Looking beyond a playoff W-L record

Posted on May 12, 2011

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The Stanley Cup.

The Stanley Cup (Image via Wikipedia)

Mike Wise began his May 6 Washington Post column by referencing three legendary hockey coaches and their playoff winning percentages early in their careers, as he defended Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau following the team’s second round exit from the playoffs. Wise wrote:

“Bruce Boudreau’s below-average playoff record of 17-20 (.459) keeps being used as evidence for his firing as the Washington Capitals’ coach, which makes perfect sense when you learn Scotty Bowman started 28-30 (.483), Al Arbour began 12-15 (.444) and Glen Sather was a lousy 12-25 (.324) to begin in Edmonton.”

“Why their respective teams hung on to those bums made no sense, putting aside the combined 17 Stanley Cups they won.”

Wise goes on to say that “The Capitals’ problem is not the coach” and that “the problem is the nucleus.” “The Caps’ flameout is an indictment on the Ovechkin era, not the Boudreau era,” states Wise at the close of the column.

I honestly haven’t spoken with any Caps fans or read any articles yet that have leaned on Boudreau’s playoff winning percentage when debating whether he should stay or go—the discussion usually dives deeper into things like coaching style, power play performance and the ability to make adjustments, for example.

But Wise’s column did get me thinking: Does playoff winning percentage really tell the story of what Bowman, Arbour and Sather did early in their playoff coaching careers? (Hint: It doesn’t even come close.)

A coach that wins a first round series 4 games to 1 and then loses in the second round 4 games to 3 leaves those playoffs with a winning percentage above .500. On the other hand, a coach that takes his team a round further, or all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals and gets swept there, could exit with a record below .500 for those playoffs. In general, I’d take a deeper playoff run over a higher playoff winning percentage any season.

As Wise said, Scotty Bowman went 28-30 in the playoffs to begin his NHL career behind the bench, for a winning percentage of .483. But for the first three of those five playoff runs that got him to 28-30, Bowman took the Blues to the third round of the playoffs—which was then the Stanley Cup finals—all three times! His first three years behind the bench, three appearances in the finals.

Bowman’s Blues lost in all three of those finals and the next year the Blues exited the playoffs in the first round (Bowman was only coaching the team for the last 28 games of that season and the playoffs—see the sidenote at the bottom for more on that). At that point, four seasons in, Bowman was 26-26 in the playoffs, with three trips to the Stanley Cup Finals. That’s a bit different than Boudreau at 17-20 after four playoffs, having exited twice in the first round and twice in the second. But it also doesn’t mean Boudreau won’t go on to win a bunch of Stanley Cups too.

With Al Arbour, Wise says he started off 12-15. I’m actually not sure where he got those numbers—I can’t find any point where his playoff record stood at 12-15. But if you look at his first four trips to the playoffs, Arbour went 20-21.

But the more critical information is that in those first four playoff appearances that got him to 20-21, Arbour took a team to the second round (which was the conference finals at that time) once and then to the third round (then the conference finals in the expanded playoff format) three times.

Like with the Bowman example, Arbour’s initial playoff record of 20-21 is a bit different than the 17-20 record of Boudreau when you look beyond those numbers; winning percentage in the playoffs doesn’t tell how deep the teams went.

Wise says Glen Sather was “a lousy 12-25 (.324)” but I’m not sure where he got those numbers from either. Even when I include Sather’s numbers via HockeyReference.com from when Edmonton was playing in the WHA, I can’t figure out when his record was 12-25 in the playoffs.

But let’s just look at Sather’s first four playoffs coaching in the NHL, since Boudreau now has four of those under his belt. Sather went 18-15 with Edmonton in those first four NHL playoffs. He lost in the first round, lost in the second round and lost in the first round in the first three of those four—that’s exactly what Boudreau did with the Caps during his first three playoffs.

And then during their fourth NHL playoffs behind the bench, both Sather and Boudreau saw their teams get swept.

The difference: Boudreau’s Caps lost four straight in the second round to Tampa Bay, who are no doubt a very good hockey team this season that new GM Steve Yzerman put together after the franchise failed to make the playoffs for three straight seasons. Sather’s Oilers fell in their sweep two rounds later than Boudreau’s Caps, to the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup Finals, as the Islander dynasty won its 4th consecutive championship. Again, winning percentages don’t tell the whole story.

Something else worth mentioning, Wise says Bowman, Arbour and Sather’s “respective teams hung on to those bums” after they started their playoff careers this way. That’s actually only true with one of the three.

Bowman left St. Louis after four seasons. He won the first five of his Cups with his second team, the Montreal Canadiens. Arbour’s first playoff appearance was also with St. Louis and he later coached the Islanders where he won his Cups. Sather is the only one of these “bums” who was actually kept by, and won cups with, the first team he took to the playoffs.

