I love interviews where I learn something. I’ve been blessed to interview coaches and players in many sports over the past 20+ years, and usually you can glean some information from one or two or their responses. However, the best interviews are when the guest is willing to share their information and go in-depth with their answers. It is great for me and the listeners, because you learn more or you get a different perspective on an action, a system or on specific players.
On Wednesday Edmonton Oilers associate coach Jim Playfair was a guest on my radio show and he grabbed my attention early when he mentioned the four basic components of defending that he coaches his players. Thankfully he was willing to explain what they are, and then we looked at the strengths of some of his defenders and the areas they are looking to improve this season.
Playfair shared some good insight into Darnell Nurse, Duncan Keith, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci and Evan Bouchard. I appreciated his willingness to share details about the defenders and how he approaches working with them.
Jason Gregor: This year there has essentially three new defenders on the team. Bouchard was here last season, but he only played 14 games and you brought in two veterans in Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci. In your experience is it easier when you bring in veteran guys to a new team, do they pick things up quicker?
Jim Playfair: Yeah, I think they do. I also think there is a different mindset within our group right now. Kenny (Holland) looked at it over the summertime and he talked to a lot of the players, and obviously met with Tipp (Dave Tippett), and the decision was made that we are in the position where the expectation to win is right now.
And so, the adjustment from having young and upcoming potential defenceman to having some veteran guys come in and bring knowledge of the league, bring the consistency of their game has kind of been the shift of the mindset within our group on defence. So, what we have been trying to do is get them up and running. Something I do in the summertime is I take all the defencemen, and all of their shifts that I’ve watched over the season. I took some of Cody and I took some of Duncan’s and I’ll break it all down into just four basic components of details of defending play.
I try to find the best shift and sit down with them and say when you do these four things and you’re doing them right, we’re going to win most nights. If you do that with young players they’re trying to grab onto the playing in the league, staying in the league, being a good player, being a consistent player where the veteran guys are, I think, they are able to focus on the details and get their game up and running and remain at a more consistent level of play for a long time.
And so the veteran guys are going to come in, and we are going to piece together their games individually, and then collectively blend them together and I think that it is going to get us moving together quicker. That’s kind of the theory we use behind it.
Each player I sit down with, it’s a half hour meeting before camp starts and it’s simply here are all of the best video clips of where you are playing your best hockey, and here is what it looks like. It’s something that I’ve done when I first started with Darnell (Nurse) and even the younger players. And I did it with Duncan Keith the other day and he enjoyed it. He likes to see it; he wants to be coached. And that’s the key, getting the players in here that want to be coached and focus on winning right now.
Gregor: You mentioned these four basic areas to defend. Can you elaborate, what are the four?
Playfair: Well, those are the top secret. No, I’m just kidding (laughs).
Basically, being a real aggressive player at the offensive blueline. Starting our defence at the offensive line, getting pucks to the net, finding outlets in the offensive zone, trying to maintain and then support our offense. Can we jump in and join the play in the offensive zone? Can we be aggressive?
And off of that it’s defending to the neutral zone. Making sure we’re able to protect the middle of the ice and we’re able to reach the rush and see who is coming at us and be aware of that.
Then getting the forecheck stopped up and plays stopped up in our own zone. Being hard to play against. Keeping someone from the front of our net.
And then the breakout component. Getting pucks up to our forwards, getting pucks up and out of our zone.
Basically, I always try to work from the offensive blueline back to our net and try to make sure that those four pillars of our defencemen’s game are consistent. I think our group has grown towards doing that. We just had a big meeting today with all of our defencemen about getting that established coming out of the Calgary game. We didn’t move the puck quick enough. We didn’t protect the middle of the ice well enough. We will start the process now that we are down the numbers in camp. We will get the eight guys who are here, and we started it today, so we should be much better tomorrow. That’s kind of fundamentally what we look at. And then from within that structure, then they all go and play their own game. They all go and explore Duncan’s way that he can jump around and the way the Booch (Evan Bouchard) can pass the puck and shoot the puck, and all their individual skills can come out of that basic four pillar framework that we work with our defencemen on.
Gregor: I like that. You have a team foundation, but not every player is the same, so you still have to allow them to work to their strength.
