Information may be power, but the sheer abundance of data available to hockey coaches means it is also a serious impediment to a good night’s sleep.
This is particularly true in the playoffs, where minute tweaks can reap enormous dividends. It’s an arms race of tiny details, fuelled by in-house statistical metrics and reverse-angle replays.
Lose a tight game, as the Montreal Canadiens did to the New York Rangers on Wednesday, and the search for answers goes late and resumes early.
“There’s nights that are shorter than others, and we don’t get as much sleep as players do, but at the same time we don’t exert as much energy as the players do in a game, so it’s a pretty even tradeoff,” Claude Julien, the Habs coach, said with a smile.
The Franco-Ontarian has a reputation in hockey circles as a gifted analyst, an expert at breaking the game down to its constituent parts (he also hoovers up information – moments after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarter-final opener on Wednesday he knew the scores and top-line stats for the other games in progress.)
“I think that’s been, I’d say, one of my strengths, I like to dissect games. But the thing that’s most important in that is I can dissect games as much as I want, but I certainly don’t overload players with all these details,” he said. “As long as I know it, I give them what’s necessary because a player who overthinks is skating in mud by the time he gets on the ice.”
Some coaches like to review the full game tape themselves – Julien said he often does – others leave it to their coaching assistants to go over their area of influence (special teams, defencemen, forwards and so forth).
It can happen immediately after games but more often it’s early the next morning. NHL coaches may not keep the crazy office hours of their National Football League brethren, but that’s only because they don’t have a week between games.
“There’s times when we’re on the road and we’re in the plane, our laptops are out and we’re already watching it. Sometimes, we come in early in the morning, like we did today and we wanted to be ready for when the players came in and we had our stuff ready,” Julien said.
In the postseason, people such as Mario Leblanc take on added importance.
Leblanc, a former junior hockey player, has been the Habs’ video coach for more than two decades. He was on Julien’s staff the first time around in 2003 and works out of a windowless room in the Bell Centre that has the trappings of a television production truck.
Such is the level of technological sophistication at his fingertips that sequences can be uploaded onto the coaches’ tablet computers during the game and players are often shown video between periods.
“You can see just your defensive-zone shifts from the second period, or what happened on the power-play or whatever, it’s all right there,” defenceman Jeff Petry said.
The added degree of difficulty for coaches is there are basically no secrets or surprises in the NHL any more, everyone tracks tendencies. Everyone scours the footage to discern injuries.
The challenge is not in surprising the other guys, it’s performing and executing your game plan to the point where there’s not much they can do about it.
And so, adjustments.
The Rangers present a particular challenge given their coach, Alain Vigneault, knows Julien better than anyone.
Not merely because they faced off in the 2011 Stanley Cup final between Boston and Vancouver, but also because both are natives of the Ottawa region who first met in minor hockey, both coached the Hull Olympiques of the QMJHL, and they played together in the St. Louis Blues system (both had a lot of penalty minutes, Julien had more goals, Vigneault got called up to the NHL sooner).
Asked this week about his memories of those days, Julien joked that “I remember he had size six skates, we used to tease him about that.”
In the chess match between the old friends, it’s Julien’s move.
On Thursday, by the time the Habs’ players straggled in for a light practice, their coach was ready with game footage and a few ideas.
“He’s really, really good at identifying what needs to be done, and then communicating the solutions,” Petry said. “His meetings are open, he wants you to ask questions.”
Added centre Phillip Danault, who sought out his coach for pointers after his postseason baptism: “he’s the smartest guy in here, he sees everything on the ice, he breaks it down, it’s like he knows what we’re thinking … he has a lot of experience, and it shows.”
Then it was on to the ice for a practice where the Habs, who can’t afford to let their well-documented struggles scoring goals to become entrenched, worked on how to convert chances into goals: by screening the goalie, deflecting pucks, and positioning for rebounds.
It was clearly the product of having reviewed the previous evening’s evidence (after the game he said “what I look at is the opportunities we had, and what we can do with them”).
After practice, Julien said that, on balance, he was happy with his team’s play in Game 1, a 2-0 shutout loss, and that “we showed [the players] a few things that should help us score more goals.”
Lest anyone be left with the impression Julien is a one-man tactical band, he isn’t.
Associate coach Kirk Muller, assistants Jean-Jacques Daigneault, Clément Jodoin, Dan Lacroix and goalie coach Stéphane Waite – all holdovers from the Michel Therrien era – have responsibilities.
“You’ve got coaches that are working with you that you have to trust, and you have to delegate because you’re only as good as the people that surround you,” he said.
It helps when they too are willing to deepen their shut-eye deficit.Report Typo/Error