- Scott Burnside, NHL
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- People often ask Dave Tippett how his golf game is now that he lives in Arizona.
You know, there's perfect weather, and all he does is coach a National Hockey League team. The assumption is that he has loads of time to work on his short game, and that probably he has a putting green in back.
For the record, Tippett has played one round of golf since he was named coach of the Phoenix Coyotes in late September and likely won't pick up a club again until the season is over. And if he's lucky, that will mean sometime beyond mid-April, when most everyone in the hockey world figured the beleaguered Coyotes would have long packed their gear for the summer.
Ah, hockey coaches. We revere them when their teams overachieve; we pillory them when talented teams underachieve; we ridicule them and prod them and test them with questions on a daily basis, reinforcing many fans' notions they could do the job just as well. After all, how hard can it be, putting down the names of three forward lines, three sets of defensive pairings and two goalies, and then tapping them on the back every few minutes to get them on the ice?
The tie, a nice patterned number that we assume is silk, has yet to make an appearance, but it's still almost two hours from puck-drop at Jobing.com Arena, so there's plenty of time for Tippett to get into coaching gear. His assistants are buzzing around the offices that are down a short hallway from the Coyotes' dressing room.
At 4:10 p.m. local time, Tippett leads his crew -- former Hartford Whalers teammates Ulf Samuelsson and Doug Sulliman, former Canadian Olympic coach Dave King, and longtime NHL netminder Sean Burke -- into the dressing room.
The players are waiting, most clad in what now passes for long underwear, crammed onto the benches along one wall and two ends of the rectangular room. Netminders Ilya Bryzgalov and Jason LaBarbera stretch on the floor next to a portable video machine, which broadcasts images onto a screen hanging from a wall.
Tippett says a few words, the lights dim, and Samuelsson, in charge of defensive changes and the team's penalty-killing unit, goes through the team's responsibilities for the game against the Minnesota Wild.
The Wild won four in a row before dropping a 1-0 decision to St. Louis in their previous game. They are outside the playoff bubble, but as Tippett jokes, when you haven't made the playoffs since 2002, everyone is on the Coyotes' radar.
Samuelsson first goes over the Coyotes' positioning during recent penalty kills -- the team is 10th in the league after being 28th a year ago -- and then points out that the Wild like to take a lot of shots from the high slot. He also notes the potential to take advantage of forwards who play the point on the Wild power play, like Martin Havlat, and to pick off a cross-ice pass and turn it into an offensive chance. Samuelsson warns of shooters like talented defenseman Marek Zidlicky and encourages the Coyotes defenders to keep their sticks in their lanes.
Then it is Tippett's turn to talk about the Coyotes' power play. He suggests that when captain Shane Doan is on the point, he keep the gap between the other point man closer as opposed to farther apart, a strategy they have employed in the past. Opposing teams are pressuring the Coyotes' points during man-advantage situations; Tippett suggests if the Wild do so on this night, the Coyotes need to have someone drop into the high slot to take a short pass under pressure.
As the lights come up, Tippett reinforces that the Coyotes will need both special teams working, and the players give a quick, appreciative yell as the coaches file out of the room.
It is now 4:20.
In 10 minutes, King will return to the dressing room and give a comprehensive scouting report on the Wild, from neutral-zone tendencies to break-out patterns to line combinations and defensive pairings. After that, it will be time for the pregame skate and finally the game, No. 50 of the Coyotes' 82-game march to what they hope will be an unexpected berth in the playoffs.
Back in his office, Tippett, who played 721 NHL games, is asked whether he gets the same butterflies before a game as a coach.
"I don't know if it's nervous, but if you ask my wife, she always knows when it's game day," he said. "I don't know if I'm distant, things rolling around in my head."
Earlier in the day, he took his dogs for an hour-long walk near his home. One some days, if he's lucky, Tippett will have time to take out his motorcycle and ride up to the hills, stopping at a favorite lookout spot to clear his head. But moments like that are rare in the NHL schedule, especially during an Olympic year when the schedule is compressed. "It's game-on all the time," he said.
