When a team is under-performing so badly that the organization fires the coach mid-season, we expect that team to get a bit of a spark. In the case of the AHL coach taking over, I tend to assume that the players familiar with that coach will see an extra jump in their step, and maybe even get a few more opportunities under the new regime. I’m going to look at a couple relatively recent examples of this scenario to see how real the effect is.
Two recent examples of this are Boston in 2017 and Chicago in 2018. Yes, St. Louis famously won the cup last year after firing their coach mid-season, but Craig Berube was not an AHL coach for the team beforehand. Another example that comes to mind is Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh who took over and won two championships, but when he took over the Penguins bench he was in just his first season as AHL boss for Wilkes-Barre. Since he had not developed an AHL relationship with the players he was taking over, I did not use this example for this work.
Let’s start with the Bruins. When Boston made the switch to Bruce Cassidy in February 2017, they were ranked 18th in points, 18th in goals for, and 15th in goals against in the NHL. For the rest of the season (30-odd games) they were 10th in points, 4th in goals for, and 2nd in goals against. Essentially, they started scoring like crazy and saving everything.
Diving into the pre- and post- coaching change scoring numbers, we can gain a few more details:
Marchand, Pastrnak, and Bergeron all saw point boosts under Cassidy. Only Pastrnak had played for the coach before (the season prior). In fact, most of the players on the team that had not been coached by Cassidy before saw the same boost (Krejci, Backes, Chara, Nash, Moore, McQuiad).
Of the many players that had played for Cassidy more recently, the results were actually concerning. Czarnik, Blidh, Morrow, Heinen, Grzelcyk, O’Gara didn’t play the remainder of the campaign. The only beneficiaries that Cassidy coached in the minors were Acciari and Kuraly – bottom-six players that the new coach had relied on in Providence.
My takeaway here – Boston knew they were underperforming, and the spark of a new coach got most people performing as expected, regardless of whether they knew Cassidy already or not. In fact, Cassidy used his insight on personnel to tinker with the bottom-six, which benefited some of his familiars, but hurt others. So be aware of expected roles when a new coach appears.
Next, let’s look at the Blackhawks. When Jeremy Colliton took over in Chicago in November 2018 (just 15 games into the campaign), they were 19th in points, 13th in goals for, and 30th in goals against. For the remainder of the season, they performed 20th in points, 9th in goals for, and 30th in goals against. So they scored a little bit more than before, but overall stayed relatively stagnant relative to the league. Let’s take a look at the players involved:
*If you’re wondering why the roster doesn’t look quite complete, I have not included players that were acquired partway through the season
In this case, there was slightly more obvious influence of the AHL coach by trying out players he knew in Sikura and Nilsson (the latter did not stick for long, but Sikura got into 33 games). The bottom-six was once again tailored based on his knowledge of the players involved, but once again this was a double-edged sword. Kampf and Hayden got into lots of games but Johnson, Fortin, and Martinsen were inconsistent in the lineup despite being useful AHL assets for Colliton.
As noted in the Boston example above, some the (few) players who saw boosts from the coaching change (Toews and Saad) were not ones that Colliton had experience with prior.
One possible breakthrough in this case study is Erik Gustafsson. Colliton got 17 points in 25 games out of him the year before in the AHL, but he had not yet seen serious offensive success in the NHL. Perhaps it was stepping into a nice PP1 spot, or maybe it was some legitimately insightful usage by the coach who had seen the production before, but under the new coaching Gustafsson turned into a top fantasy own for the remained of the season.
My takeaway here – again, the coach familiar with some playesr used this knowledge to tailor the bottom-six to his liking. The team didn’t change drastically as a result of the change, but a couple top players started performing as they were originally expected to, and there was one breakout campaign from a player the coach had success with in the minors.
Obviously, this all leads back to the Maple Leafs. I can’t predict the future, but let’s look at the lineup and identify the players familiar with new boss Sheldon Keefe:
What can we predict based on the takeaways from previous cases?
- The new coach is probably going to tinker with the bottom-six based on his knowledge of the players, which is good news for some and bad news for others. If you own any of Petan, Engvall, Timashov, Shore, Gauthier, or Spezza, or Moore, pay extra close attention in the coming week or two because it may be a sign of the remainder of the season.
- Do not assume that the players who Keefe has coached before will be the targeted beneficiaries of more production due to the change. I am not all of a sudden putting money on Kapanen, Hyman, Dermott, etc. to see massive increases just because they know the coach.
- On a similar note – don’t assume that players who don’t already know Keefe wont see a spark. Matthews and Tavares are just as likely to see a production increase as former Marlies. In fact, top players appear more likely to get woken up and stop under-performing (more applicable to Tavares than Matthews)
- If there is a case similar to Gustafsson in Chicago, where the new coach can utilize a player who performed well in the AHL to see a jump in the NHL, my money is on Andreas Johnsson. He’s already in the top-six, and was the playoff MVP when Keefe won the AHL playoffs. He seems like a good gamble as someone who could be coached into a more agreeable position.
Will the Leafs’ coaching change provide an offensive and defensive spark like in Boston? Or will it amount to very little like in Chicago? Only time will tell, but hopefully we can count on these few lessons from previous instances of AHL coaches taking over mid-season.