September 28, 2010
There was a time in the NHL when you needed two simple things to win: a great roster, and someone behind the bench who could maximize his team's effort. Sure, coaches had some ideas about the power play. Yes, they had basic systems. But, more often than not, the team with the best players -- or the coach who got the most out of his players -- won.
Great coaches from that era were intimidating figures; men like Mike Keenan, Pat Burns and Pat Quinn. They were a breed of leaders who could squeeze water from a desert rock, and their players respected them, partly because they were given no choice.
Today however, the competitive landscape is different. The divide between the great players and the merely "good" has been shrinking like the polar ice caps.
This narrowing of the gap has meant an increased emphasis on tactical coaching. The trap was the NHL's version of growing pains -- or maybe it was more of an era of awakening for coaches. Wait a sec, I can have a pretty big influence on this game using X's and O's. Coaches with bad teams figuring out that there was, in fact, ways to save face despite having a pathetic group of humans on their bench.
And with that, the emotion-based, motivation-through-intimidation type of coaches that we all love to watch so much started to go extinct. Today's NHL is developing into a more technical one.
The game is far too fluid to become near-scripted like basketball or football, but systems are being implemented in more areas of the ice than ever before. Coaches chalkboards that used to be covered in the scrawled letters "C," "RW," "LW," and "D" were replaced by whiteboards with "F1, F2, F3, D1, D2," which are now on their way to being replaced by computers with nothing but X's as teams implement five-man rotations.
Because of the speed at which hockey moves, the sport grew up as a reaction-based game. Each player read the play and tried to get open to score, and if there was a guy with a better chance to do it, you gave the puck to him.
As hockey has matured, it's stayed reactionary, but the reads haven't become an individual reading his opponent and trying to get the puck and score, rather, they're reading their own team as much as anything else, while it's become only one person's job to pressure the puck. If he causes a disturbance, then "F2" (or just the next "X" on some teams) will hop on his horse to help him out.
This natural evolution confounds some old-style motivational coaches like John Tortorella, who are still under the impression that when his team loses, it was related to a lack of effort.
Don't get me wrong -- there is value in motivating players. There just isn't any value in yelling at guys for hundreds of consecutive days when they clearly have some level of self-motivation -- they made the NHL. As a coach, you need to be able to string together a few incident-free days for the snap-shows to have real merit. If the coach serves it up daily with the morning coffee, the impact is gone. Players block out coaches like teenagers do parents, permanently flipping off the switch on The Coach Who Cried Wolf.
My first experience learning the value of technical coaching came when I was fortunate enough to play for now-St. Louis Blues head coach Davis Payne at the end of the 2007 ECHL season.
His default setting is Systems and Strategy. He shows his players the respect professionals deserve and allows them to self-motivate.
However, if a player abuses that freedom he takes it personally, and reserves the right to go all Iron-Mike-Kennan-in-his-prime on guys. For the most part, Davis focuses on his own job: he adjusts to the opposing team's systems mid-game, an option only enabled by having a well-coached, prepared team.
Decades ago, the focus for a bench boss was largely in dealing with his players. When things were going poorly, they changed the lines, not the systems. And outside of game-time, they dealt with off-ice issues, team chemistry and the inner workings of their club.
Today, most teams have an assistant who's a "players coach," that acts as a pseudo-human-resources-manager to deal with the ever-trying daily issues of keeping 20+ people happy. As with Davis, today's head honchos are free to actually coach, which he took the liberty of doing in spades -- the whiteboard was always jam-packed with drawings of both teams' systems in every area of the ice, in every situation of the game.
You were damn-well expected to not just read it, but to know it.
Young coaches like him (and Mike Babcock of the Detroit Red Wings, and Scott Gordon of the New York Islanders, and Dave Tippett of the Phoenix Coyotes and...) are taking over the NHL because they preach a more cerebral game than coaches of say, the Don Cherry era. They study their opponents, read scouting reports, and have climbed the ranks while standing behind benches of players who had the utmost confidence in their leader's preparation for the game.
A good roster is still the No. 1 most important key to success, absolutely. But the emphasis on quality coaching is rising.
Older, accomplished coaches of eras past have struggled to evolve to the successful methods of today. Those coaches deserve their due credit -- they coached the way they needed in their era to get the results they wanted, and they did it well.
But the meteor is close, and the dinosaurs aren't long for the NHL. Change is upon us.
Justin Bourne blogs on Bourne's Blog. His columns and videos will appear on this site on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.