“Am I saying this to him just to make me feel good, because I want to be right, or am I saying it to improve the player?” – Steve Smith.
Smith was drafted in the sixth round in 1981 by the Edmonton Oilers. He played two more years in junior (London) and then another two in the AHL before becoming an NHL regular with the Edmonton Oilers in 1985/1986. He was an NHL rookie in 1986 when he was part of the infamous “own goal” against the Calgary Flames in the second round of the playoffs.
He didn’t let that moment define him. He’d go on to play 804 NHL games, won three Stanley Cups and become a top-pairing defender on those Championship Oilers teams. He was an NHL scout with the Blackhawks, and became an assistant coach with the Edmonton Oilers before joining the Carolina Hurricanes. In July he resigned his assistant coaching job with the Hurricanes and was hired by the Buffalo Sabres.
He has worked almost exclusively with defencemen, so I caught up with Smith to discuss his coaching philosophies, what makes a good coach in his eyes and the excitement of coaching the brilliant Rasmus Dahlin.
Jason Gregor: How much film have you watched on young Rasmus Dahlin and what impresses you the most?
Steve Smith: Well I’ve watched four or five games. I’ve watched him fairly closely. This kid is a stallion. He can skate, he can move, he sees the play very well, and has a very long wick (patient) with the puck. I’ve seen some of the World Championship games and the kid has some grit and some bite as well, which I was excited about — just sort of that winning attitude. Offensively he has the opportunity to possibly be a real juggernaut in this league. He was beating guys one-on-one, he was zooming around people like they were standing still. He’s fun to watch for sure.
Gregor: So his offence is great. When you work with the young defensemen, we hear so much that learning how to play defence in the NHL may be the hardest thing for any young player. What’s going to be the biggest learning curve for him defensively?
Smith: Well I think that nurturing a young guy like that is a daily, a weekly and a monthly chore. I think it takes a village to raise a child and this is the way that I feel with young defencemen. I’ve talked to an awful lot of people about it over the year. I even played golf with Dale Tallon this week just to talk to him about it and how Aaron Ekblad was handled in Florida. And I think what is really critical with a guy like this is that you don’t take away what his best assets are to start. So clearly let him loose. Let him play, let him do the things he does well and the reason he was the first overall pick. Then on a slow basis introduce a little bit of defence as he goes. There are going to be mistakes made early that may cost us games, but I try to remember back to when I was a player. I remember more from the mistake I made than from what the coaches gave me. So I want to allow him to make some mistakes, I want to keep his confidence high. I think the organization as a whole, just having Phil Housley there, who was a very similar type player, is going to be a great sounding board for me and for him. So I really feel like it’s going to be very, very comfortable situation for him.
Gregor: You have coached against Rasmus Ristolainen. What do you like most about his game?
Smith: This kid has some grit. He’s got some real game and he’s a gamer. He stands in front of that net and he pushes back, number one. He battles to protect the scoring areas. He can skate, he’s physical, he can shoot the puck and he sees the ice very well. I think, if anything, what he’s going to benefit this seasons is our team having a couple of guys coming back from injuries who are going to able to absorb some of the ice time that he had to take. I think having Dahlin in the lineup, who will take up some of that ice time, will help and I think he (Ristolainen) is going to be a better player simply because he’s surrounded by better players. He doesn’t have to play at three quarter speed some shifts because we can slide him in there for 24 or 25 minutes instead of 27-29 where it’s hard to maintain his pace game in and game out in the NHL. As you watch on a nightly basis, there are not many guys who can do it. [Ryan] Suter has had some success doing it in Minnesota and [Drew] Doughty in LA, who is a complete player altogether, and (Erik) Karlsson. But it’s hard to maintain that high level of pace with that many minutes, so I think that he’ll benefit from this.
Gregor: How did you learn as a defenseman, not that it’s OK to get beat, but that that’s going to be a part of the job at times when you play against the best forwards in the league?
Smith: I remember my first year in the league Lee Fogolin was the captain of our team, just before he passed the torch on to Gretz [Wayne Gretzky], and I remember Mike Gartner, who had a little over 600 goals in the league at the time, and he comes down the wing against me. I’m thinking that like a junior player he’s going to try to slip it through my legs, he’s going to make some sort of play. Well he skated around me like a hoop around a barrel and threw it in the top shelf. We’re going back to the bench and Foggie is saying, “It’s not the last time it’s going to happen kid, just learn from it.”
You have to have that sort of processor which allows you to know that things are going to happen that won’t always be good. There are going to be tough nights, there are going to be better players. Let’s face it, there are guys who are faster and better than you on any given night whether you are a middle of the road player, or a real good player. I think that’s one of the things these young guys have to learn. I look back to Justin Schultz and the mistakes he made early in Edmonton. He’s really become a heck of a player in the league and has learned to defend an awful lot better than when he first started.
Gregor: How much of that is coaching, how much is just the player making the commitment to defend better?
Smith: I really believe that the coaching side is just setting these guys up for success. They’re going to be reminded on a daily basis. I remember Al Arbour said an awful long time ago, “When they are sick of hearing it, tell them one more time,” and that’s one of the most successful guys in the NHL from a coaching standpoint ever. There is going to be reminders from the coach, but I also think somewhere along the line they (players) have to make these mistakes themselves. They’re going to learn from those mistakes and I’ll have it set up on a daily basis to do video with guys.
