I need to start off by saying that I’m just a huge fan of Ralph Krueger.
I just had to look up if I spelled his name right.
But yeah. Huge fan of Ralph Krueger.
Coaching is a very difficult thing to analyze. I was listening to an interview that Craig MacTavish gave with Bob Stauffer last year when MacT was still just a lowly VP of Hockey Operations, where he chided Stauffer about giving coaches too much credit/blame for how the team performs. I think this is something that’s really important to take to heart, especially coming from a former NHL coach of eight years. There’s an oft recited saying that the best coach is the one that walks off the plane with the best team, which is obviously an oversimplification of things, but there’s something to be said about coaches often becoming scapegoats. What is one of my greatest frustrations is when fans/commentators extrapolate very subjective observations to grand statements about the merits of an NHL coach. Some examples might include:
“The Oilers don’t seem to have a lot of ‘try’ lately. Looks like the coach has lost the room.”
“Player X hasn’t gotten to that next level — that lack of development falls on the coach.”
“Boy, for a motivational speaker, Krueger doesn’t seem to have the players very motivated.”
These examples are something of a microcosm of what I find most frustrating with hockey analysis: judgments and conclusions that are based on very little information, usually with no context, exclaimed with unabashed certainty. I suppose that is what makes sports personalities popular with the masses — people like strong opinions and certainty. You don’t have to be correct, just decisive. I personally prefer an approach that appeals a bit more to a well-considered, balanced understanding of what are often very complex matters. It is for this reason that I am a big fan of the approach that Tyler Dellow has taken this offseason at his website www.mc79hockey.com.
Tyler has done a twelve post series examining the Oilers’ possession woes in the 2013 season. At some point in his series (I believe it was somewhere around post ten) he mentioned on twitter that he is cautious to not jump to conclusions about coaching tactics, as he has little experience with it. This seems to be the crux of the issue. A very few number of people in the world are able to successfully coach at the NHL level, and it obviously takes a very specific skill set. The greatest player in the game couldn’t do it, and many try and many fail. Dellow went on to say that with the scads of research and data he compiled after ten (plus) posts, that he was only beginning to say that the issue with the Oilers’ Corsi% was a tactical one. It’s this kind of a measured approach that I feel is the correct one.
There are many variables — too many variables to say with absolute certainty just about anything regarding a coach’s specific weaknesses, in my opinion. And if someone is going to make a claim, I feel like the burden of proof is on your shoulders in a big, big way.
I say all of this to try and provide a bit of a lens through which we can look through this past season and this coming season.
This past season, I was a big fan of Ralph Krueger. He seemed like a very calm, even, reasonable guy. He had very unconventional but sensical approaches to things, and he was just downright fascinating to listen to. Furthermore, you would hear things from his players, like Nail Yakupov saying that he had never played for a coach like him before. Other players saying that they wanted to win so badly for him. He seemed to be very well received by the team, and when he was fired I was very disappointed. I do not, however, feel as though it was a poor decision.
The possession numbers say that the Oilers took a big step back this year, and in the aforementioned Big Data series by Tyler Dellow there is an in depth look at what some of those issues might have been. Prior to his posting of all of this, I didn’t have too much of an issue with Krueger’s coaching (from what I could tell). In light of Dellow’s work, I’m encouraged to look at Krueger with just a bit less of a rosy-tint to my glasses.
As much as I loved Ralph Krueger, there were things that continually frustrated me while watching the team this year. My lengthy introduction to this post should emphasize that my anectodal observations should be taken with a grain of salt, but I recall games where the opposing team would almost “figure out” how to stand the Oilers up at the blueline, and Edmonton would continually try the same breakout/zone entry attempt, and get stymied every time. I specifically remember this being a problem on the powerplay. Just infuriating it was.
In an attempt to bring a bit of balance to this point, I do think it’s important to consider the lack of a training camp and shortented season as variables that should soften any accusations that Krueger was simply a terrible coach.
In the end, the most important thing is that MacT felt more comfortable with Eakins as a head coach than with Krueger. When we start to watch this upcoming season, I think it’ll be critical to undersand that we do not have even close to a grasp on all the variables in the equation, and that what might appear to be poor coaching by Eakins might be caused by a myriad of other things.
MacT is making a bet on Eakins in a big way. He was a very highly sought after guy, but he’s coming into a room with almost half the roster turned over, with no experience as a head coach at the NHL level, and missing his no. 1 Center. More than anything, I personally think Krueger was fired because he wasn’t the new GM’s “guy”, but I think in fairness there were many reasons the team underperformed, not least of which was a roster with massive holes in it. Eakins has a roster that, while has been improved upon, still has significant holes (3rd line wing, the entire 4th line, top of the D depth chart). There is also an innumerable amount of other varaibles, so if the team stumbles out of the gate, let’s give Eakins a bit of a break.