It was another noteworthy day on the NHL coaching front, the carousel spinning again and spitting out Peter Laviolette as the new coach of the Nashville Predators, replacing Barry Trotz.
Laviolette is now with his fourth NHL team since 2001, and in that span, has experienced the dizzying highs and crazy lows of an oh-so-fickle profession. Laviolette was the genius who coached the Carolina Hurricanes to the 2006 Stanley Cup final, and then was deemed the impediment to Philadelphia’s success, getting fired three games into this season after it was determined the Flyers couldn’t possibly make the playoffs if he stayed on.
This is the essential conundrum in the NHL when it comes to coaches and their increasingly fragile shelf life. Earlier this week, when Kirk Muller became the fifth coach this off-season to get fired, he had been on the job in Carolina less than three years. But even with that limited window, Muller ranked ninth in tenure among all NHL coaches. Ninth!
Sure, coaches are hired to be fired, but the latest string of coaching casualties is bordering on the absurd – especially since the craft of coaching has actually never been more refined. Hockey was once a game of improvisation. Now it is far more choreographed, and players who are out of position, sometimes only be a few feet, pay for their transgressions with ice time.
Gradually, it is becoming clear that managing players might be today’s most important coaching skill, since proficiency with tactics and X’s and O’s is ubiquitous.
“For a coach to be effective nowadays, you have to be hard to please but easy to play for,” says Dave King, the long-time NHL and international coach. “By that, I mean you’ve got to be a coach who’s constantly demanding, but you also need to be a good communicator. What you say needs to make sense, and the guys have to know and believe that you’re right.
“Easy to play for doesn’t mean you’re a soft guy either. You can be one of the coaches with a harder edge. It just means the definition of what you want to do is clear. The key, to me, is that the player has to know his role, understand the system and agree with it.”
Nowadays, long-term contracts that feature no-trade or no-movement clauses provide players with security, so there is a greater onus on the coaches to figure out how to push other motivational buttons. Sometimes, when teams dump their coaches and opt for a fresh face, it works – for a while.
On Tuesday the nominees for the Jack Adams Trophy as NHL coach of the year were announced, and two of the three finalists were relative newcomers – Jon Cooper in Tampa and Patrick Roy in Colorado. Both oversaw dramatic turnarounds which got their teams into the playoffs. Their early success will also raise the bar on expectations, and that can be a trap door in the years ahead. Kevin Dineen, favoured to be the new Carolina coach, was handed his walking papers by the Florida Panthers last fall less than two years after getting them into the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
Paul Maurice, the new man in Winnipeg, started out in the NHL as one of the youngest head coaches in history, and early on, he immersed himself in the technical part of the game. Gradually, over time, he began to realize how things had changed – and how communication and motivation were really the new lynchpins of the modern coaching strategy.
Nothing drove that point home to Maurice better than coaching in Russia for a season, when communication wasn’t simply a matter of calling a player into his office for a chat, or exchanging ideas in the hallway. It involved an interpreter and a far more formal process.
King, who recently led the Russian team Yaroslavl Lokomotiv to the Kontinental Hockey League’s semi-finals, and recorded two major upsets along the way, says he found that to be true as well.
“That’s one of the greatest joys of coaching – and also one of the hardest things,” said King. “I just wish I knew 20 years ago what I know now. This year, in Russia, I learned the importance of a smile and a high-five. You can’t talk to the guy, but you’re walking by him in the hall and you give him a great big smile.
“Those things work. Those things are important, because they create a relationship. The guy understands, yeah, you’re pushing him, but deep down there somewhere is a guy you can play for.”