You learn as a coach how much video they want, how much they can take. Each guy is a little different individually. I have meetings at the end of each year that I’ve coached, which is ten years now, and they all have a little different perspective. Some want to see the positive side, some want to see their mistakes, some don’t want to see any at all. Some of them have to be force fed, because you certainly do have to learn lessons somewhere along the line if you’re going to get better. But I think you have to approach each individual guy a little bit different.
COMMITMENT AND COACHING
Gregor: So ultimately, how far they grow from that learning is really up to the individual because you can show then all of the videos and understand that they want to see lots or see a little, but ultimately I’m sure you played with players, and have coached players, who were good but never made that internal commitment to be better defensively.
Smith: Well there is no doubt that that is the case. I truly believe a part of it is coaching and allowing them and forcing them to buy into something which they will start to believe in. Finding a way to push the right buttons, to have them feel good about what they’re doing… I think everybody wants to be held accountable. Some guys don’t mind doing it at a real rough level where you’re having to be pushing on a daily basis. Some guys sort of want to be left alone, but they still want to be held accountable to something. I remember Glen Sather yelling at me when I was really young and I finally said to him, “OK enough already. All you do is yell at me.” And he said to me, “Son, when I stop yelling, that’s when you have to worry.” And you know Slats well, so you know that to be the case.
Gregor: So did you take that as him suggesting, ‘If I’m not yelling at you that means that I don’t care about you and I don’t think you can improve’?
Smith: Exactly right. He was just trying to make me better and he eventually pushed the right buttons, and I just didn’t feel it was the right buttons early on.
Jason, what I always think about when I’m talking to a player is, ‘What would I want to hear as a player, what could I handle as a player?’ And that doesn’t make it right with every player, but before I approach something I ask myself is it doing me any good, is it doing him any good?
Am I saying this to him just to make me feel good, because I want to be right, or am I saying it to improve the player? Am I doing it to make that player feel like he’s going to improve from the things that I say, from the actions that I hold him to? And I think that’s critical. In today’s game with these millennials, they are information driven, and they’ve got as much information as you do going into the game and coming out of the game. All of that support staff around them with agents and families and handlers and trainers, sports psychologists and everything else. They have a lot of information. So I really believe that having the right information and being able to get it through to them the right way is critical.
Gregor: Steve, I want to follow up on something you just said there, ‘It’s critical to give them the right information and know the right button to push.’ You said the first realization was when not to use it, but now you’ve coached for almost ten years and you’ve coached a lot of different personalities. How long does it take to understand what the right buttons are for each individual player?
Smith: Well I think that is the major question. I know as coaches we sit around and we discuss for hours and hours the systems and a principal based game and the fundamentals and what kids should do and where your stick should be, and shoulders, and inside cut and outside cut and all of these variables that these guys go through on a daily basis. But to me, ultimately it’s critical these guys understand that you’re completely on their side. One of the things that happened to me later on in my career when I was in Calgary, I was player coach for one year. That was the first time in my life I realized that coaches actually wanted to make me better. Until then I was always thinking that they wanted to blow me up on a regular basis. That was a heck of an experience right there. It was a great learning experience.
Gregor: What is your approach with new players? Do you talk to them before camp or watch video on them? What is your strategy when you come to a new team as an assistant coach?
Smith: Number one, I want to have as much information on a player as I possibly can get. I want to make sure I’m completely informed. I want to talk to people who have had him in the past. I want to talk to coaches who have had him in the past and I think it’s really, really critical that somehow some way you create a real strong relationship with these players. Even looking back to my years in Edmonton when I coached [Jeff] Petry and Schultz and Theo Peckham and all of these guys, I still talk to all of these kids.
When Justin Schultz won his first Stanley Cup he texted me that night. You set up a relationship with these players and it lasts forever. That will allow you to be hard on them, or encourage them, and that way you can be critical of them, but until they have some sort of a formed relationship I think it’s really tough to make an impression.
All of the X’s and O’s in the world they really don’t want to hear. I remember back to coaches who tried to give me too much X’s and O’s and you kind of cringe when they walk into the room. There is a subtle amount that you do need and they will need, especially these young guys. Part of this whole process is learning the league and teaching the league, teaching Dahlin that, as you just said a few minutes ago that there are fast guys and Connor McDavid is going to come a hundred miles per hour, you had better be prepared for him. You go into the corner with [Milan] Lucic and he’s not going to burn you with speed, but he’s going to push you around and slap you in the face. You have to know the difference in these types of players, learn how to defend them differently. That is a part of your learning curve and as I coach I just try to give them the information I feel will help.
I loved a few of his quotes.
“Before I approach something I ask myself is it doing me any good, is it doing him any good?”
“Am I saying this to him just to make me feel good, because I want to be right, or am I saying it to improve the player?”
We always hear how important communication is, but often we overlook how to properly communicate. What to say, when to say it and how to say it are the keys. Smith mentioning Justin Schultz is a stark reminder of how patient teams, and some media and fans, need to be with young players. It can take two, three, four years for players to get comfortable defending at an NHL level.
Young players need experienced coaches, but also good communicators and Dahlin and Smith are both lucky to be working with one another, and I think the main reason why the Oilers defence core will collectively have a better season is because of the addition of assistant coach Trent Yawney. Yawney shared similar thoughts on coaching defenders as Smith did today, when we spoke in June.
I’m curious to see how Dahlin and Ristolainen develop in Buffalo. Smith will not only help their defensive game, he will be able to communicate accurately how to overcome adversity early in their career.