Clearing Up A Misconception About NHL Coaches

Toe Blake

MacTavish would, it seems, love a team who are muckers, who play a very physical style and the trap to perfection. In other words, he wanted to be Jacque Lemaire, the former head coach of the Minnesota Wild. That is not Oilers hockey. The team President of Hockey Operations Kevin Lowe put together is much more fast and loose, which focuses on attacking and speed, not grabbing a one goal lead and sitting on it.
— Jonathan Williams, Bleacher Report


The thoughts expressed above by Jonathan Williams are not unique to him. In fact, those sorts of comments seem to pop up every time Craig MacTavish’s future is discussed, with prevailing opinion being that MacTavish is too focussed on defense and not enough on offense.

That opinion is wrong.

There have definitely been problems with MacTavish’s coaching this season; rumours of a rift in the room continue to abound, and more players are being quoted as saying things either overtly critical of the coach or running directly counter to statements made by him. But MacTavish’s requirement that players ‘create more than they give up’ is hardly unique to him.

I finished reading Scotty Bowman: A Life In Hockey over the weekend, a rather (occassionally overly) thorough look at Bowman’s decades in the sport. There were many points in the book that stood out to me, but one of them was Scotty Bowman talking about the man who he regarded as the greatest coach in the history of the game, Toe Blake:

“He got a lot out of his teams. He really believed in making it tough on other teams to score. He liked skilled players, but demanded balance from his players. I remember when he got Yvon Cournoyer out of Juniors. He played him on the power play. That’s how he broke him in. He never handed things to players. He believed the young guys had to come in and prove themselves, especially defensively. I think all the players who played for him, they knew how they stood, that they had to play both ways.”

When Bowman took the job of coaching the Canadiens, Blake was on hand to dispense advice. “He told me ‘Just keep stressing keep the puck out of your own end, you’ll score enough goals.’ We had a lot of skill players. He said, ‘Don’t get carried away with the offence.’”

Between the two of them, Blake and Bowman won 13 Stanley Cups in 21 years.

The point though, isn’t that defense is what wins; it’s that defense is what virtually every NHL coach preaches. And the simple fact of the matter is that when Craig MacTavish eventually leaves (be it this year or further down the line) his successor isn’t likely to turn back to the days of Glen Sather (and Gretzky, and Messier, and Kurri, and Coffey…). Instead, his successor is likely to say the same things that MacTavish does. He won’t be a clone, but one thing is all but certain: he’ll still emphasize that at the end of the day it’s all about what a player creates versus what he gives up.

And really, that’s how it should be.

  • Hippy

    @ I'm a Scientist!:
    Dont worry about the Totem pole. Go ahead and put MacT on there, this conference is only to reaffirm that Fans dont matter at all. MacT signed an extension until the 3072 season. His severed head will carry around the ashes of Dustin Penner to symbolically place on the astro-bench in the 3rd period.

  • Hippy

    The total failure of every coaching staff under MacT to ice an effective powerplay is the key reason MacT moves on. Anyone who is critical of the job MacT and his staff have done five on five just hasn't been paying close enough attention. (Also, had MacT been given a proper shutdown center, the PK numbers would probably have been fine)

    I believed right from the start of the season that this team was too small. I thought this lack of size/ grit would hurt them five on five. I believed that the Oilers would compensate for this deficiency with an effective powerplay… I was wrong. The PP was way too predictable: everyone pressured the point, the Oilers forced the puck through the box too frequently looking for the cross seam pass… They just needed to show the opposition a bigger variety of different looks… This team would have made the postseason if management had addressed the need for a defensive center, and if MacT's staff could have delivered an effective powerplay.

  • Hippy

    Jonathan Willis wrote:

    I don’t think there’s any doubt that the team Lowe assembled was a poor fit for MacTavish, but I don’t think he team would have been a particularly good fit for most coaches, either.

    Your basic point (not just the one highlighted but in your blog as well) is spot on. There are general pre-requisites that every coach is going to subscribe to and fans should be cautious in terms of what kind of changes a new coach will bring.

    That said, I think you missed or for this particular piece ignored what a fresh set of eyes would bring. It's not about a huge shift in basic hockey philosophy, as much as it will be about how the coach see the pieces of the team fitting together.

    MacT was comfortable with his vets and his vets were comfortable with him. As a group they were together for so long that it appeared that MacT lost sight of what they brought as hockey players and used them inappropriately by deferring to them as the guys that will get things done for him.

    A new coach should bring a fresh evaluation of what each guy can and can't do, hopefully resulting in them playing in more appropriate situations.

    Of course some fresh ideas for the special teams wouldn't hurt either.

  • Hippy

    @ Archaeologuy:
    Well, as long as Penner is benched… i guess that is a good move. Right? Right?

    *crickets*

    *gets out his chisels and is about to start carving the top of the totem pole*

    Nahh..might as well wait until after the noon presser…

    *twiddles*

  • Hippy

    Rick wrote:

    MacT was comfortable with his vets and his vets were comfortable with him. As a group they were together for so long that it appeared that MacT lost sight of what they brought as hockey players and used them inappropriately by deferring to them as the guys that will get things done for him.

    Dead on. MacT went to the vets even when they were hurting the situation because that is who he felt he could trust and in the end this hurt the team more.
    In the latest David Staples Blog he has one some good points but this one stood out to me..

    "If there was an on-ice metaphor for MacTavish this season, it was a smart player like Horcoff on the penalty kill, desperate to succeed, fiercely chasing hard after that puck, but chasing too hard, getting out of kilter, throwing things out of sync and, in the end, hurting the team."

