Coaching Swaps in the NHL: Is Goaltending to Blame?

The Minnesota Wild fired Bruce Boudreau on February, one of 8 head coaching changes in the NHL this season. (Source: Norm Hall/NHLI @ Getty Images)

Author: Trevor Hintz (Weinberg ’23)

Up until the recent suspension of play in the 2019-20 NHL season, there have been a whopping eight coaching changes in not even a full 82 game season. At one point this regular season, the Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils, San Jose Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Vegas Golden Knights all decided a change was necessary within their organizations. With so many changes in one season, I began to wonder if there were any links between the performance of these teams and if any of them saw significant improvement from changing the personnel behind the bench.

To test my theory, I gathered data on the teams before and after their coaching change, as well as the difference in standings placement for each team from the coaching change to the season stoppage. While looking into these teams, an interesting stat I noticed with nearly all of the teams who made a coaching change (except for the Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars) had average or worse goaltending throughout this season.

Team League Average Calgary Flames Dallas Stars Minnesota Wild Nashville Predators New Jersey Devils San Jose Sharks Toronto Maple Leafs Vegas Golden Knights
Goalie Save % 0.905 0.906 0.921 0.900 0.898 0.901 0.895 0.899 0.901

That said, these are the two teams who made coaching changes this season for non-hockey related reasons, which aligns with their goaltending numbers. The remaining teams felt a change needed to be made based on performance. Thus, would it be fair to say that poor goaltending was a contributing factor to the firing of the other six coaches? That more blame should have been put on the goaltending than the coach before giving the coach the ax? To put it simply, no. 

Taking a closer look at the performances and statistics behind each team before and after changing coaches gave much more insight into the firings for each team. For instance, when taking a look at the standings during the time of the firing of each coach to where each team is currently, it’s easy to see improvement. With an average change of 2.875 in the conference standings, there is at least some merit to the positive effects of these coaching changes. From this data what is most impressive is the massive strides made by the Minnesota Wild, who have climbed four spots in the standings in under a month since changing head coaches, as can be seen in the chart below.

Team Calgary Flames Dallas Stars Minnesota Wild Nashville Predators New Jersey Devils San Jose Sharks Toronto Maple Leafs Vegas Golden Knights Average
Conference Standing Before 11 6 11 11 15 12 10 9 10.625
Conference Standing After 6 3 7 9 14 13 6 4 7.75
Difference +5 +3 +4 +2 +1 -1 +4 +5 +2.875

 While the position of a team in the standings is a good indicator of the performance of an organization, it is also based on the performance of the other teams around them. Another way of looking at this inquiry is through the isolated change in the performance of the team itself. This can be quantified through the points percentage, or P%, of a team. Points percentage is the ratio of games the team earns a point in throughout the season. Since the NHL awards a single point in the standings to the losing team in a game that goes to overtime or the shootout, the points percentage for a team is calculated by taking the sum of wins and overtime/shootout losses of a team and dividing it by the games played. A team with a higher points percentage is more effective, as even when they lose they bring a game to overtime, where they at least gain a point. When looking at this stat for the teams’ pre and post-coaching change, it becomes clear that a coaching change did provide positive results for most teams as shown by these metrics. Of the teams that made coaching changes, 7 of 8 improved their points percentage and 6 of 8 have at least a league-average points percentage after making the change, putting most of the teams in the top half of the league in terms of performance. Even the New Jersey Devils, who currently sit at 14th in the East, have shown a massive 0.102 improvement in points percentage from gaining a point in 4 out of every 10 games to 5 out of every 10 games. While this may not seem like much on face value, every single point matters in the race towards the playoffs.

Team League Average Calgary Flames Dallas Stars Minnesota Wild Nashville Predators New Jersey Devils San Jose Sharks Toronto Maple Leafs Vegas Golden Knights Average
P% Before 0.558 0.500 0.609 0.535 0.549 0.423 0.485 0.478 0.551 0.516
P% After 0.558 0.613 0.625 0.700 0.558 0.525 0.441 0.633 0.737 0.604
Difference -0.0 +0.113 +0.016 +0.165 +0.009 +0.102 -0.044 +0.157 +0.186 +0.088

After looking at the numbers behind the effectiveness of the firings, almost all of the teams came out winners. The Vegas Golden Knights have sported the greatest improvement after their surprise following of Gerard Gallant, followed by impressive numbers put up by the Minnesota Wild and Toronto Maple Leafs. As far as losers go, only the San Jose Sharks have statistically gotten worse since canning Peter DeBoer as they continue to sink further into the basement of the standings of the NHL. Overall, while some speculation based upon poor goaltending may have contributed to the firings, the new lead voices in NHL locker rooms seem to have resonated with players and led them to perform better. When I started to write this article, I was confident that goaltending was to blame for the firings of some of the coaches this year, since you can’t fire your goalies but you can fire your coach. Despite my prior beliefs, it appears that regardless of the cause of the firings, the teams almost always responded better to a new coach and improved their play. All in all, while some of the firings this season were questionable at the time, it is fair to say that most of them have paid off in on-ice improvement for their teams.



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