I wasn’t able to get to it on the weekend, but I’d like to expand on a few tweets I made after the Leafs hired Peter Horachek as an assistant coach. I really like the hire. Horachek was a coach who got certain results in Florida (huh? you might ask) that I don’t think a lot of coaches would.
I don’t know too much about Horachek’s system, or what have you. I could really care less about what a coach does with certain players. One of my biggest gripes with Carlyle is that he won’t let Jake Gardiner be Jake Gardiner or Nazem Kadri be Nazem Kadri. He’s intent on making every line but his first line play like his Samuel Pahlsson line from the Stanley Cup year. Good coaches adapt to the roster they have and can succeed a number of different ways, rather than take a game plan and tailor the roster to the game plan, they start with the players and build around that.
But you don’t need to overcoach (I selected the above image because the funniest scene in Space Jam is where Bill Murray shows up with some grand play design to help the Toon Squad win, but his plan essentially comes down to ‘get Michael Jordan the ball’. Jordan reminds Murray that the team is on defence, so Jordan’s alternate plan is essentially ‘get me the ball’). Coaching can be important. Coaches dictate matchups and the odd set play, but ultimately I think a lot of coaches would improve overnight if they removed themselves from the game and let the players be themselves. Give the Chicago Blackhawks Carlyle and they’d still win close to 50 games—give the Leafs Joel Quenneville and the Leafs would still win closer to 40.
That said, I think Toronto would be a playoff team with Horachek, simply because he did things that helped Florida drive the play forward this past year. In the shortened 2013 season and the first few games of 2013-14, the Panthers lingered below 50% Corsi Close. Under Horachek, the Panthers shot up within a month and closed the year in plus territory.
I’m curious as to what the reaction will be in the comments. It’s a bit of a simplistic look at hockey, yes, but what prevented the Panthers from being a good team that won a lot of games this season was that their goaltending was a complete mess and their powerplay was terrible. They’re like the anti-Toronto in that respect. The powerplay, though, can be out of the hands of the coaches if you have a bunch of top six gunslingers like the Leafs.
The Panthers had a 5.4% shooting percentage on the powerplay with Horachek behind the bench. I find it tough to believe that this was his doing. In all likelihood, there was luck involved. Give him the Leafs powerplay shooting percentage of 13.4% and you have 32 extra goals. That’s already close to 12 points in the standings. Give him the Leafs’ save percentage of .914 and you have close to 30 fewer goals against. That’s (again) somewhere between 10 and 12 points. Keep in mind that that’s just over the final 65 games of the season Horachek was coaching.
Obviously not everything is going to go perfect for one coach in any given year and it’s difficult to be sure that a coach who has a good possession team with one roster is going to be great when they carry it over to the next, but you look at that in context with this and you begin to figure that you just want anybody at this point who has shown to help a team move the puck in the right direction.
So yes, that’s the expansion of the original thought. Maybe I shouldn’t be hasty enough to call the Leafs a “playoff team” under Horachek. Certainly, there would be a big improvement vis-a-vis Carlyle (and it’s not like he took over for a slouch in Florida) that it would be noticeable in the standings, but more importantly I think it’s fantastic the Leafs are finally beginning to look outside the organization to make hires. It would be easy enough to promote Steve Spott to head coach once they’ve finally had enough of Randy, which is what makes it sort of frustrating. I’m interested to see what Horachek can do with an honest to God top tier forward on his team, however. All those years in Nashville and they had a few cups of coffee with Alexander Radulov. In Florida, the best forward might have been Sean Bergenheim.