There are battle lines drawn firmly in the ongoing war between The Analytics Community and The Hockey Guys, and neither side ever wants to lose a skirmish.
The mainstream acceptance of analytics is still in its infancy, so every season we’re presented with several different canaries in several different coal mines so both sides can test their validity. Hence the scrutiny of John Chayka as Arizona’s kid genius general manager. Hence the overreactions to puck possession anomalies in the 2017 postseason, where great Corsi teams usually win but where four games of unbeatable goaltending can buck any trend.
Hence the grave dancing on Randy Carlyle, a.k.a. a fancy stats denier a.k.a. the old fuddy duddy who can’t work a toaster, when he was hired by the Anaheim Ducks to replace Bruce Boudreau last year. Absolutely nothing brings out the pom-poms for The Computer Boys and Girls faster than seeing an old-school coach with seemingly no regard for puck possession flop hard. (See Tortorella, John.)
Doom was predicted.
“Once upon a time, Carlyle may have been capable of leading a team to the Cup — but that clearly isn’t the case today,” said Neil Greenberg, advanced stats guy and Washington Post columnist. “In fact, the reason for Carlyle’s inability to coach in the modern NHL is simple: he doesn’t believe in what works.”
“Carlyle isn’t a good replacement, if we’re weighing the odds of success,” wrote James Mirtle, then with the Globe & Mail. “Carlyle’s issues in Toronto were tactical, not personal. The crash-and-bang style the Ducks won with nine years ago wasn’t high on x’s and o’s, and with a weaker roster in Toronto, Carlyle was exposed as a poor systems coach. Increasingly, those types are being culled from the game. As evidenced by the Pittsburgh Penguins winning the Stanley Cup with speed, finesse and an emphasis on puck possession, the NHL has changed dramatically in the nine years since the Ducks last won it all.”
“Maybe this will finally be the stint that puts the nail in the coffin of Randy Carlyle’s career coaching in the NHL. Either way, I don’t see any situation where the Ducks improve on their season next year with Carlyle at the helm instead of Boudreau,” wrote Ryan Hobart of The Leafs Nation.
I picked the Ducks fifth in the Pacific and the Kings first, which in hindsight was obviously some sort of graphic design error and not actually what I … no, actually I was right there with the rest of the fancy stats true believers. Going from Bruce Boudreau, who got it, to Randy Carlyle, who didn’t get it with the Toronto Maple Leafs, was going to be a leap backward.
Except it wasn’t. The Ducks finished with 105 points, first in the Pacific. They sit six wins away from their second Stanley Cup, the first one coming in 2007 with Carlyle behind the bench. We were right: The Ducks went from fifth in the regular season in 5-on-5 puck possession with a 52.5 percent Corsi under Boudreau to 19th with a 49.7 percent Corsi under Carlyle. And it didn’t matter.
Seeing Randy Carlyle succeed with the Ducks is like seeing a couple that broke up rekindle what they had. And you’re all like, “No, this is wrong, this didn’t work out and now they’re different people,” and your buddy’s like, “I don’t know, they look pretty happy,” and you’re like, “no, this is a mistake and it makes no sense,” and your buddy’s like, “[Expletive] man, it’s love.”
Your 2016-17 Anaheim Ducks, folks.
So why has it worked?
Let’s start with the obvious, which is that Anaheim is not Toronto.
Carlyle can make a move and not have every media outlet in the entire province scrutinize it. This was before the teardown and rebuild, before Auston Matthews. This is what Carlyle called the most high-pressure job he’s ever held, and that’s not an easy environment to coach in. “The intensity level was, at times, could be overbearing, just from a standpoint of everything you did was news,” Carlyle said last year.
So he left that pressure cooker and returned to Anaheim, where the pace is different and the vibe is different. To the delight of the players, the voice was different too. “We had a lot of guys who were here for a long time listening to the same message over and over again. At that time it was the right decision for us to make a change,” said Ryan Getzlaf.
To go back to the “rekindling couple” analogy, the Ducks and their new old coach had to grow a little bit for this to work. There was an influx of new talent. Getzlaf had matured into one of the best captains in the League. Carlyle had softened his act, to the point where former assistant coach Dave Farrish said he was even getting along with players one-third his age.
“I noticed a change in him when he went to Toronto as far as millennial players coming along. He’s much more receptive to a lot of these players,” he said.
When your roster has around 14 players born in the 1990s, that basically has to happen.
The fact is that Carlyle has found the right demeanor, temperament and approach for this team to thrive.
“He’s a combination of keeping it light, joking around and emphasizing we should be having fun – and also being super competitive and intense,” Ducks defenceman Kevin Bieksa told Eric Duhatschek recently. “It’s the way a lot of us approach the game. There’s a time and place to have fun. In the dressing room, before a practice, you want it to be a comfortable environment and jovial. And then, when it’s time to work, it’s time to work.”
Would the old Randy Carlyle have given the Ducks a chance to knock off of work after that Game 3 loss? Because the off-day he gave them heading into Game 4 was credited with helping to create the start that spotted them the lead, and had the Nashville Predators chasing it for the rest of regulation.
“Yeah, I think yesterday was perfect what we did. I think get away from the rink, don’t even come, get away, play some pool, play some darts and just relax. It was a great afternoon for everybody. I think that’s exactly what we needed,” said Corey Perry, who won a Cup with Carlyle in 2007, after scoring the game-winner in Game 4. “We wanted to put the Game 3 behind us. We know we didn’t play very well. But I thought tonight we came out, had some energy, and we responded well.”
Carlyle’s temperament extends to his work behind the bench. It’s been well-documented that his detailed and myopic approach to roles on the ice – line matching, shadowing, set plays off faceoffs – is decidedly old school, but it’s provided the kind of Hockey 101 mindset that’s given the players focus. Getzlaf, for one, was vocal after Carlyle was hired that “in-game adjustments” were a shortcoming for Boudreau but “what we were looking for” in his replacement.
But there’s a reason the Ducks have been as resilient under him as they were easily rattled under Boudreau in the postseason: His even-keeled approach.
The theory behind the Ducks going 0-for-4 in Game 7s under Boudreau was that they fed off his stress, consumed it and processed it as their own. Winning a Game 7 under Carlyle against the Edmonton Oilers was proof of concept that something had changed. Watching them win Game 4 on the road furthered it. Carlyle has given them a roadmap to endure through the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ frantic unpredictability, and they believe it’ll get them to their destination.
“There are things that we can control,” said Carlyle. “What we tried to do after the third period is reset our group and say, hey, we’re going to go back out, check off the list of things that we said that’s going to take place — the adversity, the emotions, the refereeing. All of those things were on our list that we have to deal with.”
Or as Perry said, “We have a checklist that we go through every single day, and it doesn’t matter when it is in the game, you gotta go back. You’ve got to think on what’s on that list. And adversity is one of them, ebbs and flows of the game. And we knew coming into overtime you put that period behind you.”
And they did.
Look, all of this would have been easier for a lot of us if Carlyle had flopped. It would have been a ‘told you so’ for analytics acolytes and for Bruce Boudreau marks like yours truly, as well as another red ‘X’ on the general manager’s exam Bob Murray he has been barely passing these last few years. (Although we’re now just a few games away from a potential mandate on the Bobby Ryan trade, huh?)
But hiring Randy Carlyle worked, and continues to work, even if it logically shouldn’t have.
The right old team for the right old coach at the right time for both of them.
[Expletive] it man, it’s love.
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