One of the things we lament most in the NHL is the lack of anyone trying something new behind the bench or in the GM’s office. It is the oldest of an Old Boys’ Network, and quite frankly holds the game back from new ideas and new styles. It’s almost as if they were managing The Score 670 as well. Of the seven coaches who were hired before this season, four had coached somewhere before. In Ken Hitchcock’s case, he had coached where he was hired before, Dallas. Of the three who hadn’t coached in the NHL before, Bob Boughner and Phil Housley are former players still “in the game.”
Jared Bednar was something of a left field hiring before last season. He never played in the NHL, and worked his way up behind the bench from the ECHL to the AHL to Denver. And after last year, it looked like it might go belly up pretty quickly for him. But then Bednar was given an utterly horrifying roster that not anyone could have done much with. Still, this is the Avs, this is Joe Sakic, and just about anything is possible there. Sakic will tell you he was rewarded for his patience (oddly enough, Sakic being another “Old Boy” hiring himself).
The thing is, it’s hard to tell if he’s doing that much more now.
Bendar has the Avalanche on the precipice of a playoff spot, which no one saw coming before the season. So on the surface, you’d have to say he’s doing a great job as the Avs are performing way above expectation, which is just about the only thing used to judge coaches, and that’s kind of in all sports. But the process the Avs are using to get there looks pretty damn spotty when put under any scrutiny.
The Avs are 27th in team CF%. They’re 29th in xGF%. They’re 27th in CA/60. And yet they’re 10th in xGA/60. So you could theorize, and even prove, that while they give up a ton of attempts and don’t have the puck a lot, they’re doing a decent enough job of making sure those attempts aren’t all that meaningful. They might not be creating much, but when you have Nathan MacKinnon doing this to the world and not feeling the least bit guilty about it, you don’t have to. Still, it’s not as if the Avs have invented some sort of sit-and-counter system. Their PDO is second-highest in the league, and assuredly would like the puck more than they do now.
There’s another rub. The Avs are where they are because MacKinnon has gone full Avenger and both Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier in net have been a touch above league-average all season. Is MacKinnon’s seasons merely something happening outside of Bednar? Has he tweaked his game in any way to cause this? Can it possibly be coaching when a player nearly triples his shooting-percentage from the previous year? Do we have any idea? Or we just throwing questions into the ether to sound intelligent? Does that sound like something we’d do?
Bednar was hired partly because of his work in the AHL with the Blue Jackets’s organization. The Lake Erie Monsters won the Calder Cup in ’16, and on that roster were Sonny Milano, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Zack Werenski, Michael Chaput, Lukas Sedlak, and Josh Anderson. All of those are NHL players, and in Werenski’s and Anderson’s case, plus ones. Certainly Bednar helped turn them into that. But also, Werenski was always going to shred the AHL playoffs, which he did only after seven regular season games. In AHL terms, that roster was stacked. Still, you can’t ask a coach to do more in the AHL than win a Calder Cup and move players onto the NHL roster. The Hawks would probably kill for a coach who could consistently do that in Rockford.
It doesn’t appear that the Avs are doing anything revolutionary in terms of style, and whatever it is only “works” because of MacKinnon. Certainly the development of Tyson Jost and Alex Kerfoot, as well as Girard, Kamenev, Makar, and others in the near future, is what Bednar will be judged on. All hockey fans should root for him and Dave Hakstol in Philly, as they are coaches who came from different routes than the normal. The more success they have the more like them are going to be hired, and maybe for once the NHL game can move forward.
Game #74 Preview