Bottom line, I wouldn’t use playoff winning percentage to measure a coach’s playoff success—there’s more to the story when you look beyond those numbers. I’m more interested in things like how deep a coach can take team in the playoffs and what a coach’s squad looks like during their playoff run, even in years when they fall short of winning the Cup.

That gets me back to Boudreau. Do I think he should be fired? Maybe. But I think it should absolutely be on the table for discussion. And even if he sticks around and wins the Cup(s), I’d look back at this time and say it is right to be asking questions about whether he should be behind the bench next season.

This has nothing to do with the fact that the Caps have not yet won a Cup under him or what his winning percentage has been in the playoffs. And it has almost everything to do with the uninspiring, lacking-in-urgency way I’ve watched his teams exit the playoffs for three straight seasons.

First there was a Game 7 at home against Pittsburgh in the second round of the ’08-’09 playoffs that the Caps failed to show up for. The Caps lost 6-2 and I remember leaving Verizon Center, not so much feeling bummed that my team had lost but perplexed and wondering how you don’t get-up for a 2nd round Game 7 against a huge rival.

Caps forward Brooks Laich said afterward, “It’s very disappointing and upsetting, because the team out there tonight, that wasn’t our team. That’s not what we call ‘Caps hockey.’ It just came at a really bad time for us. I don’t know what it was. Maybe we were just afraid to take charge and get it done. Winning is a science. You have to learn how to do it.”

That same quote from Laich would have been appropriate after some games during the recent sweep of the Caps by Tampa Bay or maybe even in ’09-’10 when they faced the Montreal Canadiens. (You could actually play a fun little game by going through quotes from the last three Caps playoff exits and guessing which one it’s from—sometimes it’s hard to tell, given the consistent not-hungry-looking-enough style in which they’ve been eliminated).

In ’09-’10, the Caps were up 3 games to 1 on the Canadiens. Montreal was the 8th seed while Washington was the 1st seed, though seedings often don’t mean much to me once the NHL playoffs start.

I thought Montreal could make for a tough first round series given the way they’d played the Caps during the ’09-’10 regular season, but I expected the Caps to win. And I certainly felt they should take the series once they were up 3-1. But they blew three straight chances to close out Montreal, two of them at home.

The title of column by ESPN’s Scott Burnside on that blown 3-1 series lead read, “This wasn’t a loss; this was a collapse”. Burnside wrote, “Call it heart or soul or character or whatever you want, but the Capitals don’t seem to have it. And until they find it, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be more of these shocking conclusions in the nation’s capital.”

This same “don’t seem to have it” type text from Burnside could have been used this year as the Caps were swept in the second round by the Lightning. I didn’t expect an easy series against Tampa Bay or to necessarily even win the series—they are a good hockey team and only finished four points behind the Caps in the regular season. But to be swept? There’s no way a team as talented as the Caps should have lost four straight to the Lightning.

Mike Wise was right to place blame on “the nucleus” of the Caps team—Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green—for the team’s playoff failures.

But that does not mean the coach should be free of blame. It doesn’t have to be one or the other; both the players (the core ones and beyond) and the coaches can be at fault when things aren’t going well. And when the players repeatedly aren’t performing the way they should, there are multiple options: Finding a new coach or trading away key players are two of those the Caps organization has not yet tried in the Boudreau era.

As J.P. on Japers’ Rink put it: “Bruce Boudreau could be the most brilliant hockey general to stand behind an NHL bench since Scotty Bowman, but if his charges are unable to process and execute his orders, the results won’t reflect that acumen. But there’s no way of knowing if that’s the case without seeing how these players – most of whom have only played for Boudreau at the NHL level, at least since there were expectations heaped upon the team – respond to another voice…”

If I were the one making the decision on whether to keep Boudreau, I might be willing to give him one more season. And I wouldn’t need him to win the Cup next year in order for him to keep his job. But I would need to see a playoff team consistently showing they had grown and to not find the Caps doing post game interviews after their next exit from the playoffs that are hard to distinguish from the ones of the past three seasons.

There’s also a part of me that thinks weak exits in three straight years is enough and that doesn’t want to take the chance we’ll be sitting in this same place next year, with another Boudreau-coached team that was unable to get motivated enough to put in a postseason effort they can at least be proud of.

The Capitals organization undoubtedly has some interesting risks to weigh.

Sidenote: If you want to read something nuts, check out this Sports Illustrated vault article from 1972 and an era when Bowman and Arbour had both been with the St. Louis Blues. The Blues owner makes it worth the read alone. And there’s a great story about Arbour and an incident in Philadelphia that fired up the Blues. It’s old time hockey.

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