AP Hockey Story of the Day: February 14 – On Organizational Structure, Tough Decisions, and the Southampton Way

Jacob Steinberg had a great piece in the Guardian on how top soccer teams approach managerial hirings. Lifespans for coaches these days in any sport are short, so it’s always worth having contingency plans, and finding ways to promote continuity even amongst change. Steinberg highlights the case of Southampton, where the club fired Nigel Adkins in mid-season following consecutive years of promotion and a gutsy come-from-behind draw against Chelsea. There was an uproar, but the team’s executives recognized a situation where a coach had done great things, but had brought them just about as far as he could, and where a different voice was needed to take them to the next level: enter Mauricio Pochettino. After an impressive eighth place finish, the Argentine left for Tottenham, and Southampton was prepared for that as well, with a profile in mind for the type of manager it knew it needed. Now, the low-budget Reds sit in fourth place in the top soccer league in the world; crazy things happen in european football.

The word “culture” gets thrown around a lot in hockey. It is ascribed as both a cause of defeat and a symptom of it, and is prescribed all too often as a remedy to poor on-ice performance. It has become an eye-roller in the analytics community, alongside such terms as “grit”, “leadership”,”toughness” and many more. But as with most misguided concepts, the root of it is legitimate. Over 100 of so years of NHL hockey, concepts can be twisted and manipulated such that they no longer represent the underlying truths of hockey in the 21st century, as we see with tactics like the dump and chase, and roles like the enforcer, but rarely do you see something so absurd that it contains no element of contemporary or prior relevance. The dump and chase was a necessity during the world wars, when replacement players didn’t possess the skillsets to work around stout defenders. Fighting was a necessary evil to increase ticket sales when the league was on the brink of bankruptcy, and at a time when the league did a terrible job of policing its players, it served that need as well.

Culture, too, is a concept that stems from a necessity to have players working together, moving the boat in the right direction, so to speak. When one sees that shot metrics are 50-60% repeatable, some of the variance there is certainly the result of teams and coaches being able to harness their talents properly, finding good chemistry and camaraderie along the way.

But returning to the crux of this post, and the article mentioned above, culture may be most important not amongst the players, but up the chain of command. A team’s owner, general manager, and coaching staff need to have a unified idea of how to best achieve the organization’s goals, generally to win a championship. So often, it seems that the manager is able to think long-term, with more job security, while the coach is forced to make decisions based on the here and now. But that discrepancy makes so little sense to me. Obviously, a losing streak puts pressure on the general manager to make a coaching change, but making decisions based on pressure from fans and media is a terrible approach anyway. A coach shouldn’t be worried about immediate job security because a GM shouldn’t be worried about short term results.

An owner, general manager, and coach should always be on the same page in the way in which they intend to build a team, the way in which they pledge to analyze players and decisions, and they should both understand that the GM will not fire the coach based on a losing streak. If the goal is a Stanley Cup, the coach will be evaluated on setting the team up for success in the long run, and therefore there should be no competing incentives here. The coach shouldn’t sit out young players for extended periods; the coach should play guys he will need in order to win in the playoffs; the coach should be familiar enough with analytics to understand that winning and losing individual games, and scoring goals in short series of games, is not a professional way to analyze a team’s potential to win the Stanley Cup as is.

Owners should be looking for GMs who are able to instill a consistent culture, and GMs should be looking at coaches who can do the same. There shouldn’t be an inherent fear of firing coaches who win, if they aren’t maximizing the talent available, and the signs don’t point to an ability to take the team to the next level. When owners, GMs, and coaches are all on the same page, evaluating analytically, driving the bus towards the same goal, then they’re raising the team’s ceiling, and success will usually follow.

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