Five desks are arranged around the outer part of the coach's office, one for each of the four assistant coaches and video coach Steve Peters. On each desk is a computer, and Peters has already sent the coaching staff a breakdown of the Wild's previous outing against St. Louis, allowing them quickly to access specific parts of the game -- breakouts, power plays, penalty kills, dump-ins, neutral-zone play.
In the middle of the room, there is a table with a smaller hockey rink eraser board and some markers. It is here, in the middle of the room, where Tippett sits before Friday's practice, not the ringmaster so much as the director of traffic.
The meeting begins with a discussion of Bryzgalov's last start, his stellar performance against the Eastern Conference-leading New Jersey Devils to end a three-game skid. Burke is asked whether Bryzgalov will practice or take some shots the next morning, even though there isn't a formal morning skate.
King suggests it would be good for Bryzgalov to take part in the practice to keep his momentum going for Saturday's game; Burke agrees before departing to consult with the team's starting netminder and arguably most important player. He returns shortly to inform the staff that Bryzgalov will skate today, but not the next.
The coaches talk about some of the communication issues between Bryzgalov and the team's defensemen. They have a series of simple commands that indicate whether Bryzgalov is to move the puck or leave it for a teammate, yet King points out that defenders often just call his name, "Bryz." How is he to know what to do with that? The coaches agree to work on that element of communication.
The group goes on to discuss a range of other issues, from Ed Jovanovski's return to the lineup to whether to scratch Jim Vandermeer, which would leave the team short of toughness. Tippett is also wrestling with the idea of making a change involving his top offensive player and captain, Doan. The classy veteran has struggled of late, and Tippett is thinking of moving him onto a line with hard-nosed forwards Vernon Fiddler and Daniel Winnik. The thinking is that Doan may be trying to do too much, knowing how important he is to the team offensively. Perhaps working with blue-collar-type players will help him get his mindset back.
"How long do you want to go, Tip?" asks King, who will be responsible for some of the drills in the coming practice. Tippett decides the skate will last 30 or 40 minutes and should have lots of energy. (He believes his troops were a little slow in some of their reactions during the New Jersey game.) Tippett leaves to post the lines and defensive pairings in the dressing room for the coming practice.
There is more than a bit of the mystical surrounding NHL head coaching. There are all kinds -- yellers and button-pushers and motivators and detail guys and everything in between. And if there is a single factor or characteristic that guarantees success, we'd like to know what that is.
Tippett draws experience from his first coaching experience; he was a midseason replacement as an assistant coach with the Houston Aeros of the old International Hockey League back in 1995-96, a year after he retired as a player.
Hired by the Coyotes after Wayne Gretzky stepped aside as coach amid ongoing ownership issues, Tippett found instant comfort, if not karma, with his coaching staff. He played with Samuelsson in Hartford, and their wives are good friends. Sulliman is also a former Whaler. Tippett also played for King and with Burke on two Canadian Olympic teams in 1984 and 1992.
Part of putting together a game plan for any team is understanding the tools at hand. When Tippett was coaching in Dallas and he had Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, Mike Modano and Brad Richards, his ability to construct forward lines and a game plan was dictated by his strength down the middle, buoyed by the netminding of Marty Turco.
In Phoenix, Tippett has no such strengths to draw from. Of the 30 NHL teams, no team's leading scorer has as few points as Doan, who has 31 through 50 games. Tippett has had to sell a game plan built on synergy, the unwavering belief that the sum of the parts is greater than the value of the parts alone.
"Every team you've got, you have to look at the parts; you have and try and find the equation that equals wins," Tippett said.
It's not an easy way to play, the Coyotes way. It is hard skating and hard checking every night. More skilled teams can get away with having off nights by counting on talent to grab a point or two. Not the Coyotes.
"A good team player will figure out that's how we have to play to win," Tippett said. "If a player really cares about winning, he will look at the game no differently than the coaching staff."
You may be the greatest coach in the world and put together the greatest game plan in the world, but if your players cannot or will not execute that plan, you're cooked.
