The Maurice Effect

In baseball, there is a belief called “the manager effect” that goes around among fans and bloggers. It’s basically the idea that some managers can get their team more motivated than others and play harder to win games. Some believe in this, some don’t. This idea usually runs wild whenever a new manager comes in at the middle of the season and the team undergoes a hot/lucky streak during that time (see Buck Showalter’s run with the Orioles). This belief obviously carries over to all sports when questioning how much of a role the coach plays with how good or bad a team is. There are many who have the mindset that a great coach can get a poor team to overachieve and vice-versa, it’s one of the reasons why Pete Deboer was sought after by a few GMs this off-season to fill their vacant head coach positions. One way people try to determine how effective a head coach is by looking at a player’s performance after he is traded or after his previous coach was fired.

If you remember the Canes playoff run during the 2008-09 season, a lot of players who were a big part of that team were basically cast-offs from other clubs and most of them started producing after Paul Maurice took over as head coach. Jussi Jokinen, Joni Pitkanen, Tuomo Ruutu and Sergei Samsonov all started to “rejuvenate” their careers a bit after being signed by or traded to the Hurricanes and all except Samsonov seemed to play better under Maurice. Let’s go through the first three.

 

Jussi Jokinen: After three decent seasons in Dallas where he scored 35 goals in three seasons, he was miserable in Tampa Bay only recording eight goals and 30 points in 64 games there. Was traded to Carolina for Wade Brookbank, Josef Melichair and a fourth round pick. He only recorded 11 points in 25 games to end the season but he exploded in the playoffs with 7 goals and 11 points. The next season, he recorded a career high in goals (30) and points (65) which blows away anything he did in Tampa. He is now a key part of the Canes second line.

After someone has such a big year like Jokinen did in 2009-10 after struggling in recent seasons, the first things you look at are to see what kind of competition they faced, how tough their assignments are (usually judged by zone starts) and to see if they got lucky at all by looking at their shooting percentage. Jokinen did get a tad lucky with his 10.9 shooting percentage that season but he faced tougher competition in Carolina than he did in Tampa and was BURIED with defensive zone starts in the playoffs in 2008-09. Contrast that with the fact that he was a sheltered player in Tampa Bay getting over 60% of his draws in the offensive zone. Why such a huge improvement for Jussi in 2009 compared to previous years? One thing that seems pretty obvious to look at but it gets overlooked someitmes; teammates.

Notice in his player card that Jokinen played with much better teammates in 2009-10 than any other season, and it’s not even close (view the Corsi Rel QoT column). Who were his most frequent linemates that season? Eric Staal and Ray Whitney. The best player on the Canes and a player who is known around the league for his play-making skills. Credit should go to Paul Maurice in this situation because he used Jokinen’s strength’s to the team’s advantage. His lackluster corsi rate tells me that he didn’t do much to drive the play but when his linemates are guys who constantly drive possession and create set-ups, all Jussi had to do is finish those chances and he did just that. With Cole injured that’s all the Canes needed. Compare that to his linemates in Tampa Bay (Evgeny Artyukin and Mark Recchi) and Jokinen’s huge season becomes a lot more clear. It’s unlikely that he’ll have another season like this if he stays on the second line with Ruutu and Skinner but he fits there well. Speaking of which….

 

Tuomo Ruutu: Always seen as a disappointment because he’s a former first round pick from the Chicago Blackhawks and seems to make headlines for the wrong reasons instead for his play. After a great rookie season, he struggled for the next two seasons and was even considering retirement after playing poorly in the World Championships in 2006. He was traded to Carolina for Andrew Ladd in 2007 and slowly improved the rest of the season. It was the year after when he really started to come around scoring 26 goals and 54 points (career highs in both) for the Canes, the season when Paul Maurice took over.

What made Ruutu into such an effective player all of the sudden? Like Jokinen, he also got what I like to call “The Staal Treatment” that year and he played on his line over 50% of the time with either Erik Cole or Sergei Samsonov on the other wing. When looking at his player card, you’ll see that Ruutu had positive corsi ratings in the 2007 and 2008 seasons and was used in mostly offensive situations in those years but he was given slightly more ice time in 2008-09. He was also used a lot more on the powerplay that year, too and scored 10 goals with the man advantage. I know saying “his numbers improved because he played with Staal” sounds like a lazy way to explain success but he appeared to be the main catalyst for Jokinen during his breakout season and one of the reasons why Ruutu was such an effective player in 2008-09. Since then, Ruutu has continued to be a good two-way forward but now plays center on the second line to give the Canes more depth down the middle. He played well in that role scoring a career high in points last season. However, he wasn’t a postivie player possession-wise but that may have something to do with him getting tougher assignments due to playing on the second line.

Tough to say how much credit you want to give Maurice here but it appears that Ruutu seemed to benefit the most from playing with Staal like Jokinen did and moving him to center this season gives the Canes a lot more forward depth and utilizes Ruutu’s playmaking skills better.

Joni Pitkanen: He’s always been known for his offensive skills from the blue-line and was a huge part of the Flyers powerplay during his three seasons here. Then he was traded to the Edmonton Oilers and had a career low in points, finished with a -5.89 corsi rating and looked like a wreck in his own zone. He was then traded to Carolina where he became a top-two defenseman and proved to play well both offensively and defensively. While he didn’t put up huge offensive numbers, he gave the Canes at least 30 points from the blue line, which is a good contribution. He was also an effective player possession-wise under Maurice (11.19 corsi in 2008-09 in Carolina which he wasn’t in Edmonton so what made him turn his play around so much?

Pitkanen’s turnaround is a little easier to point out when you see that he got 56.8% of his draws in the offensive zone in 2008-09 compared to 46.4% in Edmonton. Pitkanen is a defenseman who is known more for his offensive skillset rather than his defense and Maurice took advantage of that by putting him in more offensive situations and putting less pressure on his shoulders. Pitkanen looked a lot better as a result. He then gradually got more ice time in the next two season and was given tougher assignments and while he wasn’t as effective as he was that season, he still was a good player defensively and has been a stable part of the Canes blue line for the past three years. Oddly enough, Pitkanen recorded his highest point total in the 2009-10 season where he was given more defensive assignments (46.9% OZ%) and a lot more ice time due to injuries. Not sure what the reasoning behind that was.

Erik Cole could be considered in this class, too but I don’t have data from his short time in Edmonton to confirm it. People were saying that these three players were lucky to have jobs after how they performed for their teams before Carolina and now all three still play key roles for the Hurricanes today. Maurice has made them effective players by using their strengths to the team’s advantage. So yes, I would say that Maurice has had a big effect on the team and getting the most out of certain players on the roster. I wouldn’t say that he is getting them to “play harder” but he’s using these players the right way and made them effective, which I feel that he deserves a lot of credit for. He is going to have a big challenge this year, though because the Canes have a serious need for goal-scorers on the top line and there’s a few players he can work with to fill that void. This is why I liked the Ponikarovsky signing so much. He showed that he can be a relied upon for goal-scoring in Toronto but didn’t in Los Angeles because he was stuck with a third/fourth line role. If Maurice can give him the right linemates then is it possible that he can regain that goal-scoring touch in Carolina? We shall see. Just look at what Tampa Bay did with Teddy Purcell and Steve Downie.

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