In regards to Duncan Keith. I had an opposing scout tell me that he defends by attacking. When you watched his videos, did they match that premise? Is Keith at his best when he is attacking and in doing so, does he need a partner who knows how to read off of him as well?
Playfair: Yeah, when I talked to Duncan this summer I started putting these clips together and we would discuss how he does it, and he skates forward a lot off of the defending part of the game. And so, I told the group this morning, that Duncan is probably one of the best defencemen to play in the National Hockey League in the last 10 years who kind of surfs across and pushes on the puck carrier and pushes him out of the middle of the ice.
And so, we are going to lean on him to help us with some of the areas where he can really help our group improve on that. But I think that the deal with Dunc is that from the top of the circle down to our goal line, into defending areas of the ice, he’s as quick as any defenceman in the National Hockey League still to this day. And I think that when he turns and gets back to a puck quickly when he’s defending, using his stick to disrupt, or getting back to become an outlet option for the goaltender or for his partner, he’s extremely quick in those areas. So I think that’s going to help to support our whole group breaking out. And then it’s just getting him back to being an offensive-minded player and getting pucks back to the net and seeing a player who is seeing plays that are open for him offensively. And I think, to your point earlier, he does defend a little bit different and you have to allow for that.
I think Darnell is a bigger guy who can defend through the middle of the ice. [Slater] Koekkoek is like that. And Booch is a real strong skater and he is an underrated quick player. He’s in extremely good shape and he is an elite passer. So he is going to be a little bit different as well. You have to allow all of them to have their own individual skillset, but they all appreciate, understand, and respect what we are trying to do as a group. And that way we can all sense that if we are doing all four of those things then we are probably winning. If we are doing three of the four things, we’re going to give ourselves a chance. When we get into doing just one or two of those four basic things, then we have no chance to win. So, that’s how we kind of blend the group together.
Gregor: You also brought in Cody Ceci and he said earlier today how last season he got back to how he first played when he came into the league He felt more confident. What do you see in Ceci’s game, and what are the areas you like and feel can complement Keith?
Playfair: Well first of all when I watched tape of him this summer what stood out is that he was a good right-shot penalty killer. He has quick feet, he can get to pucks quick, and he’s strong. He’s not a big punishing defenceman, but he’s an effective, smart player. In going through his video tape and meeting with him, I think the big thing for us is to get him to be a real stabilizing player who recognizes when he has a chance to jump up the ice, he has the green light to go.
But also to recognize that without the puck, when he gets his positioning organized, I call it ice management, when he knows where he is on the ice with the puck, or without the puck, it’s going to set him up to be more consistent. I think he got a lot of that back into his game last year. And talking to him I think that he felt good about that. So, we’re going to try to extend into that and grow off of it. And talking to him this morning before I showed the video tape to the team, he says ‘I‘m starting to figure out what our group is trying to do consistently.’ He is a real good competitor, he is a real solid player, he is kind of an old school player who just wants to do things right. So, we’ll work with how he’s going to play. I think that him and Duncan together are going to be a stabilizing force. Both have the ability to create offence from some good, solid defence.
Gregor: Jim you talked off of the top about there is a renewed focus maybe from your group. And it’s time to win now. If you’re going to win now, you have to take every shift as serious as you took the previous one, and it’s a learning process.
This is your third year with Darnell Nurse, and the progression that he has made every year has been significant. What impressed you most in the growth of his game, and where are the small areas you feel he is looking to improve?
Playfair: When I first came here I sat Darnell down and we went over a bunch of video tapes. It was basically to get him organized to become a consistent defender and a consistent player on the ice and manage his ice more consistently. We found that there were times on the ice where his athleticism and his skating ability took him into positions on the ice where he got dead ended, he didn’t have a secondary play to go with his first initial reaction.
So, we just again — starting at the offensive blue line — talked about how to create more offence. How to shoot more pucks in the middle of the ice as opposed to outside of the dots. How to jump down the wall and join the offence. And then off of the rush just getting to the dots, and then supporting through the middle of the ice and then reading through the rush so that he was more consistent.
