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Islanders Offseason: The Case against Greg Cronin

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If the Islanders want to make more changes to their coaching staff, they should look to the past and address the future.

Calgary Flames v New York Islanders
One in, one out, one...?
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The times are a’ changing for the Islanders' bench. Bob Corkum is out. Luke Richardson is in, with reports of Kelly Buchburger and Scott Gomez joining as well. As new coaches come in, it seems likely others will be moving on.

Arthur Staple of Newsday also reports that assistant Greg Cronin’s status for next season is “unknown for now.” Cronin should be the next one to vacate the bench and the reason why is simple: he’s behind on the modern game.

In 2013, Cronin gave a much-circulated interview to Maple Leafs Hot Stove outlining his philosophies when he was an assistant coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Some of the highlights:

Interviewer: You don’t think the Leafs got outpossessed last season, and that shot differentials are not a good indicator of possession?

Greg Cronin: Right. I unequivocally do not believe that.

Interviewer: To be clear, you don’t believe the Leafs were outpossessed last season?

Greg Cronin: Nope.

What does the data say? In the 2012-2013 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs were last in the league in corsi, at 44% (via stats.hockeyanalysis.com). In a league of parity, where losing a shift or two can mean the difference between success and failure, poor possession teams often hover around 47 or 48%. A 44% corsi is insanely bad. It’s the kind of bad that easily can be seen with the eye test: a team constantly under siege in their own zone, struggling to make even the most basic hockey play properly. The number of shots the Leafs gave up that year? 1249, an average of 33 per game. Last in the league. Ugly.

But Cronin didn’t think it mattered, because the team didn”t concede “high-quality” shots and scoring chances. As Cronin stated:

“Let’s look at the team that shot the puck three times. They shot the puck three times but not one shot was a real threat. Our goalie wasn’t worried, I wasn’t worried from the bench, and maybe you weren’t worried in the top corner of the balcony. We go down the ice, and in the last 15 seconds of that shift we do a curl up… we use the back of the net, we throw the puck right to the middle of the slot and we pummel a puck onto the net from 10 feet. Whistle blows. We get a quality scoring chance in one shot, more than they did in three shots. Which would you rather have?”

(Pension Plan Puppets went over the article a few years ago, and their thoughts are always a good read.)

Here’s the question I have—how do you go to the point where you’re able to go down the ice? In Cronin’s mind it seems easy—his goalie makes an easy save, his team wins the faceoff, they start the breakout, and off they go. And that does happen sometimes. But a lot of the time, here is what “harmless shots” really do:

Sometimes the puck hits the goalie and creates a rebound. Puck rebounds are weird things and you never know where it’s going to go. It may go to you. It may go right to the opponent for them to put into an open net.

Sometimes it may hit the goalie and go to a place you have to chase it. Now you’re out of position. If the other team gets it back and shoots it again—even if it’s a “harmless” shot-- you’re scrambling to get in defensive position. Or you’re chasing the puck down if it’s in open space. Either way you’re not in control of what’s going on, and when you’re not in control, you make mistakes. You make mistakes, and that opens yourself up to conceding higher quality scoring chances.

And this is assuming the puck even hits the goaltender. If it goes wide it can create even more chaos that makes the defensive team play haphazardly as they wonder where it is. And how many times does a puck deflect? So many goals in this league are scored off a “harmless” shot deflecting off two legs, a shin pad, a defenders ass cheek and past the goalie, who was positioned for the original wrister. And this is assuming you don’t have 2013 Evgeni Nabokov in net, who made “not saving an easy shot he could see” an art form.

When one watched the Isles this year they could be observed consistently collapsing around the net. They were well situated for the first shot. But they were never situated for the second or the third or the fourth or any of the continuing volley of chances that followed. Their commitment to preventing that first shot led them to fail to get the puck back and breakout successfully. Hard to get that quality chance if you can’t get out of the zone.

Isles shots against this year? 27th in the league. If it wasn’t for the strong play of Thomas Greiss things could have gotten even uglier.

And it can definitely be argued that personnel plays a role just as much (likely more so) then coaching. But the isles have had some very strong possession players and defensemen. Nick Leddy. Johnny Boychuk. Calvin de Haan. Thomas Hickey. This isn’t a d-corps that should be third worst in the league, particularly now that Brian Strait isn’t around. To be that poor (and I’m thinking specifically of how Leddy’s numbers cratered in the first half of the season and then popped back up when Jack Capuano was fired) points specifically to coaching and systems.

And speaking of Cappy….Jack said he hired Cronin because they have similar ideas about the way the game is played. The first half of the season was a shining example of that brand of hockey and it was boring at best and putrid at worst. The team gave up the puck after a shot or so in the offensive zone, choosing to fall back on defense. But they didn’t challenge the opposition blue line. That would mean the opponents may dump the puck and allow the Islanders to get it back and start the breakout. No, the isles backed all the way up, allowing the opposition to enter their zone with possession—presumably, to make sure that first shot was “harmless”. And low and behold, they’d give up a lot of chances and scramble. Once in a blue moon they’d be able to get into the offensive zone, where they would maybe get a scoring chance, then drop back and let the cycle begin again. 2016 put to rest the possibility that Cronin had changed his beliefs from 2013.

Advanced stats aren’t everything. No stat is perfect, and there is context that needs to be understood when evaluating specific situations. But to ignore what the data is saying? Particularly when the stuff I’ve mentioned isn’t complex—anyone that’s watched a few hockey games notes that the team that shoots more pucks usually gets better scoring chances and wins more games. If you’re ignoring that evidence, you’re behind the times. If you’re seeing your team get constantly shelled and not understanding why, you’re behind the times. If you don’t understand the modern game you can’t teach it and that means you’re behind the times.

And the times are a’changin, Greg. Things may be changing for you too.