  • Hippy

    good points.
    i think all these philosophical indictments against MacTavish are baseless and usually have no data or evidence to back them.

    what it boils down to is that the Oilers roster cant execute. average vets, passive players and immature kids doesnt really ring with much confidence for success. it did last summer though.

    simple as that.

  • Hippy

    Rick wrote:

    A new coach should bring a fresh evaluation of what each guy can and can’t do, hopefully resulting in them playing in more appropriate situations.

    Absolutely. Coaches get stubborn on guys, and fresh eyes will be a big help. I'm not saying stick with MacTavish by any means; but then you already identified my key point – that a new coach probably isn't going to be significantly different in his basic philosophy.

    He could very well be better, but the 80's are gone. There aren't going to be a raft of 6-5 games no matter who gets hired.

  • Hippy

    West Coast Oil wrote:

    Dead on. MacT went to the vets even when they were hurting the situation because that is who he felt he could trust and in the end this hurt the team more.
    In the latest David Staples Blog he has one some good points but this one stood out to me..
    “If there was an on-ice metaphor for MacTavish this season, it was a smart player like Horcoff on the penalty kill, desperate to succeed, fiercely chasing hard after that puck, but chasing too hard, getting out of kilter, throwing things out of sync and, in the end, hurting the team.”

    Actually before I even read that bit from Staples I was going to use a similar example but with Moreau.

    It looked to me like Moreau and MacT had very similar seasons in that Moreau looked like a guy that was simply trying to do too much. It effectively just effed up what ever situation he was playing.

    MacT, was the same way, he all to often looked like a guy that was treading water as fast as he could but forgot to let go of the 50lb rock when doing so.

    I don't question the committment of either guy to the team but it's tough to deny that they were flailing so uncontrollably hard that they ended up probably doing more harm than good.

  • Hippy

    MacTavish has become a distraction more so than ever this year. He needs to be moved out of the coaching role, even if he's put in as an assistant GM or something of that nature.

    We have us fans and media to thank for that distraction. I'm a firm believer that MacTavish's window of opportunity is over. But I think MacT, the fans, the players.. everyone is tired of hearing about the MacTavish drama – will he step down? Will he be fired? Would this team be better under a different coach? It's a huge distraction. The time to change is now. MacTavish is a respectable man, and I thank him for his years here. If he gets a job elsewhere, I wish him the best of luck. If he stays in a different role here, I am sure we will benefit from that. But this team is being dragged under for every day he stays as coach.

    It is possible that the next guy who comes in (please not Buchy, btw) is going to preach defensive systems as well. But I hope that he doesn't forget that forwards should be our #1 offensive weapon and defencemen should complement them offensively, and defencemen should be our #1 defence and forwards complement them defensively. Not the other way around. At this point, our forwards are the best defenders on the team, and save for Hemsky, our defencemen are the best offensive players. This does weigh on Lowe's decisions a bit. But I'm confident that with a handful of changes (in addition to a new coaching staff), this team will be not only salvageable, but a contender.

  • Hippy

    @ Death Metal Nightmare:
    My sentiments exactly. The coach has absolutely no bearing on player performance or development. He doesnt control the kind of system they play or even which goalie is in net. He cant be blamed for the team being outshot in 53 games. Not for failed on ice matchups. Not for a lack of identity or leadership. It certainly isnt his job to motivate players. The fact that he already admitted that he couldnt find a system that worked is just the Hero inside of him getting ready to sacrifice himself for the good of the team. He obviously knew what would work but the players were too inept to perform. Simpletons, all of them.

  • Hippy

    Nobody at RX1 minds the Oilers playing a tight checking, defensively responsible game five on five… We just want to see intensity, big hits, and an exciting powerplay: two PP units that can gain the zone, move the puck, and generate excitement/goals. The people at RX1 deserve to go home with a smile more than four or five times a season. (I know there was 18 wins… but only a few of them were cause to smile)

  • Hippy

    Archaeologuy wrote:

    @ Death Metal Nightmare:
    My sentiments exactly. The coach has absolutely no bearing on player performance or development. He doesnt control the kind of system they play or even which goalie is in net. He cant be blamed for the team being outshot in 53 games. Not for failed on ice matchups. Not for a lack of identity or leadership. It certainly isnt his job to motivate players. The fact that he already admitted that he couldnt find a system that worked is just the Hero inside of him getting ready to sacrifice himself for the good of the team. He obviously knew what would work but the players were too inept to perform. Simpletons, all of them.

    I disagree on the first point. The coach has all the responsibility in player deveopment. Coaches are meant to be teachers and strategists it is their responsibility to teach young players an NHL level of play and commitment and to get the best out of them. Good coaches know how to work with different levels and types of players and how to groom and teach them to be successful at the level they are playing.
    MacT is great with working with veteran players and the gritty types of indiviuals but seems to struggle with skilled or non gritty players.
    With the new NHL salary cap era teams are depending more on younger players and I think this is why AHL coaches are having such success at the NHL level as they are familiar with how to motivate and work with players who come from junior to the professional level. In the past, coaches like MacT had the luxury of having the AHL coaches groom the kids for a good time period so when they reached the NHL they were essentially men. this making their coaching job a bit easier because you did not have such a huge gap between juniors and pro league.

  • Hippy

    West Coast Oil wrote:

    I disagree on the first point.

    I would hope that you disagreed with the entire thing. It wasnt meant to be serious in the least. More of a tongue in cheek rant meant to undermine Death Metal Nightmare's point.