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Analyzing the impact of an NHL coaching change: Toronto Maple Leafs

In Analytics, Coaching Hockey, Premium Articles, Tactics by Alison LukanLeave a Comment

What kind of impact can a coaching change make on a team? The 2019-20 season may be one of the most appropriate to study when it comes to answering that question.

Through March 12, eight NHL teams (Calgary, Dallas, Minnesota, New Jersey, Nashville, San Jose, Toronto, Vegas) had made a change behind the bench.

But even when bench bosses change, they are often handed the same set of tools their predecessor had in terms of skaters, goaltenders, personalities, and sometimes assistant coaches as well. As a result, more times than not, the ask of the new coach is to find success where it wasn’t happening prior to their tenure and to find it quickly.

So how much can a coach turn the tides for a team when they come in mid-season? We decided to take a look at Sheldon Keefe in Toronto to see what it tells us about influencing a team on the fly.

If we look at each Maple Leafs coach’s record this season, of course the quickest read is that Keefe has had the more successful term, albeit with more than twice as many games coached (47) as Mike Babcock (19) who Keefe replaced.

This is a small sample size, but Keefe had gotten his team into third overall in the Atlantic Division before the season was suspended – and thus a playoff spot – and was also on track to best Babcock’s overall point percentage while in Toronto (.557).

Wins and losses are what matter most, of course, but what changes can we see in how the Maple Leafs played from one coach to another to get the results they did? Let’s take a look.


Toronto’s calling card is its young, dynamic offensive corps. Keefe chose to maximize this group by using the best of its talent more and play his stars together.

In the chart below, we see each forward’s average ice time this season. The red vertical line marks the coaching change.

Look at the uptick for Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander. These players all rank in the top 40 in total points this season; Matthews and Marner are in the top 20. Giving point producers more ice time obviously results in more points and that’s what Keefe did.

Keefe also put these top players together more consistently. The chart below shows each Leafs’ line combination game to game with each player represented by a different colour. Again, we mark the point of the coaching change with a red line.

Under Keefe, the jumbling within the top six really quieted down for Toronto, although a search for an effective bottom six was an ongoing process.

As a result, the Maple Leafs went on a tear in terms of creating offence but not in terms of volume, rather in terms of quality.





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About the Author

Alison Lukan


Alison specializes in data-driven storytelling in the world of hockey. She's covered the Columbus Blue Jackets for 10 years and also explores league-wide issues from an analytics perspective. She believes hockey should be studied as a science and an art, and seeks to meld the two through her writing. See All Posts By Alison


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