Nine games in a row without a win and in conjunction with an earlier streak of futility in this season, the New Jersey Devils are very likely to miss the postseason. They can run the table and would require plenty of help to get in at all. Should the likely occur, the team will have gone from the Stanley Cup Final from last year to playing golf on April 29. No Devils fan can be happy about this. Given that this is a results-oriented business, more and more eyes and fingers are being pointed at head coach Peter DeBoer.
After all, this is the New Jersey Devils organization. They've fired coaches for less before. Claude Julien was dumped shortly before the 2007 playoffs and that team did very well that season. (Granted, Julien presumably was losing the room and that was bigger than the record.) Robbie Ftorek was let go and replaced by Larry Robinson only a few games before the 2000 playoffs began, also despite a great regular season record by the Devils. (I wonder if he had the same issue as Julien?) The last time the team fired a head coach, it was John MacLean, who bossed a team that went 9-22-2 and nearly ensured the Devils would be out of the postseason picture before the 2010 part of the 2010-11 season ended. I don't even need a parenthetical point for that one. So why shouldn't the same happen to Peter DeBoer?
Let's look at it from a practical perspective first. Let's say DeBoer were to be fired. Who replaces him? None of the assistants have the experience to suggest they're ready to run the whole bench. Scott Stevens just became a full time assistant this season; Matt Shaw is a power play specialist; Dave Barr just handles the penalty kill; and Chris Terreri is only the goaltending coach. The Albany team hasn't prospered under Rick Kowalsky, so I don't see a reason that he should be brought up. In terms of available coaches, who out there would be worth getting that would be an improvement over DeBoer? Unless there's some exceptional figure out there who can make magic happen, then there's no sense in getting rid of DeBoer before his contract ends. Perhaps the better way to phrase the question is, does DeBoer deserve to be fired?
Let's look at what DeBoer has done. Last season was obviously a success. They not only made the playoffs, but they advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. But let's look a little closer at the regular season. In 82 games, the Devils went 48-28-6. In terms of team stats, they were just in the top ten in terms of possession by wat of shots-through percentage (a.k.a. Fenwick-Close%) in close-score situations at 51.08%, they had a team 5-on-5 shooting percentage of 8.5%, they had a team 5-on-5 save percentage of 90.9%. In terms of shots for and shots against rates in 5-on-5 play, they had the second lowest SF/60 in the NHL at 26.2 and the second lowest SA/60 in the NHL at 26.3. They were sensational in the shootout with a 12-4 record. On the penalty kill, the Devils had an amazing success rate at 89.6% while scoring 15 shorthanded goals. The power play, well, they had a decent success rate of 17.2% but was more notorious for the 13 shorthanded goals allowed. Overall, the Devils were a good team and they had a very good run in the playoffs.
In the 41 games played of a lockout-shortened 48-game season, many of these numbers have not held. The power play success rate has decreased at 15.7% with that recent loss to Boston pushing up the shorthanded goals allowed total to the second-most in the league at five. While improved in recent weeks, the penalty kill hasn't been nearly as successful with a 81.1% rate. At least they lead the league by far in shorthanded goals with 11. Shootouts haven't been so kind to the Devils given their 2-7 record. The Devils remain a top team in SA/60 in 5-on-5 play with the league's lowest rate of 23.1. The Devils have improved in recent weeks in generating shots, but their 5-on-5 SF/60 of 26.4 is the fifth-lowest in the NHL. Their possession numbers are fantastic at 54.08%. Yet, the 5-on-5 shooting percentage is the third lowest in the league at 6.6% and their save percentage is at 90.4%. The Devils currently have a record of 15-16-10.
Now, we can see some immediate differences. The penalty kill was amazing at both ends in 2011-12; but this season, it hasn't been as successful on defense. This was a big deal a few months ago, though the damage has subsided in recent weeks. The power play has been feast or famine this season. While the Devils have an improved shot rate under Shaw, they haven't been dropping in, so the success rate has dropped off. As Mike wrote last week, the shootout has bitten back. Those negatives jump out and they've hurt the team to an extent. But it's not all doom and gloom. This year's team is now generating as many shots in 5-on-5 play as the 2011-12 team, which is pretty good since this year's team is without Zach Parise and, for a portion of it, Ilya Kovalchuk. They're allowing fewer shots than the 2011-12 team and by a very good margin.
