Coaching challenges in the new NHL

Updated: September 2, 2005, 4:17 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Off the top of your head, which coaches will have it tough when the new NHL hits the ice in a couple of weeks?

Well, Jacques Lemaire, Barry Trotz, Peter Laviolette, Gerard Gallant, Mike Kitchen and Dave Tippett, right? The trap guys. The no-offense guys. Right? Right?

Lemaire, a two-time coach of the year who won a Cup coaching the New Jersey Devils in 1995, has a chuckle at the notion that defensive coaches might be in trouble in what is expected to be a more wide-open NHL.

"The people who say that are, I'm sorry, they don't know the game," Lemaire said.

"It's a lot tougher to coach defense," added Jacques Demers, who coached the 1992-93 Montreal Canadiens to a Cup win and who is now a respected analyst.

If there is one absolute about the upcoming NHL season, it is this: no one knows. No one knows how the game is going to be called. No one knows how the redistribution of talent is going to affect team chemistry or competitive balance. And no one knows which coaches will be caught flat-footed and which ones will be revealed as great thinkers, only that there will be some of both.

"Coaches are going to have to adjust," Demers said. "Good coaches will be able to adapt. If you can't adapt, you'll be out of a job."

Rest assured Lemaire, Trotz, Laviolette, Tippett, et all, did not spend the last 16 months with their old "let's play boring hockey" playbooks tucked under their pillows. And rest assured the teams these coaches will lead onto the ice at training camp in less than two weeks will bear little resemblance to the teams they last coached.

Take Laviolette, whose Carolina Hurricanes finished with a league-low 172 goals in 2003-04.

"We didn't get outworked. We didn't get outhustled. We didn't get outgrinded. We just didn't score," Laviolette said.

In the interim, Carolina GM Jim Rutherford added offensive defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky, who has topped the 50-point mark three times, Ray Whitney, who had seasons of 76 and 61 points before a disappointing turn in Detroit, and Cory Stillman, who finished tied for seventh in league scoring (80 points) while playing for Tampa in 2003-04. Laviolette, who coached the U.S. entry at the last two world championships and will reprise that role at the 2006 Olympics, has a new game plan for attacking through the neutral zone to complement his new lineup. Still, he acknowledges there is still much work to be done before the season opens Oct. 5.

"For me, I know it's going to be a learning curve in training camp," Laviolette said. "Right now we're just talking. We know what we want to do, we have a game plan."

What happens after that? No one knows. Or did we mention that already?

With that in mind, here's a little coaching primer for the new NHL:

Casting off the dead weight, or re-educating the masses

Players and coaches are creatures of habit, so a key challenge will be in breaking players' bad habits and identifying those players who can't adjust.

"We've taught our guys very well when the puck is turned over, the first thing you do is reel someone in to get in a defensive position," Trotz said.

"We need to get our players to step out of that comfort zone," Tippett added. "Are these things that can be taught? Certainly they can be stressed."

Some players won't get it, though. Too big, too slow or too dim-witted, they'll have to go or their teams will pay the price in scoring chances and power-play opportunities.

"There's going to be players losing their jobs," Demers predicted. "Sorry boys, you're going to have to play hockey back there."

The Lords of Discipline

New Jersey, Tampa Bay and Detroit were the three least-penalized teams in the NHL during the 2003-04 season. Not coincidentally, they are the last three Stanley Cup champions. Now, with higher standards for obstruction fouls, staying out of the penalty box and keeping your mouth shut when disciplined by officials will be more important than ever before. That will put more pressure on coaches such as Bob Hartley (Atlanta), Tom Renney (New York Rangers) and Pat Quinn (Toronto) who coached the three most-penalized teams in 2003-04. Regardless of your talent level, you cannot win if you consistently take more penalties than your opponents.

The Lords of Discipline, Part II

Most coaches agree that early on in the season there will be a plethora of penalties called as the standards for obstruction are established. Many games will be decided on the strength of special teams.

"That's when you'll see whether the coaches will adjust or not," said Craig Button, a senior scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs and former GM of the Calgary Flames. "That's where the coach's intelligence and innovation is going to come into play."

Coaches will face pressure to come up with power-play lineups and schemes that take advantage of the expanded offensive zone (the blue lines have been widened, and the goal line moved two feet closer to the boards). This extra space should allow skilled players to move along the goal line toward the net for a scoring chance or, if challenged, to pass off to a seam in the slot, setting up a scoring chance.

The defensive dilemma, Laviolette said, is that if you check aggressively on the penalty kill, you can quickly give up too much space -- and space means scoring chances.

