What We Learned: Why Bruce Boudreau might be the best coach alive

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

It is generally accepted that Mike Babcock, or maybe Joel Quenneville, is the best coach in the NHL.

You see all the success they’ve had for years and years, getting winning hockey out of good or even great teams despite immense pressure. They have the Cups. They’ve proven plenty.

But here’s a question that’s been nagging for at least a few weeks now: What if Bruce Boudreau is better?

The idea there, obviously, is that Boudreau does more with less. Yeah, those Washington Capitals teams had Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin and Mike Green in their primes (and if they’d also had Holtby in his prime, well…) and those Anaheim Ducks teams had Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in their primes. It’s not like he hasn’t been blessed with talent throughout his career.

No coach wins without talent. Look what Babcock had in Detroit. Look what he has now that there’s actually winning hockey in Toronto. Same with Quenneville: He got very good results with very good Blues teams, but when he got a ton of elite talent in Chicago, he took that to the next level.

You can even throw Claude Julien in this mix if you want. Once he got Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron and Tim Thomas and Milan Lucic and all those other excellent young-ish players together in Boston, his success went from middling to phenomenal.

But what Boudreau is doing this year, with this Minnesota Wild team, is nothing short of jaw-dropping. I think most people figured they’d be a decent club. Boudreau’s universally acknowledged a good coach, there’s a decent amount of talent there, and so on. But the division was going to be nails tough: Chicago, Dallas, St. Louis, Nashville. Hell, even Winnipeg has talented players that can hurt you on any given night. The thinking was that Minnesota was going to be a competitive team. Almost certainly a team that made the playoffs, unless something went wrong, but probably also a team that would see Boudreau’s record of winning his division in full seasons come to an end after nine(!) years.

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And yet here we are, just about three-quarters of the way through the season, and not only do the Wild lead the Central Division — albeit through a combination of their being very good and other teams being surprisingly mediocre or worse, like Nashville and Dallas — but they finished Saturday night’s convincing 5-2 win over the Predators leading by the largest margin of any division. The Caps finished the night up five on the Penguins. The Habs’ breathing room over Ottawa was just two points despite three games in hand. San Jose was up four on Edmonton.

And there were the Wild, with a nine-point gap separating them from Chicago, and a whopping 17 above third-place St. Louis. Oh, and they were a point back of the Capitals for the Presidents’ Trophy, with only one extra game played.

You can say what you want about the talent other elite coaches in the NHL have enjoyed, but that doesn’t really describe Boudreau’s situation in the Twin Cities. Mikael Granlund and Eric Staal lead the team in points. Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon are pretty good defensemen but they’re not world-beating. Obviously Devan Dubnyk’s Vezina-worthy season is a big reason for the success this team has, but it’s not even close to the only thing going for them.

You just don’t look at this roster and say to yourself, “Ah yes, there’s a team capable of winning one of the deepest divisions in the league and maybe knocking down a Presidents’ Trophy.”

What’s interesting about this Wild team, though, is that they scan as just-okay in some ways. A little below water in score-adjusted shot attempts at 5-on-5, a little above it in shots on goal. They have an extremely high PDO because they have the second-highest shooting percentage and third-highest save percentage in the last two years. Only this year’s Caps are ahead of them in both categories.

But what that sky-high PDO is allowing them to do at this point — 58 games into the season — is outperform one of the highest 5-on-5 expected-goal differentials in the past two years as well. At 54.2 percent, only this year’s Bruins, and last year’s Penguins (Cup winners), Sharks (Cup runners-up) and Kings are ahead of them.

Weird, right? “Meh” process, huge expected-goals edge. Doesn’t really follow. Then you look at where the Wild both shoot and allow shots from, and it starts to make a lot of sense: They take 8.3 shots from good scoring areas per 60 minutes, which is a pretty good but not great number. They allow fewer than 6. In the entire history of the Behind the Net era, no team has ever allowed so few scoring chances per 60 minutes.

Boudreau didn’t inherit a sleeping giant of any sort when he took this job. The Wild were decent. He turned them into a team that’s not quite among the elites of the league, but is certainly a very good team that could do some damage in the playoffs.

Look what he’s done to improve last year’s Wild team, which added minimally in the summer, to what he’s getting this year.

Don’t get me wrong, just like a dozen other coaches have appeared to “figure out shot quality” when they in fact have not, it’s hard for anyone to say, “Well, Boudreau is the reason their shooting percentage jumped from 7.7 to 9.8.” He almost certainly is not. But there’s been only the slightest of upticks in what Devan Dubnyk and the backups are doing at 5-on-5 (team save percentage is only up from .931 to .936, and one extra save per 200 shots faced isn’t what’s making the difference), so to say the huge PDO is in some way driven by goaltending isn’t really accurate.

We can reasonably expect the team’s shooting percentage to drop over the final quarter of the season. They don’t have this much offensive talent. But again, if Boudreau can get them into scoring areas above the league average, they probably keep scoring a decent amount of goals. And the quality of goaltending they’ve gotten and will likely continue to get will keep their margins strong. Because again, you have to look at expected goals. They’re getting very lucky in attack but the improvement in expected-goals tells you plenty about what Boudreau has done to turn this roster around.

