Summary: If evaluating Greg Sherman was hard, grading Joe Sacco and his staff - Adam Deadmarsh, Sylvain Lefebvre, Tim Army and goaltending consultant Kirk McLean - is even tougher. So much of what a coach does happens outside of the public eye and grading his X's and O's is beyond the skill set of a dullard like myself. But, I will give it the old BU try.
Sacco recently finished his 3rd season behind the bench, a season where the Avalanche improved by 20 points in the standings and were in playoff contention until the last week of the season. Scoring was down 10% from the previous year (2.7 goals per game to 2.43) but the Avs were much better defensively and between the pipes, with goals allowed dropping from an abysmal 3.5 per game to 2.66 (a 32% improvement). Special teams improved as well, with the PP finishing in the top 10 and the PK improving from 30th overall to 12th (honestly, was not aware of that). While Sacco was a grinder type as a player, the Avs finished middle of the pack in both hits (13th) and blocked shots (18th). However, the Avs had 173 more takeaways than giveaways, the third best ratio in the league (behind Chicago and...Columbus???).
I thought one of the real strengths of Sacco this year was his deft handling of his goalies, as both were coaxed to solid seasons. This is worth pointing out, as I feel this is an area Sacco hasn't always been as good at. Defense was another strong area, where the Avalanche were generally fairly successful at quickly getting pucks out of the zone (and up the ice). Offensively? Er...not really sure I quite get the offense yet. I know it starts with either a stretch pass from the D or a quick transition on a neutral zone turnover...but once they get into the offensive zone, if there was a plan it went right over my head.
One hallmark of Sacco's reign is the immediate spark he seems to provide to forwards new to the system (Peter Mueller, Tomas Fleischmann, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog) and both Steve Downie and Jamie McGinn improved their point-per-game pace after being traded to Denver. It seems, though, that the bloom doesn't last forever. Ryan O'Reilly had a breakout year in his 3rd season under Sacco, but many other players - Stastny, Duchene, Hejduk, Jones, Mueller and Galiardi - all had disappointing seasons this year. Yes, injuries and age are factors here...but my fear is that players are quickly tuning out Sacco's message. Hopefully, that's not the case.
One other area of concern has been the Avs' inconsistency, especially when it came to big games. So many times this year, the Avs seemed to ride a little wave of success, but then came out flat in one of those "must-win" games we like to spout about. Losing 7 of their final 10 games while in a tight playoff race is one example of this. Another would be the Avs' dreadful record in their own division: 8-14-2. Only lowly Columbus had a worst record against their division - and they played in a division that sent 4 teams to the playoffs.
2012 Outlook: Having recently been extended by two more years by the Avalanche, Skipper Joe will be behind the bench next year; only 8 coaches have been with their current team longer (and 5 of those 8 have a Cup appearance). He may have at least one new assistant though, as Sylvain Lefebvre is reportedly in the running to be the head coach of a new QMJHL team in Quebec owned by former teammate Jocelyn Thibault.
DDC's Take: I think Sacco was a better coach this year and he's got his team playing pretty good hockey in the first 125' of the rink. Now, if he can just get that last 75' (read: offensive zone play) up to snuff and get his kids to stop choking in big games, this could be a very dangerous hockey team. C for the season, but I do believe Sacco is capable of taking this team to the next step. Hopefully soon, because I don't want to be doing these grades in April next year...
Sean's Take: I’m still not 100% convinced his system will get the most out of a few of the players, and I’m still not 100% convinced that having a young coach grow with a young team will yield the tallest of beanstalks. I am, however, 100% convinced that the Sacco haters better hold their tongues, at least for one more year – the man has improved each year and there is no reason to doubt he won’t improve again. His no-nonsense "play hard or eat nachos" system did a great job at separating the trees from the weeds.
Cheryl's Take (originally posted here): In his third year as head coach of the Avalanche, he improved with his line match ups, he learned how to successfully adjust his strategy mid-game, and he helped the team find ways to win more games than last season. Another reason is that Sacco is a straight-shooter. There is no guessing about what you will get with him. He expects you to play your best, give your fullest, and if you don't, you won't play. If you want to get ice time under Sacco's rule, you leave everything on the ice. A third positive of Sacco's performance this season was his decision for setting lines. A lot of people hated his decisions, like putting Matt Duchene on the wing. But at least Sacco tried it. People questioned his decision to put what seemed like third- and fourth-line grinders on the top two lines. However, look at what Jamie McGinn and Steve Downie accomplished on those lines. Finally, the team improved this season in areas that Sacco directly influenced. See #11. Love him or hate him, you should be honest and objective and recognize that Joe Sacco did some good in 2011-2012