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Noel, Maurice and why system coaching matters when it comes to possession

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It is often wondered which teams use analytics in the front office. It may matter more if coaches understand and apply certain systems that emphasize having the puck.

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Claude Noel went on TSN Analytics and talked about how the Jets started using analytics following the lockout. This flies in the face of how Kevin Cheveldayoff regards analytics when it comes to decision making, but I think that coaches using analytics the right way is more of a benefit for on ice results than a front office using them to help make decisions because systems can hid flaws whereas acquiring possession driving players means nothing if the coach has bad tactics.

Noel mentioned that the coaches were given a printout of the Jets opponents last seven games to help them with match-ups and player usage. This may have helped the coaching staff with match-up decisions and the like, but the actual application of analytics should not be to help decide match-ups and deployment of players. Instead, the practical application for a coaching staff lies in system play, zonal deployment and player evaluation, but it is unlikely that those printouts gave them information that they did not know from their advanced scouting reports. This was extra information given to the coaching staff that they could elect to use or completely ignore.

When talking about analytics and why they matter in hockey, an understanding of analytics is needed. Analytics is "information resulting from the systemic analysis of data or statistics." Knowing that, how can a team be better when the coaching staff using analytics, but the front office struggles with using the numbers in a meaningful way? Hockey is all about scoring goals and one of the ways to best encourage more goals from a team is to use tactics that help drive possession. Instead of worrying about what players are on a team, systems play can cover a myriad of issues, which can help a coach preserve their job until their general manager acquires more players that help the team by doing the little things.

Prior to the start of the season, Paul Maurice mentioned that the Jets would try to not dump the puck into the zone. What he did not mention, but what is evident watching the Jets, is they try to also not dump the puck out of the zone. The decision to emphasize a system that focuses more on attributes that lead to more possession than dumping the puck in and out of the zone is a key difference from Noel. This difference may have carried the Jets through a tough stretch of injuries on defence, a stretch that was aided by moving Dustin Byfuglien to defence. The team relied on aggressive offensive zone pinching and strong zone exits. True to his word from the beginning of the season, Maurice has the Jets playing a system that emphasizes carrying the puck. It emphasizes creativity to a certain degree. It makes the Jets more dangerous by having them play a game that is dangerous. It is a risky game, but the rewards are so great, the risk is worth it.

When looking through previous season stats, the Jets have hovered around 50% possession since they moved to Winnipeg. Under Maurice for a full season and that number is over 52%. Adding Mathieu Perreault helps, but one player does not account for the jump that the Jets have achieved. The biggest change between Noel and Maurice is Maurice has applied that favour controlling the puck. It is noticeable when the Jets start to go into a defensive shell and change to dumping the puck out of the zone. It comes back into the zone faster it seems. They Jets start running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Getting the puck out of the zone with control allows the Jets to be better defensively it seems.

This is where Dallas Eakins had it right with Tyler Dellow. Eakins realized that his team was struggling to generate shots and he needed help to get figure out what he could change systemically to correct this issue. By hiring Dellow, who started marrying video work to his analysis last year, Eakins was able to begin to correct the issue until he was fired for a lack of results that could be traced back to major goaltending issues that the team is still suffering from. Eakins had it right though. You have the roster you have. Sometimes that roster cannot be improved and as unfair as it is, it is up to the coach to make a random collection of players be more than they are in those instances. Eakins was able to do this by hiring someone who understood the tactical aspects of the game and what a team can do systemically to start to move the odds into their favour. Firing Eakins while the general manager failed to get goaltending or a NHL centre to help the team was a shortsighted move as the Oilers lost a coach who was willing to admit he could not fix a team alone and brought in an outside brain to help him.

Quantifying systems play is hard. There are so many variables that can affects a players numbers (quality of teammates, zone starts etc) that it can be hard to figure out what is noise and what is of actual value. While it has long been said that smart teams pick up underrated possession drivers for cheap, smart teams probably also employ tactics that assist them in possession. General managers should be comfortable with analytics. They should be checking a players stats and WOWYs on Puckalytics, Behind the Net, or War-on-Ice before signing guys. The real impact of analytics and what is known about tactics comes from coaches. It comes from coaches who are willing to learn about what they can do to help a team improve possession wise. The things they can do are small things: limiting dump-outs and dump-ins, having a defensive system that lets them get the puck into the right hands as quickly as possible.

Claude Noel did some good things as coach of the Jets, but his insistence for them to play a less skilled, more North-South game may have cost him his job. Paul Maurice changing the system to a more skilled/East-West system has aided the Jets in their quest for their first trip to the post season since the 2006-2007 season. The system has survived a devastating list of injuries and a roster that features too many bad grinders. Kevin Cheveldayoff may not be the savviest general manager when it comes to numbers. His coach may not understand them either, but the important part is Maurice has a system that plays into some of the key hypothesis of data collectors nowadays: zone entries and exits matter a lot. Systems matter a lot. Analytics in the hands of a general manager means there may be a nice collection of players for a coach to work with; analytics in the hands of a coach means the team may start doing things that lead to a 60% shot attempt rating.