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But remember, this is all at 5-on-5. The Wild also have the sixth-ranked power play in the League and the 10th-best PK. So things are going well

Boudreau’s teams always always always have high shooting percentages. We might have once thought this was a function of Ovechkin/Backstrom/Semin/Getzlaf/Perry talent. And to some extent it obviously was. But if he can get that kind of shooting performance out of, say, Erik Haula or Charlie Coyle, well heck maybe we’re learning something else here. And at the same time, goaltending talent is always going to take you far defensively.

It’s tough to say that this is one of the best teams in the league. You have to use your brain and look beyond wins and losses. But when you do, you see that Boudreau improved a humdrum team, almost across the board, to the point that they’re in the conversation to have one of the best records in the league.

They’re probably not this good, but you can’t say they haven’t improved immensely. And because of that roster quality, this is arguably one of the most impressive coaching jobs in the NHL over the past several years. And you can put it on the pile with several of the other seasons Boudreau’s teams have turned in.

Obviously the knock on Boudreau will be his postseason success, or lack thereof. This comes despite the widespread acknowledgement that it’s really damn hard to reliably win in the playoffs and that you need plenty of elite talent at every position. Has Boudreau ever had that? No. Does he have it now? Also no. Is he therefore unlikely to change any skeptics’ minds about how great he is, even despite this incredible performance? We all know the answer.

But the guy is on pace to win his division for the ninth time. No other modern coach in the league can make that boast. No one else can even come close. Bruce Boudreau is amazing.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks have been awful since the All-Star break. Hmm, I wonder why.

Arizona Coyotes: The Coyotes celebrated 20 years in Arizona with an appropriate event: Getting crushed at home by a much better team.

Boston Bruins: The fact that we’re still talking about a Bruins playoff appearance, I dunno. What’s even the point?

Buffalo Sabres: Evander Kane may be a bad person, but he also has 20 goals in his last 35 games. Tim Murray won’t trade him now.

Calgary Flames: This team is really bad, folks. It’s a coaching thing. They could have had Boudreau.

Carolina Hurricanes: Victor Rask is pointless in his last 12 games. That’s a problem, and highlights the team’s ongoing offense problem pretty convincingly: They’re fifth from the bottom of the league in goals for a reason.

Chicago: Yeah sometimes Connor McDavid is gonna do this to you.

Colorado Avalanche: This really doesn’t look like a team that plans to keep its sellable players through the offseason.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Well, they won again. That gave ’em three in the last four. But giving away points has kind of been their modus operandi since the winning streak ended and continuing it against the Penguins, while understandable, still isn’t advisable.

Dallas Stars: Wow, an Antoine Roussel hat trick. Wonders never cease in this league.

Detroit Red Wings: Yeah, that’s it.

Edmonton Oilers: Devan Dubnyk has to be hearing the footsteps at this point.

Florida Panthers: This is what’s gonna make things really interesting for the Bruins. The Panthers keep winning, which they probably should have been doing all along, so the Atlantic is tightening up in a hurry.

Los Angeles Kings: Yeah, that’ll happen when Peter Budaj is your goalie.

Minnesota Wild: The Wild already have as many wins in 58 games as they did in 82 last season. But Boudreau is still The BBQ Sauce Dummy, right?

Montreal Canadiens: I don’t think this is entirely fair to anyone involved. Habs have a good roster and now an elite coach. It’s one loss to the Jets. Take it easy.

Nashville Predators: This is the good stuff.

New Jersey Devils: Wow, Viktor Loov!

New York Islanders: Can we not just call it here? C’mon.

New York Rangers: “Unstoppable.” Know what else was “unstoppable?” The train in the movie Unstoppable. It stopped.

Ottawa Senators: This team keeps right on winning. Erik Karlsson only has 49 points. He must be focusing a lot more on defense this year.

Philadelphia Flyers: Shout out to the Sixers, whose “Trust the Process” philosophy is making tanking more palatable around sports as a whole. It’s a good philosophy.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Pens want to add some defensemen before March 1. Line forms to your left, Jimbo.

San Jose Sharks: “Burns leads Sharks over (insert team here),” is the defining headline of the season. He’s leading them over everybody.

St. Louis Blues: They finally lost. Maybe now everyone’s expectations for Mike Yeo will return to normal.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Haha, sick.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Oh for crying out loud.

Vancouver Canucks: Hell yeah.

Vegas Golden Knights: Tickets for Golden Knights games next year start at $25 bucks. Not bad.

Washington Capitals: This was a very fun game. Probably not for the Caps, who lost to an awful team in a shootout. But you see my point.

Winnipeg Jets: Yo, c’mon Buff.

Play of the Weekend

Me? Oh, I only casually floated a 40-foot backhand pass a good 18 inches off the ice through four guys. No big deal.

Gold Star Award

Mark Stone had five points against the Leafs on Saturday which I guess is, like, good or whatever. Hopefully he’s OK after the Trouba hit on Sunday.

Minus of the Weekend

Turns out the bye week is very bad for everyone.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “McD37” wants to break the ice.

Rick Nash (50% retained) for Panik, Forsling and pick

Signoff

Can I have the keys to the car, lover? I feel like changing wigs.

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

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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