A man's got to know his limitations

Yes, everyone is expecting more up-and-down action, more room for skilled players, which suggests the most skilled teams will have success. But good coaching has always been an equalizer in the face of a lack of talent. A coach who understands his team's capabilities will be one step ahead of the coach that tries to make his team of apples look like mangos.

If a coach tries to impose a wide-open style or aggressive forechecking scheme with a team that doesn't have the necessary skill or foot speed, players will quickly realize the mistake, leaving the coach in a confidence crisis.

"You will adjust depending on the type of team that you have," Lemaire said. "You give me Gretzky, Kurri, Anderson and Messier, and we'll go offense."

Give Lemaire Marc Chouinard, Pascal Dupuis and Wes Walz, well, that's another thing entirely.

"It's easy to say, go offense. But you still have to find a way to play so your team can win," Lemaire said. "I don't think it'll be you'll just go up and down the ice. One team gets the puck and gets a scoring chance and then the other team gets a scoring chance at the other end. It won't be like that. You won't be playing on the lake there."

And you are … The quest for identity

With the new rules governing icing, the tag-up offsides and making the two-line pass legal, the potential for long stretches of uninterrupted play is dramatically increased. Uninterrupted play means broken line combinations, mismatched defensive pairings and the greater likelihood of breakdowns -- unless a coach has galvanized his club with a strong team identity.

"I think there's going to be a lot more chaotic atmosphere on the bench and in the stands [because of the excitement]," Trotz predicted.

Players who understand what is expected of them, regardless of whoever else is on the ice, should give up fewer scoring chances and goals during these moments of chaos.

"How does your team stay together?" Tippett said. "You can build that into the identity of your team."

Tippett, whose Dallas Stars struggled offensively in 2003-04 with just 194 goals, said he and his coaching staff have put together a booklet on how players should expect the game to be called and how they can expect to succeed within that framework in the hopes of building that identity from the first day of training camp.

"We're going to sell it to the players to the max," Tippett said. "I'd rather be overprepared than underprepared, because getting up to speed will be pretty difficult after the season starts."

Risk and reward

OK, the game is going to be more open, more scoring chances. The goaltending won't be as stingy in part because netminders' equipment has been downsized. So, if you have one of the handful of elite goaltenders in the league (Jose Theodore, Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Tomas Vokoun or Marty Turco, for example), why not capitalize by playing a more risky style? For example, sending the weakside defenseman in on the rush. He can draw a penalty or be in position for a scoring chance. Or, if there's a turnover, he'll get caught allowing an odd-man rush the other way. If you've got Turco, Brodeur or Vokoun in net, maybe it won't matter.

"I think you've got to take advantage of that," Button said.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

All coaches do it, or at least claim they do it. But those who do it well will be the ones who succeed. Trotz, for instance, studied game film from the world championships and World Cup of Hockey and then spoke to coaches from Canadian university hockey and the NCAA to try to understand the yin and yang of playing with a two-line pass. Then he and his coaching staff went over a range of strategies they might employ and how they might defend them if they were the opposing team.

"I think I've got a good handle on how it will unfold," said Trotz, who was an assistant coach for Canada's entry at the 2002 and 2003 world championships.

If a rule falls in a forest, and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

There is, of course, the real prospect that some coaches will be loath to step out of their defensive comfort zone for fear of losing games. And nothing hurts job security more than losing, especially now that virtually every NHL team will enter the season believing it has a shot at the playoffs. During Canada's recent national junior team camp in British Columbia, Button noted there wasn't a home run pass attempted during the three-day session, even though two-line passes are allowed.

"The coach sets the plan for the system of team play," Button said.

If a coach doesn't want his players breaking out of his zone ahead of the play, "there aren't going to be any long passes."

"You can take away every line on the ice. If coaches are going to be tight defensively, they're going to be tight defensively," Button said.

Teach them or motivate them? Take your pick

It seems logical that teams that can learn and adjust to the new rules and standards of enforcement quickly will enjoy success earlier on.

"The teaching coach won't have as much problems," Lemaire predicted. "Coaches that are more the type of motivator will have a bigger problem."

Bruins coach Mike Sullivan sees the issue from a different perspective.

"I don't know that coaching per se will change because of the rules change," said Sullivan, who is entering his second season as an NHL head coach and who was recently named an assistant to the U.S. Olympic team for the 2006 Games. "To me, the biggest challenge in coaching is in managing people and inspiring people to get the most out of them."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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