Few NHL teams in recent memory will put the copycat coaching theory to the test like the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins. Mike Sullivan’s group won the Stanley Cup with a north-south approach that used speed and stretch passes and generated oodles of shot attempts, catering to “analytics hockey,” and it thus may have broken a barrier. More and more teams may try to win with the possession game, and that will be drilled into new coaching recruits from the ground up.
“As a coach you have to be careful,” said Vancouver Canucks coach Willie Desjardins, “because it’s one thing to run a system with one team, and then all of a sudden you have different personnel, and the system won’t work with different personnel. You always have to adjust what you’re doing to your personnel. Just because it’s worked for one team it doesn’t mean that system will work for you.”
It's an interesting debate, and it's one aspiring coaches might strike up with Desjardins at the 2016 TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference. He'll appear there as a speaker when the conference comes to Toronto July 15 and 16. San Jose Sharks assistant Steve Spott and hockey journalism maven Bob McKenzie, former Hockey News editor in chief, will join Desjardins along with many other prominent names in the industry. The conference then shifts to Vancouver, where Carolina Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters, AHL all-time wins leader Roy Sommer and legendary NCAA Div. I women's coach Shannon Miller headline the group of mentors speaking July 22 and 23.
Desjardins says he's excited to go, not just because of what he'll share, but also because of what he'll learn.
“I know everybody thinks it’s power play and penalty killing, but lots of times things will come up like player development, relations to the media and using statistics," he said. "Lots of things will come up that are cutting edge that you don’t think about. When you’re at the clinic, there’s a lot to be gained at it.
“It’s really diversified, and that’s a good part of it. When you’re a coach, everybody picks different things out of a presentation. You can you can pick things based on whatever level you’re at. It doesn’t have to be the most advanced topic."
What it means to be a coach is transforming. The next generation of young bench bosses must be more media savvy than ever. In the Twitter era, when every last word can be publicly picked apart, Desjardins champions honesty. That way, he says, you’ll never be trapped weeks later for saying something inaccurate. He also believes treating players with respect is extremely important. A demo video on the TeamSnap site depicts Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz echoing that sentiment. Modern players "just know more," as Trotz puts it, and they constantly ask, "Why?" whereas they followed their coaches' instructions without question in previous generations. Every coach thus has to be a deeper thinker with sound rationale for every strategy he deploys.
Instead of copycats, we may see customized approaches to analytics as forward-thinking coaches rise up the ranks.
“Most coaches have always had an analytical mind," Desjardins said. "When I was in Japan, I had what I called 'success factors.' It was, ‘If we do these things, we’ll win.' And that was kind of an early sign of analytics, where you find something, and there’s a correlation between that and your success. The key is what you measure and then accurately measuring it.”
We've entered a time in which hockey, criticized at times for its old-fashioned mentality, democratizes its information. More opinions and ideas and strategies are a good thing. Every coach at every level needs any edge he or she can get. That's why events like TeamSnap continue to sprout up every off-season.
The TeamSnap Coaching Conference is a meeting of minds to share strategy and ideas for bench bosses of all types. The courses range from "Inside the Mind of Elite Hockey Players" to "Fuelling Performance in the Third Period" to "Analytics in Today's Game" to "How to Run an Effective Practice." It's inclusive, as it targets coaches at many different echelons of the game. It's run by The Coaches Site, a popular online resource that pools information for aspiring coaches. It includes drills and first-person blog posts from the same coaches who appear at the conferences. The TeamSnap event offers a blend of instruction and dialogue in the form of the Q&A sessions.