Nashville Predators v Phoenix Coyotes - Game Five

This was an argument I got into yesterday.

Saturday night in Edmonton, Vancouver went down 4-0 early on. At no point did Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault call a timeout. After the second goal, on the second shot of the game, he pulled starter Cory Schneider and replaced him with journeyman backup Roberto Luongo. After the fourth goal, the game was again paused to clean up hats on the ice.

So it got me thinking… when is the best time to use a timeout? If you looked at it at a macro level, I’m quite sure that using a timeout after giving up a couple of goals in quick succession means pretty little in the long run. Mike Babcock called one when the Red Wings went down 3-0 on Sunday, a game they went on to lose 7-1. I think even more notably, Barry Trotz called a timeout 3:42 into Thursday’s game against Phoenix, after which, this happened:

I don’t think decisions by Trotz or Babcock or Vigneault cost their teams games. I’m of the mentality that coaches don’t really affect the outcome of a single game all that much. There’s a lot of scrutiny that goes into individual micro-decisions as well as matchup decisions, but ultimately all the coach can really do is put out the players management gave him and hope for the best. I’m guilty of over-analyzing decisions when they don’t pan out and have been critical of both Guy Boucher and Jack Capuano on this blog and others throughout the season. Bottom line, these guys get paid a heck of a lot more than I do to think about the sport.

But timeouts… that’s something the team can control. When is the best time to use a timeout? I haven’t seen any evidence that suggests a coach calling a timeout after the team allows goals in quick succession really changes all that much. It generally goes back to the theme that far too many people focus on results and not process, and that in any process you’re going to give up a good number of consecutive scoring chances even if you’re a good team. Sometimes they go in, and if I’ve learned anything by counting scoring chances and charting shots for the past three years, it’s that periods of momentum come and go naturally. It’s part of the flow of the game and while broadcasters and other writers like to find individual events that swung the momentum in any way, my observation is that that’s not the case.

(That’s similar to some research I did on streaky scorers. The top scorers don’t play or produce at notably different levels depending on whether they’d scored a goal in the previous game.)

Coaching is hilarious because sometimes an obviously wrong decision can turn out to have little-to-no effect. How often does a fourth line that gets caught out on the ice against a first line actually give up a goal? How often does a first line that is facing off against a tired team off an icing actually score a goal? I’m sure there are ways to record each event, but I’m having a tough time thinking of an example to the second scenario especially. Shifts last about 20 seconds, and it’s pretty rare that a deciding event will happen in any 20-second block of ice-time. Lots of coaches call timeouts to rest a tired group after an icing call, but in cases where there is a group that isn’t rested taking the faceoff, does the second group do tangibly better?

I think basketball and football coaches would prefer to use their limited number of timeouts to control the clock in the last minutes of the game. In baseball, a timeout can be used by a hitter to slow down the rhythm of a pitcher. Hockey’s not like that, as there isn’t a solitary individual putting the play in motion or a frequently-stopping clock. There’s no opportunity for clock management, you can only hope to rest players for 30 seconds. You can’t draw up a play that fits the situation, since the next play is a faceoff and you don’t know whether you’ll win that draw, lose it and HOW you’ll win and lose it. Drawing up an endgame scenario in basketball or football, you know who has possession and where.

So the timeout is something that a coach can theoretically control. I don’t think there’s enough research done to show whether timeouts should be called to stop bleeding or to kill time before the faceoff after an icing. Like I found on Sunday, there will always be people willing to criticize a coach for the use, or non-use, of a timeout during a situation they can’t realistically control. The other thing I’ve found is that when I’m particularly angry at a coach for a use of a particular player, I get all fussed when I notice a coach’s micro mistakes that happen to everybody throughout a game. Coaches are quite easy to criticize because we don’t actually see most of the work that goes into the game, whether it’s preparation or video breakdowns. A lot of them become scapegoats for entire seasons.

On the timeout issue though, I think it’d be interesting for somebody to break it down on a macro level and find if there’s a place where it’s the right play to use one.