But then in turn when he turned to finish somebody, he gathered a bunch of knowledge and information so that when he went to make that decision he was more confident that he could finish that job and be done. And then of course in front of the net, just playing his own side of the ice a lot more. I try to keep the left shot guys on the left side of the ice and the right shot guys on the right side of the ice, which sounds simple, but when they get competitive and they get intense, sometimes they end up on the other side of the ice and there just needs to be more backhand exit passes. We kind of got him organized on that side of the ice and being a bit more of a patient defender as opposed to being a skating defender.
All of that is great, but Darnell is the first hockey player I’ve ever coached where he watches every game in the summertime. He gets a little black book, does an evaluation after each game, and then we’ll talk after he watches 10 or 15 games about: What did you see? What do you want to improve upon? That’s a summer project he takes on and I take on the summer project of watching all of the games. We come together and we identify areas of the ice. So, whether he has to gap up more, whether he has to use his stick more in defending, or he has to get more pucks to the net.
I have a deal where each defenceman gets to have one shot on net so that you have six guys doing it, three periods, you have 18 shots and Darnell last year led our group at 2.75 shots on net per game. So, he’s going to want to push that up to three. He’s going to want to become a more consistent player, but he’s for sure our leader.
What he has done is taken on the responsibility where Evan Bouchard trained with him this summer and Connor [McDavid] this summer, and now Evan understands what it takes to build a foundation, and I’ve leaned on Darnell to become the guy that all of the other young defencemen that come into the organization. I want to be able to take video tape of him, and say this is the basic structure of how our group plays and then you play your game off of that.
He’s an important player, and obviously he was rewarded for it (new contract) and obviously he wants to see this thing work properly and he’s an impact player for our group. But he’s certainly put the work in and it’s just about him becoming a very dedicated player and he’s being rewarded for it and so are we!
Gregor: Were you surprised when he said ‘I want to watch every game and then every 10 or 12 I want to talk to you?’
Playfair: Yeah (laughs) absolutely. And one day I phoned him and I heard the paper (writing sounds) and I said, ‘Are you looking your game up?’ And he goes ‘Yeah, just give me a minute’ and he went to the specific game we were discussing.
That’s Darnell. He comes from a very strong coaching mentality. He’s worked with people who have been very good for him over the course of his lifetime. And you can lean into him hard because he has been coached hard, he’s been raised with the theory that he can challenge himself. So, he just sets it up for our group and our players to improve. And Booch is going to be a better player because of being around Darnell Nurse and that’s the growth that you get with it.
Gregor: It illustrates it’s not just a fluke thing when a player improves continuously. He constantly working at his your craft.
Tyson Barrie has been an elite offensive defenceman for the last six seasons. He is top-10 in points, but like most player there are areas to improve. What impresses you most about his game and what are the areas he’s looking to improve?
Playfair: I think when Tyson came here last year his mindset was that he was on a one-year deal. He recognized the situation, and he wanted to produce and help us win and go as far as we can and then let the chips fall where they may. Then he came out of last season and went into free agency and it didn’t go perhaps the way he thought it would go. When he came back and signed here I put together probably about a nine-minute video package for him to look at. I had been building it for him all summer. I wasn’t quite sure if he was going to be back with us, but then we sat down, and he was disappointed that despite his scoring he didn’t have a bunch of offers. So, we talked about him becoming a better defender. We talked about him getting the four areas of the ice a little bit more intense, and add a little bit more of his competitiveness. I talked to him about the fact that he is a great competitor, you can’t deny the fact he is a great competitor. I said to him last year his competitive mindset was setup to create offence, and this year and going forward for the next three years, let’s make sure that you are a competitive defender. And to his credit he said that game four against Winnipeg, ‘I felt that I was a very good player.’ And he was correct.
So, we looked at his videotapes, I didn’t show anything offensively. I did everything on his competitiveness as a defender and he started laughing. I said, ‘You probably could have used these this summer and showed some of the GMs around the league them and shown that you can defend, and you can be a hard competitor.’ And we had a laugh about it.
But in the exhibition games that he’s played, he’s made a complete investment in becoming a harder player to play against in his own zone and he does it different. He does it with his quick feet, he does it with his quick stick on pucks, he does it with his quick little outlet passes. He’s not going to be crashing and smashing guys into the boards off of the rush, but he’s like Duncan Keith in the fact that he is smart, he is an intense player, he is a competitive player and I think he is going to have an excellent season.
