Over the past few weeks we’ve heard a bunch of names thrown out for the vacant head coaching position in Ottawa, including Jacques Martin, Rick Bowness, Troy Mann, D.J. Smith, Nate Leaman and Marc Crawford. This past weekend, a seventh name was added to the fold – former Colorado Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy.
Roy is a fascinating inclusion to the interview list. He hasn’t returned to the NHL since a curious and abrupt exit from the Avalanche at the end of the 2015-16 season. This past season he acted as both head coach and general manager of the QMJHL’s Quebec Ramparts.
There are probably a handful of reasons why Ottawa is interested in Roy. He has experience in developing younger players and, unlike some of the other names above, has acted as a head coach in both the amateur and professional ranks. On top of that, Roy does bring with him some hardware – he was the 2013-14 Jack Adams Award winner after leading Colorado to a 112-point season. (Not to mention the two rings.)
What is most interesting to me is how Roy’s prior stint relates to his prospective candidacy as the next Senators coach. Ottawa’s situation is, in a word, unique. I don’t think anyone around the team believes they have any intention of winning during the 2019-20 season, which has already been earmarked as a rebuilding year.
But this wouldn’t be foreign territory for Roy. When Roy assumed control of Colorado in 2013-14, the Avalanche were coming off of a dreadful 39-point performance in the lockout-shortened season, and all overtures from the front office were that rebuilding the team into a legitimate playoff contender would take time. Nathan MacKinnon, who would become the team’s first-round selection that year, would lead the franchise.
The three years that followed were dizzying. Colorado exploded out of the blocks in year one to win the Central Division – eerily similar to Paul MacLean’s first year with Ottawa, where success was realized against all odds. But the 2013-14 team had a lot of cracks. The underlying numbers on most nights were gory (more on that later), and most stat-friendly types forecasted a serious regression.
The following year, the Avalanche went from first to worst in a hypercompetitive Central. In 2015-16, Roy’s final season, the Avalanche finished sixth in the division – and eight points worse year-over-year.
I bring this up because hiring a head coach is hard. In many instances, we don’t have supporting data to suggest whether or not the hiring is a good idea. We have years of data on Roy, but we also have a lot of nuance. Colorado’s roster was clearly flawed and Roy publicly clashed with his front office about the players the team did (or didn’t) pursue. If Roy believed early on his roster was flawed at its foundation, you can understand why he was frustrated.
With those roster caveats in mind, one of the staunchest criticisms of Roy’s teams over that three-year window was that the Avalanche were almost legendary in their inability to generate offence that wasn’t off the rush. Most Colorado games were the types that only require teams to Zamboni one end of the ice – Roy’s teams were brutally outchanced and outshot over his entire tenure, and it didn’t improve even as the roster evolved.
If we look at how shot rates and expected goal rates trended over his three seasons, you can see there was very little bounce or improvement in the play:
At the time, Roy didn’t exactly deny the ugly shot differentials, but he usually offered up one counterargument – that his teams were ‘more selective’ in their shooting strategy in the offensive zone. What would that mean in practice? More offensive zone time than shot shares would indicate, and a higher rate of shots being legitimate scoring chances relative to league norm.
The numbers never suggested that was actually happening in Colorado, though. The Avalanche were always on the bad end of scoring chance counters, too, and development of expected goals models – which take into account both shot volume and the quality of those shots across all game states – still say the same thing.
Those Colorado teams had a huge problem in all three areas of the ice, and when they weren’t effectively counterattacking they were toast. Over all three years, Colorado finished 28th in expected goal differential (ahead of rebuilding Toronto and Buffalo), 29th in adjusted shot rate differential (ahead of only Buffalo), and 19th in goal differential.
I mentioned the roster component earlier. Take a look at what Colorado had to work with over these three years. The roster was at best top-heavy, and I don’t think you can tell the Roy story accurately without recognizing some of the personnel challenges his teams had:
The forward group was always a point of strength for Colorado – a core group of O’Reilly/Stastny (2013-14), Duchene, Landeskog and MacKinnon should have been enough to carry a successful top six for years. But Colorado’s offensive weaponry was rarely able to flourish because of the significant shift lengths played in the defensive zone.
Part of what made Roy’s job so challenging was that the roster imbalance was obvious. The forwards were carrying more of the defensive and neutral zone burden than their comparables around the league because the blueline was a weird combination of young and inexperienced talent that needed more time to develop and older players playing way too many minutes out of necessity. (The best example of this being Francois Beauchemin playing first-pairing minutes during the 2015-16 season.)
Reconciling the roster gaps against the ugly on-ice performance is quite challenging, especially within the confines of this Colorado team. Did Roy maximize the output of a flawed roster, or did Roy hinder the performance of his teams that did have some talent, especially within the forward ranks?
The truth is probably in the middle. The good news for Ottawa here is that Roy is uniquely qualified for the challenges a roster like Ottawa’s brings and his resume speaks for itself. The bad news is there isn’t much evidence, at least from the three years we saw him in Colorado, that Roy is capable of developing a structurally competent team that can succeed in the modern era of hockey.
At any rate, things in the nation’s capital just got a lot more interesting.
Data via NaturalStatTrick