Who's to blame when a team goes south? (Trending Topics)

Puck Daddy
Who's to blame when a team goes south? (Trending Topics)
Who's to blame when a team goes south? (Trending Topics)

When teams run out of tangible answers for why they're not good, they always turn to the same thing: intangibles.

For instance, this week we saw both Vancouver and Colorado turn to issues of leadership, character, and culture for the reasons that these bad teams are bad. The Patrick Roy stuff has been out there more than enough this week, because he thinks that the deficiencies in the quality of the job he's done coaching, and the quality of the roster he and Joe Sakic have put together (both extraordinarily low) are not to blame for the team's ongoing woes.

Less publicized has been Jim Benning in Vancouver telling TSN 1040 that the reason the Canucks aren't good has nothing to do with the roster he's cobbled together being second-last in scoring and eighth from the bottom in goals allowed. He in fact said that his No. 1 priority for turning the team around is “competing.”

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(Included in that Benning interview was the line, “We knew coming into this year that we were going to take a step back.” However, before the season, Benning was on the record as saying the Canucks should have been a 100-point team, which is an amazing bit of ret-conning, but you gotta spin it how you need to spin it.)

And last year when the Boston Bruins turfed Peter Chiarelli, Cam Neely talked about the need to return to the Bruins' “identity,” which involves being “hard to play against.”

But let's reiterate: This is what teams say when they are bereft of actual answers, or at least out of answers that won't make them extremely uncomfortable.

The Bruins are an important team to talk about here because Vancouver and Colorado have been train wrecks for a a while now. Vancouver has three first-round exits and two missed playoffs in the last five years, and Colorado has three postseason appearances (two of which were total flukes) since 2007. On the other hand, Boston was very good for a long time and has only recently “crashed and burned” insofar as they've become a deeply mediocre one. Let's not forget, they went from a Cup Final to maybe missing the playoffs twice in a row in three years flat, which is a pretty substantial fall from grace.

But look at what Boston has lost since making that Cup Final in 2013: Tyler Seguin, Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, Rich Peverley, Dougie Hamilton, Johnny Boychuk, etc. These were all very solid contributors in various roles for the Bruins, and all went on to success elsewhere (with the exception of Horton and Peverley, both victims of unfortunate health problems outside their control). If you have those seven players on your roster today, you're winning a whole hell of a lot of games, but various issues came together to prevent the Bruins from keeping them. When you have to let those players walk (Horton), trade them for relative peanuts (Seguin, Lucic, Peverley, Boychuk, Hamilton), or whatever else, the fact is you're replacing them with players of a lesser quality. Which makes winning more difficult. Which is what the team's executives are now learning to their absolute shock.

Now, the thinking in Boston is (apparently) that the losing is the result of Claude Julien not being an effective coach, as opposed to the quality of the team he's given having declined. Has Julien made some troubling roster decisions this season? Sure he has. Is that the reason the Bruins don't appear to be a playoff team at this moment? Good lord no. The question you have to ask yourself any time you fire a coach is, “Who would do a better job with this group?” The uncomfortable answer for Cam Neely and Don Sweeney — whose qualifications for their jobs are limited to “played for the Bruins when they were good” and “???” — is that there probably isn't such a coach out there. It's a paradigm shift, to be sure, but we just have to get used to the idea that the Bruins probably aren't going to be making the playoffs in the foreseeable future given the quality of the roster, and in particular the defense.

It is, in fact, arguable that Julien has been the one of the three or four most-effective coaches of the Behind the Net era in a lot of ways. Coincidentally and helpfully, he took over Boston at the same time the league started tracking every shot attempt, making it very easy to judge his team's performance against every other coach in the league. And to that end, it's hard to find anyone who could just step in and take over, especially when you discount guys who already have jobs.

You'll notice the plateauing of the previously dizzying ascent hit a little after Game No. 526 or so. No joke: The 2014-15 season when the team really began to not look good began on......... Game No. 538. They went from elite to average more or less over one summer. How you attribute that to coaching is beyond me. It's not as though Julien suddenly forgot how to foment a possession-driving team in July 2014.

Since the Julien era began in Boston (and not including last night's games), the Bruins have the best 5-on-5 goal differential in the league (plus-243). The next-closest team is Pittsburgh, at plus-186. It's not close. The team is also eighth in score-adjusted high-danger chances (plus-307.4), and fifth in scored-adjusted shot attempts (plus-3,140). And you have to say that the coaches ahead of him — Mike Babcock with four or five years of having an All-Star starting five every night, Joel Quenneville with the Chicago super-teams, Darryl Sutter the systems genius, and Todd McLellan with a good combination of all those factors — are in the same conversation. How many of those guys would you put ahead of Julien in terms of pure coaching quality? Babcock, Sutter, Quenneville (in no particular order, please don't yell at me) and probably not McLellan.

But here's what's most interesting to me: Even beyond the ability of the Bruins to drive differential in possession, chances, and goals, is Julien's ability to sustain huge save percentages on a regular basis. The three best team single-season full-strength save-percentage performances by any club in the last nine seasons are by Boston (2010-11, 2013-14, and 2008-09). In addition, 2007-08 came in 21st out of the 270 in question. Two more were in the top 48. On the whole, Boston has the highest 5-on-5 save percentage in the last nine seasons at a mind-blowing .930, more than a little ahead of the Lundqvist-fueled .926 in New York.

Now, you can argue the Bruins switched from one elite goaltender to another in that time, but if you think Julien's systems and the team's talent level (Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, etc.) didn't contribute to their success in that regard I can't imagine what games you've been watching. Of course, the team's save percentages have slipped in the last two years (.927 last season, just a league-average .922 this time around), but look at the decline in quality on the blue line. Dennis Seidenberg led the Bruins' defense in TOI per game at 5-on-5 last season, and only because he's been so awful this year have we seen Zdeno Chara, who's plainly missing a step and a half at his age, pushed back into the top role.

One can argue that Julien wouldn't have had as much success without getting Chara, Bergeron, and Brad Marchand to work with for the bulk of his time in Boston, but you can say that about any elite coach. What does Quenneville's work in Chicago look like without Toews, Kane, and Keith? Or Babcock in Detroit without Lidstrom, Datsyuk, and Zetterberg? Or Sutter in LA without Kopitar, Carter, and Doughty? You can't hold that against them. All you can do is say, “Look what they did when they had those great players,” because you're supposed to be really good when you do. There are a lot of coaches who ended up on the unemployment line because they had little to no success with high-level talent in a number of positions. (Patrick Roy should be one of them, because being this bad with Barrie, MacKinnon, and Duchene is inexcusable.)

So because it's looking more and more like Julien's getting the axe the second the regular season is over — several members of the local media are already sharpening their knives on that front — one necessarily has to wonder who Neely and Sweeney (but mostly Neely, if we're being honest) see as a reasonable replacement for a top-five-at-worst coach in this league. Whoever it ends up being will have to either pull of a miracle to wring some additional competitive hockey out of a team whose best defenseman is 62 years old, or do a lot to reframe expectations for what this club should look like going forward.

Because if the Bruins' braintrust thinks a coaching change gets them back to the playoffs with this rotten roster, the perceived lack of identity, character, leadership, or whatever else you want to call it are the least of their problems.

The three things these teams that are failing or have already done so have in common are pretty clear: Not-good-enough rosters, bad management, and a fatal dose of delusion.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.

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