He may not lead the league in scoring — maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t — but I think his competitiveness and his willingness to be a better defender is going to help us and you know what, credit to him, he didn’t like the way that the summer went and he got a solid deal here and he’s bought in for term, and he’s bought into becoming a better defenceman for our group and I think that his area for improvement is going to become being a competitive, consistent player for us. And so far he’s done his part and he’s been excellent in the pre-season.
Gregor: And lastly a quick one on two young players. You saw [Philip] Broberg a little bit in the bubble, but that’s kind of a unique situation. You got to see Broberg and [Filip] Berglund in preseason. I know it’s a very small sample size, but what were your impressions of those two?
Playfair: First of all, they’re coming into a smaller ice and I think that that takes some time to adjust. Bergland is an older player, he has played over there a little bit longer. I was really surprised — not surprised, I was really impressed. Right shot player, keeps it simple, moves the puck hard, manages his ice pretty good, especially coming into a small building. And you know what, he just played simple and steady. He’s kind of like an old school defenceman. You don’t notice him very much, but he’s on a winning team all of the time, so that’s how I see Bergy.
Bro is a young player. Again, his movement from a big rink to a small rink will take time, but his ice management, when he understands how to play in a small rink in the American League for a while and becomes a real solid defender, he’s for sure going to play in the NHL. The thing right now with him coming over as a young player, is that he tries to skate himself out of a lot of problems instead of passing the puck up the ice. And just going back to pucks with awareness of what is going on, where the forecheck is coming from. He put himself into some positions where he was hit too often. That’s just the awareness of just going back for pucks and finding good outlet passes.
We looked at video twice from two different games and the only focal point was from the blue line back. We didn’t focus on much offence, because once you build your defence, you get a foundation of those four things we just talked about. Once you get those in check, his offence will for sure come. So, again, a good young player, a big player, willing to learn, he’s going to be an exciting player for the organization.
—Nurse’s commitment to watching all his games and taking notes explains how he has been able to improve every year. It illustrates how his improved goal scoring wasn’t just a fluke. It was about attention to detail and when and where to shoot from and an added focus on getting more shots on goal. It will be difficult to match last season’s goal totals (prorated to 23), considering Brent Burns (twice) and Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Shea Weber are the only D-men to score 23 goals in a season since 2011. And they scored, 7, 8, 10 and 12 goals on the powerplay. Nurse scored 15 even strength goals last year in 56 games. Only Burns (21, 20, 19), Morgan Reilly (17) and Erik Karlsson and Dougie Hamilton (16) scored more in the past decade. And they all did it an 82-game season.
He might not be on the same goal-scoring pace as last year, but him scoring 15+ goals wouldn’t be a surprise at all. He has put in the work to improve his game.
— Playfair’s response about Barrie was very honest. I’m interested to see how he performs. His offensive numbers have been great for years, and his playoff possession numbers have been better than the regular season. He is a competitive player, and Playfair challenging him to be more well-rounded defensively and use his competitiveness more was a brilliant move. I like how he outlined the videos he showed players. Show them their best shifts and that they are capable of it, and then challenge them to do it more frequently. It will be interesting to see how Barrie plays with a heightened focus on his defensive game.
— Keith is quick in small areas. He isn’t necessarily fast on the rush, but he’s quick in confined spaces. And it was interesting how Playfair said they want to get him back to thinking about making more plays offensively. In doing so, in theory anyways, he should defend less by making more offensive plays. And in contrast with Ceci, Playfair focused on wanting him to get more involved jumping up into the play, while maintaining strong “ice management.”
— I too was impressed by Berglund’s mature game in the preseason. He could become a steady, reliable defender for the Oilers in the future. Meanwhile, Broberg just needs time adjusting to the smaller ice. Playfair’s assessment about Broberg needing to move the puck quicker, but also improve his ice management, allows us who watch Bakersfield to see how he is doing in those specific areas this season.
This was one of the most enjoyable and educational interviews I’ve had in some time. I really appreciate when a coach is willing to go a bit deeper into discussions and the video work he does with players.
What stood out for you?
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