"They're willing to do it [in Phoenix]," Tippett said. "They're willing to try and do it."
When Tippett got his first NHL head-coaching job in Dallas in 2002, he said, there was concern about using too much video. "The old paralysis-by-analysis thing," he said. Now, players want as much preparation as they can get; they want everything at their disposal.
If that's the case, they've come to the right spot. Tippett's desk is covered with piles of papers.
Tippett established years ago a way of assessing players' performances, a modified plus/minus system that looked at a player's involvement in scoring chances for and against, hits, turnovers, takeaways. He and his coaching staff tabulate things like double-driving the net, where two players are driving the net to try to create scoring chances or getting back into the play to disrupt an opponent's scoring chance.
The system takes into account each player's role on the team. An offensive player, one who logs power-play time, should have a significantly higher "plus" rating under Tippett's system than a player who is a stay-at-home defenseman or defensive forward. But within the system, each player can be graded and have their effectiveness tracked over time.
The system reinforced to Tippett that he should use his Czech players -- Martin Hanzal, Petr Prucha and Radim Vrbata -- against other teams' top lines. It might not look right on paper, but statistically, it has proved successful.
Every 10 games, the coaches will look at the results of the system to see whether changes need to be made based on successes or failures and discuss those positives and negatives with the players individually. After each game, a separate analysis is done, with each coach providing a grade of a player's effectiveness in that contest and his impact on the game given his specific role.
Sometimes Tippett or the assistants will deliver a "calling card" to a player's stall before a game to remind him of what is expected of him that night.
"He's very methodical. He's a thinker. He doesn't overreact either way," Maloney said. "He has such a clear understanding of our situation and what we need to do to get to the playoffs. I really admire the way he thinks things through."
Although committed to his data, Tippett is not married to it. There is and will always be the constant challenge of keeping his players from getting in a rut. Before the game against New Jersey, Tippett changed the order of the team's pregame meetings to try to break them out of their funk.
When Tippett posts his own lineup, he will sometimes mix up the order of his lines so that the same trio isn't always listed first or fourth. It may be cosmetic, but it subconsciously reinforces that this team cannot afford to rely on one line or a couple of players to get the job done.
Doan said Tippett and his staff always let players know how they're doing and what's expected of them. "He's such an honest coach," Doan said.
Tippett has wrestled mightily with the lineup decisions for this game, but he ultimately leaves Vandermeer out and moves Doan to the Winnik-Fiddler group. By the end of the first period, Doan scores from the slot on a great pass from Winnik, a goal that complements a Prucha breakaway goal set up by a deft pass from Hanzal to give the Coyotes a 2-0 lead. That goal was started by a smart, long pass from Jovanovski.
The Coyotes build a 5-1 lead in the third period before the wheels come off. Guillaume Latendresse deflects an Owen Nolan shot from the slot -- what was it that Samuelsson had warned about? -- and Nolan scores again on the power play less than a minute later to make it 5-3. Latendresse later scores again, and it's 5-4 with just over five minutes to go. Tippett shortens his bench and is rewarded when Vrbata scores an insurance marker with a minute left.
Afterward, Tippett and the coaches meet briefly with the players. The team has a tradition of awarding a game puck; after each game, the previous winner hands the puck off to the next. On this night, Matthew Lombardi praises many players but gives the puck to Fiddler. Tippett goes over the schedule for the next couple of days before players shower and meet up with family or friends waiting down the hall.
Outside the coaches' offices, Tippett figures the game was better for the fans than for the coach. There's not a lot of playoff experience in his locker room, and this was one of those rare nights when perhaps they learned a lesson that didn't cost them points in the standings.
"There's not a lot of analyzing after the game," he said with a smile. "We'll leave that for tomorrow."
Ah, tomorrow. Just another day without golf, just another day in a long season for the NHL coach.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
After replacing Wayne Gretzky before the start of the season, Dave Tippett is close to bringing Phoenix to the playoffs. How's he doing it? We spent a day with the coach to find out.