscore the job Claude Julien has typically done in this era of Zdeno Chara as captain.)
The Flames have none of those things, relying instead on a mix of Jonas Hiller and Kari Ramo in net, and a top-six that's headlined by Jiri Hudler, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sean Monahan. This is not the stuff of teams that can post a 102 PDO all year, and indeed, in this six-game losing streak, it's been 94.4. Funny how that works.
The problem with Hartley is that apart from lucking into that PDO, and consequently all those wins, he's done nothing to improve The Process.
For the entire season, the Flames have possession just 45.2 percent, 28th in the league ahead of only Buffalo and Colorado. Last year: 26th at 46.3 percent. The year before: 24th at 47.4 percent. This is a team that's actively getting worse (which you'd expect to some extent because for the most part they're not bringing back veterans, and so on), and started from a pretty pathetic position to begin with.
Over Hartley's three seasons with the team, he's won just 71 of 163, and lost 13 more in overtime or the shootout: That's a .475 winning percentage. They've also allowed 77 more goals than they've scored at even strength, and their possession numbers are 27th out of 30 at 46.4 percent. By any measure, this is a man for whom The Process has not gone anything resembling well.
And to be fair to Flames fans, who say the team has really turned a corner in terms of on-ice performance since the start of last January or so — they're 38-34-3 since then — let's also keep in mind that they're on 46.7 percent corsi during those 75 games, and that's 26th of 30 in the NHL. Calgary has also been outscored by 14 goals (133 for, 147 against) during that time, good for 24th in the league. They're making no headway, regardless of how you want to view things beyond wins.
So why, then, the rush to get him locked up for at least a few more years? They had 27 good games, driven almost entirely by good fortune. Dallas Eakins had 22 bad ones, and was plagued by rotten bounces.
But only the latter had his team moving in the right direction after years of hopelessness, and was given his walking papers anyway. The former's team, which continues its slide, just ensured more of the same hopelessness for years to come.