In my opinion, the important differences are in terms of the percentages and possession rates. The Devils have actually become a better possession team under DeBoer this season, which is rather impressive when you also consider that a positive-possession player like Parise signed elsewhere last summer. Only two teams have been better in close-score situations: the West-leading Chicago Blackhawks and a strong Los Angeles squad that controlled the play all the way to the Cup in 2012. Yet, the percentages have really suffered. Goaltending from Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg has slipped a bit, but my goodness, that shooting percentage has fallen off a cliff. It's nowhere close to league average. The last time the team shot as bad as 6.6%, it was 2010-11 and we all know how that turned out. With such a low percentage, the relatively low save percentage becomes more of a detriment, and so the Devils have lost a lot of games, often with close scores.
So what does all that have to do with DeBoer? Plenty. While this shortened season is teaching me the hard lesson that possession isn't everything, it still matters quite a bit. It's not a coincidence that a majority of the good teams are good in shots-through differential. The 2010-11 Devils didn't make the playoffs regardless of the coach, but their play was remarkably better under Jacques Lemaire than John MacLean. That season showed that Lemaire was a superior coach than MacLean; the shots-through percentages provided the proof in the proverbial pudding. The underlying possession numbers were far better when Lemaire got involved. That team managed to get some luck their way in shooting and all of a sudden, they looked like a far better team than their record would indicate and won many more games than MacLean could hope to as a head coach. (Aside: And to put it under some recent perspective, under DeBoer, the 2013 team's shots-through percentage in close-score situations is currently even better than Lemaire's time running the 2010-11 team.)
Way back in 2010 when MacLean was still the boss, I had a big list of points of what a coach can and cannot control. Possession was one of them. Stats like shots-through percentage in various situations represent a measuring stick of how well a coaches strategies are working. Coaches want their team to control the puck and the play. They work on breakout strategies, defensive schemes, and specific situations to keep the puck going in the right direction. Video sessions are done to highlight what the players need to look for and what mistakes they have to avoid so they can maintain more possession. Individual instructions are given to players or particular lines with respect on how they need to approach an attacking zone or rotate should a defenseman pinch among other situations. Coaches won't tell their players to give up on plays, concede possession, and pass up shots as a general tactic. They don't lead to goals for and they do lead to goals against; which is how games are usually lost.
While improvements can be made in one or any of all these aspects of the game, I find it hard to believe the Devils are getting more shots through to the net than their opposition regularly in the most common situation in hockey over 40 games if the coaching is poor or the players aren't listening to said coach. One or two games, sure, it could happen. But not for an extended period of time such as 41 games against various opponents in various locales. I agree in general that the Devils can improve in terms of getting more shots in the slot, carrying the puck in more as opposed to dumping-and-chasing, and getting better breakout passes from the defensemen. Yet, DeBoer's schemes and strategies aren't holding the team back in this regard. Not in close score situations (tied in the third and overtime, within a goal in the first two periods) where the team's percentage is a fantastic 54.08%; not in tied score situations where the Devils are a strong 53.21% and sixth in the NHL; and not in any other situation except when they're up one goal - the Devils are merely near the league median at 46.38%. The Devils have had more control of the puck than the opposition at evens. That vindicates DeBoer as head coach if nothing else.
To me, the big killer is the shooting percentage. Special team play and the shootout has done some damage, but the 5-on-5 shooting percentage has been an anchor for the team. As much as we gripe about the defense, overall, there can be few complaints about having the lowest shots against per 60 minutes rate in the NHL. Mistakes have happened and they have been costly. I do believe the team can and should work on that. However, players aren't the objects you and I treat them for egalitarian and analytical reasons. They're human and so there will never be perfection over a season, be it 48 or 82 games. Likewise for goaltending. As bad as Johan Hedberg's nightmarish run in March was and as Martin Brodeur is becoming more and more mortal, the team's save percentage is only a little lower than it was last season. The big difference is that last season's team could score goals to keep the team in games or win in spite of errors or sub-par goaltending. This season's team can't.
And Peter DeBoer, or any coach, really can't control shooting percentage. Based on Gabe Desjardens work in this post and this follow-up post from a few years ago, the largest driver of shooting percentage is transient ability. It's randomness that can't be modeled. For lack of a better word, it's luck. The player may have something to do with where the shots are coming from and I emphasize the player because they're the ones on the ice who can actually do something about that. A coach, not so much. As Gabe's follow-up post shows, the more repeatable skill is in getting shots, which is what the coach has more of a hand in with respect to line combinations, strategies, and specific instructions. But no coach or player can totally determine whether a puck's going to take a deflection, a weird bounce off a skate, catch the goalie unaware, rebound off a goalie right to a teammate (a literal bounce), or come off the stick so perfectly no one's going to stop it among other all possible outcomes with a shot. Sure, there's some player talent involved but I disagree with Matt's suggestion last week that perhaps it is the players on the basis that many of them have shot better in the past. I doubt they got worse at shooting the more they have played in the NHL. With respect to shot location, it will be incredibly interesting to see how scoring chances stack up over the season relative to total shots. We at least know from recent games that the team has been getting to advantageous spots to shoot from. They're just rarely lighting lamps.
