Wednesday, September 27, 2006
A successful NHL coach is still a resourceful one
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
Once upon a time in the "old" NHL, coaches routinely came into their offices, picked up a dog-eared manuscript left by their predecessors called "The Trap And How To Use It," and away they went. Game on.
Now, NHL coaches must come into the office, sit quietly and engage the far quarters of their brains in an effort to squeeze every last ounce of offense out of their respective squads. It is a process that is far more difficult to implement than it is to say and heralds new criteria for evaluating success for NHL coaches.
Despite the challenges, Sharks coach Ron Wilson says he has enjoyed coaching under the new rules.
"I think you had to change your way of thinking. It was fresh," San Jose Sharks coach Ron Wilson told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "[In the past,] I think everybody was copying everybody and turning the league into a quagmire."
In the past, if you had players who could play a stifling, lock-down defense that featured the maximum level of hooking, holding and obstructing, even the least talented teams still could have a chance to win every night.
How do you think the Florida Panthers made it to the 1996 Stanley Cup finals?
Or the Buffalo Sabres in 1999?
Or the Carolina Hurricanes in 2002?
If you don't have a clearly defined offensive game plan, if you don't have a plan to help your creative players, well, create, then you're in trouble. And a coach in trouble is a coach looking for a new career.
"I think last year was a bit of a breath of fresh air. It was challenging because you had to think differently," Wilson said. "It just kind of felt that you were kind of freed."
The new rules and standards of enforcement forced coaches to employ different tactics and methods of trying to capitalize on more open space, more power plays and playing defense without holding on.
Wilson said he tried to draw on his college days and experiences in Europe as a player to reteach offensive game plans and take advantage of the new landscape.
Not since his first days as an NHL coach when he had Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya in their respective primes had Wilson gone into the rink with the mantra that offense is fun.
"Personally, I couldn't wait to get to the rink," Wilson said.
With players such as Joe Thornton, Jonathan Cheechoo, Patrick Marleau and Milan Michalek, the focus on offense and creativity carried through the entire team, Wilson said.
"You had to find the right kind of rhythm, and that was so hard because you want to know what you're doing and what you're getting into," Wilson said. "But you have to trust yourself and you had to trust that players were buying in."
Without the economic restraints that served as built-in excuses for many coaches in small markets, the pressure to succeed will be greater on coaches than it ever has. Those coaches who have success will be paid handsomely and might attain the kind of stardom that has come to their NFL and NBA brethren, predicted former NHL netminder Darren Eliot, now a national broadcast analyst.
Coaches who can adjust on the fly, who can make smaller, more anonymous (not to mention cheaper) pieces fit with the big-name, big-dollar pieces, will be in great demand, Eliot said. Coaches who have a system and try to cram players into that system will be left behind.
Peter Laviolette and Lindy Ruff are examples of coaches who embraced that new dynamic. Ruff was named coach of the year, and Laviolette's Hurricanes won a Stanley Cup as both men employed dynamic, attacking styles using lineups that did not have so-called big-name stars, at least before the season began.
And what about a coach such as Philadelphia's Ken Hitchcock, whose forte has been defense? He'll have to prove he can adjust after a disappointing first-round exit against Buffalo, Eliot said.
Anticipating that coaches are about to become highly sought-after assets similar to free-agent players, Carolina GM Jim Rutherford locked Laviolette into a long-term deal shortly after the Cup win. But in the days before the deal was announced, there were persistent rumors that the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders were interested in Laviolette.
Perhaps new Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi put it best when he said there is no cap on coaches, which means getting and keeping a good one will be imperative.
"The synergy between your scouting and coaching now becomes critical," added Lombardi, who brought in former Vancouver coach Marc Crawford to try to revive the Kings' fortunes in Los Angeles.
Just as scouting and player development is going to be crucial to teams' long-term success, Atlanta coach Bob Hartley figures that developing coaches at the minor league level also will be important.
Teams that can impose a blueprint for success at the minor league level won't spend as much time trying to work new players into the NHL system when they're called up. This was especially evident last season with the Sabres, who withstood a myriad of injuries but never missed a beat because Ruff had done so much work with the Sabres' AHL affiliate in Rochester during the lockout.
This fall, Hartley has been working closely with longtime Chicago Wolves coach John Anderson to try to ensure there's consistency in the game plans and teaching methods between the Thrashers and their AHL affiliate even though the Wolves are an independently owned franchise.
"That's survival," Hartley said.
There might be an impression that coaching success in the new NHL will be the domain of younger bench bosses, but that's not necessarily the case.
Randy Carlyle had tremendous success in his first NHL coaching season, leading Anaheim to the Western Conference finals. He turned 50 during the playoffs.
Carlyle, for instance, saw shortcomings in the lineup last season. Ducks GM Brian Burke made the necessary adjustments to give Carlyle the kind of team he wanted, jettisoning Sergei Fedorov, Petr Sykora and Keith Carney and handing over more and more responsibility to youngsters such as Joffrey Lupul, Corey Perry, Francois Beauchemin and Ryan Getzlaf.
The coach not only has to understand the new enforcement standards and how to implement that system but also has to be able to teach that to his players, Burke said.
That's the kind of teaching that doesn't come from that well-worn "trap" book now being used to prop up the stick rack in many an NHL rink.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.