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.

Comments (9)

  1. It’d be nice, but really hard to quantify. How do we know the timeout turned the momentum, and not, say, a lucky bounce?

    Timeouts in hockey do not have much of an effect. Do we have a stat about how much they are used? I’d gather that most games feature no time outs. And I don’t see a problem with that.

  2. I pretty much agree with you on a lot of the points here. I’d never use it before the 3rd period, and even then it would only really be a late game scenario either up or down one, with either an defensive or offensive zone faceoff coming up and I wanted to double shift my best defensive/offensive players. I think people over think the use of the timeout way too much.

  3. I can’t agree with that deterministic outlook – Everything counts, in every amount.

    As an obvious example, last season Peter Laviolette’s Flyers were notorious for going down a goal or two (early in the game) and his consistent use of the time-out (and whatever he said to them – Be it a post-hypnotic suggestion, or a simple “settle the fuck down, and play your game) allowed them to rally, in so many instances; stemming the “bleeding”, focusing their play toward a more aggressive forecheck (or what have you) to tie, and eventually win, many of those games.

    …Else why have a coach on the bench to dictate the line-matches and tempo – A coach to adjust and prioritize his team’s response to ongoing play?

    Just because the “overall stats” appear uneventful doesn’t mean there aren’t some coaches (on one end of the spectrum) that excel in “realtime” (micro) management, and other coaches (at the extreme other end, and probably in the majority) who either handle it badly or are utterly indifferent to it – Thus balancing this (as yet) inscrutable aspect of the game.

    Furthermore – Granted that a faceoff-win isn’t guaranteed – But a coach who calls a timeout, delivers a (practiced) set-play and puts his best faceoff man (or two, just in case) on the ice, with mere seconds left; resulting in a critical tying-goal (and how many times have we seen this occur, especially with teams like NJD and CAR) is *doing his job* – He’s optimizing the situation (minimizing the variables) to achieve a consciously-planned and desired outcome.

    That’s what coaches do. One should study their successes (and not just the grand miasma of coaching, in general) to understand what it is that’s relevant (statistically, or otherwise.)

    You stated as much yourself – Just because we can’t see the atoms and molecules of their insight/discipline, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

    • (Flogging the horse) – One final example: Pulling the goalie, in an attempt to tie the game may not prove successful in any “statistically relevant” way, and in the majority of the situations will not positively impact a game’s outcome – But one would be a fool to believe that placing an extra man on the ice doesn’t improve one’s chances of scoring a goal.

  4. Laviolette is the master of timing these just right…. not just vs. Pittsburgh in ’12 but EC Semis vs. Boston in 2010, particularly Game 7. Flyers gave up three quick goals in the 1st before calling timeout, and you could read Laviolette’s lips saying, “Just get one goal.” A couple minutes later Van Riemsdyk hung one on Rask and the rest, as they say….

    • But that’s only 2 examples – in 3 years. That’s not enough to prove that it had an effect/impact, or that Laviolette is good at picking when to call them.

  5. Maybe it’s an April Fool’s thing, or maybe sarcasm doesn’t translate well over the interwebs, but I was insulted that you called Luongo a journeyman backup. Did you see the saves he made later in the game? A goalie of his pedigree…

    Okay, it’s probably sarcasm.

  6. If you read bourn’s old blogs you will find the answer. It acts as a reset event. It allows players to think before X we were bad. Now we can be better.

  7. Personally I think the Timeout after a couple of goals in the NHL is irrelevant except to make the coach feel like he’s done something.

    In lower leagues where there is less bullshit between goal scored and the next faceoff I can see it being much more useful, to give the players a chance to clear their heads. In the NHL there is basically a timeout anyway, between the goal being scored, the fist bumps and the celly.

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