But what about quality? I wouldn't worry about that. In a small view of a particular play or a game, it could matter. Over the course of a season or seasons, it really doesn't. Eric T explained this rather poignantly and relevant to many concepts like player shooting percentage and save percentage in this post at NHL Numbers. While it's a shorter season than usual, I don't think the supposed shot quality should be considered as a large factor. As with possession, in one or two games, you may see the Devils just rack up quantity instead of chances. But over a whole season, they're going to get - and they have - many scoring chances should they continue to lead in shots and getting shots through to the net.
Let's look at shooting percentage in the reverse. In James Mirtle's fantastic article at the Globe and Mail on Nazem Kadri, a top scorer on Toronto, it's clear he's riding quite a bit of luck. Mirtle notes how scorers know that "not getting bounces" really mean to say it's out of their hands. Reading in between the lines of general manager Dave Nonis' quote in the article, it's clear to me that Kadri's not going to be this hot but they understand this. I'm sure if Randy Carlyle or Nonis or any other coach or member of management can continue an on-ice shooting percentage of 15.4% when Kadri's on the ice, they would. But if they could do so for him, then why not their other players? Why would Kessel or van Reimsdyk slump at all or, rather, the team slump when they're on the ice? The only logical answer is that it's out of their hands.
Turning back to New Jersey, their team shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play has went from 7.5%, 8.1%, 8.1%, 6.7%, 8.5%, and 6.6% in the last six seasons including this one. Only once in this time period did the Devils match their shooting percentage and even then it ranked differently in the league (eleventh lowest in 2007-08, ninth lowest in 2008-09). So this team's shooting percentage has varied from season to season as have the rest of the league. Jonathan Willis highlighted the lack of predictability in this post at Oilers Nation in a league wide perspective. Therefore, the fact that the team dropped from league average last season to third-from-the-bottom this season is not the direct fault of DeBoer. At the same time, it's a big reason why they are where they are in the standings. Likewise, if the shooting percentage in general was better, perhaps the power play would be more effective too and the team wouldn't need to go beyond regulation so much and mostly lose as often. But again, DeBoer isn't in control of that as much as we'd like to think he is. And in a shortened season, luck plays a far larger role than we may like. The good news is that this recent history suggests the team will shoot better in the following season. The bad news is that it would have to be in the following season.
It's also worth noting that the Devils rarely give up on games. In this current nine-game winless streak, they only lost two games by more than one goal and those two were only decided by two goals. They've given up the first (or more) goal in seven of these nine games and at least responded to them in five of them - the other two being games the Devils were shutout in. Only in two games were the Devils not beating their opposition in terms of possession or shots; coincidentally, the two games the Devils were a minute away from winning. If the team was having their lunch eaten and DeBoer lost the locker room in the process, then I'd be more understanding of a termination. However, the comeback efforts and overall play does not fit with a notion that the players have tuned out, don't care, and/or given up on DeBoer.
In short, the performances have been there, the effort has been there, and the gameplan isn't so flawed that the team's getting it's head handed to them every night. I'm not saying he's above criticism - his handling of the defensemen has been odd, not that they're scoring either - or he's a perfect coach, but the team's doing quite a lot right. They're out-shooting opponents, they're holding the opposition to very few shots, they're getting more shots-through at evens, and in recent games they've even started getting more shots on net overall. What they have not been doing is being perfect on defense (near-impossible), running a decent power play on a consistent basis (that's really Shaw's issue, but also the personnel being asked to run it), and putting pucks in the net (largely out of the hands of the coach). Yet, it's why they haven't won in their last nine games, a huge reason why they won't make the playoffs. Frustrating as it sounds, changing the coach won't actually fix that latter issue. There is no wizard-like bench boss who can.
In my eyes, the answer is no. DeBoer does not deserve to be fired despite the poor results of this season. Provided DeBoer can keep the Devils as a strong possession team - what happens this summer will greatly affect that - if they can shoot somewhere closer to the league average at evens alone, then we'll really see how strong this team can be. Therefore, it would be incredibly stupid to fire Peter DeBoer either now or after the 2013 season.