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Darnell Nurse and D Corps thriving with Paul Coffey

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Photo credit:Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Gregor
6 months ago
When Paul Coffey was hired as an assistant coach, many questioned the hiring. He didn’t have any coaching experience, was the refrain, but in his first 24 days on the job it is clear Coffey understands the NHL game and how to connect with his defencemen.
Coffey’s message to his D-men, as a group and as individuals, has been simple and direct, but he uses lots of video to reinforce what he wants them to do, and most importantly, what he likes about their play. His main focus hasn’t been about playing a system, but more about how they play the actual game. How they move, react and think.
“Systemically, he wants us as D-men to make plays,” said Darnell Nurse. “It frees us up as players to go out there and express ourselves through the game. It’s been awesome. Obviously, the insight that he has into the game and the way that he sees things offensively as well as defensively, being up and being aggressive and not being easy to play against, that’s not so much in the physical aspect, just taking up time and space. It’s been great for us as a group.”
The results have been quite good so far. What Coffey lacks in coaching experience, he makes up for his knowing the position. He played over 1,600 regular season and playoff games in the NHL. He has his own style. Has he simplified things for the group, or is it how he presents it that has resonated with Nurse?
“Yeah, it’s nothing too complex,” said Nurse. We’ve been very fortunate here to have great coaches. [Dave] Manson, [Trent] Yawney, Jimmy Johnson early on and Jimmy Playfair here, all different coaches who helped to grow our games in different ways, but Coffey has come in with an approach of… I find a lot of times you get to pro and in junior it’s not so much taking away from your game but trying to simplify and do the easy things most of the time. But for Coffey it’s more that we have the ability as a group to make plays, and to have the confidence to make them. I think that’s what you see through all the pairs now, Dessy (Desharnais) and Koolie (Kulak) are making unbelievable plays on a nightly basis, and that’s been fun to watch.”
Much of coaching is about success. I think too often some try to overemphasize the system. There are only two defensive zone systems: man-to-man or zone. Teams have won playing both, but under Coffey the main emphasis has been encouraging his players to make plays, and maybe most importantly, believing they can. It’s a great reminder for coaches at all levels: Instill confidence in your players and they will play better.
I’d argue Nurse has played some of his best hockey recently. His speed has always been his best asset. Very few D-men can close on a player as well as Nurse can, but there was often too much risk in his game. He’d make 20-30 really good plays that almost got overlooked, but then he’d make a risky pinch, or ill-advised pass that was very noticeable. Many focused on those plays, rather than the good ones, mainly because they stood out more.
But we haven’t seen that from him recently. In fact, I can’t recall any of the defenders making a glaring error recently.
Coffey has used positive reinforcement via video to show his players what they are capable of, but he’s also really focused on not taking risky plays. Understand where you are on the ice and where you are at in the game. If it is a 50/50 play, where the best case is you keep the puck in, but the worst case is you lose the race and it leads to an odd-man rush, then don’t take the chance. Play to your strengths and reduce the risks.
The message is great, but the fact Coffey’s message has resonated so quickly is impressive. What is it about Coffey’s approach or messaging that has resonated with the players?
“I think that we have taken the approach pretty quickly and then implemented it,” said Nurse. “That is part of being a professional hockey player — you are able to take in information and go out on the ice and do it. It’s been nice to see us adapt and use the change. Every coach really wants you to make plays, but it’s the emphasis of it from Coff. It’s coming in every day and making plays, and seeing examples of what you can do better, seeing examples of the plays that you can make and should have the confidence of making them.
“I think that has been the difference between our group, and we’ve kind of gelled and taken ownership of it too. Whenever there is a big change in the season, everyone takes a look internally to see what they could have done better, and you take ownership of some of the things that haven’t gone well this year, and we’re also taking ownership of the emphasis of being better on the backend.”
Coffey focuses on showing them the plays they are making and should be making via positive highlights on video. He gets the entire group together and shows them plays they’ve made in the games, or a play one has made and reminds the others they too are capable of making that play. He has really focused on building up their confidence and showing them what they are capable of, and the early returns have been positive.
So how does Coffey go about it? Is there anything specific for you personally that he’s shown you in video repeatedly that reminds you ‘I’m pretty good,’ I asked Nurse.
“[Laughs] Yes, just to use my feet and jump in plays. When it’s coming up the offside and I’m on the other side to be available as an option, and if things break down the best part is that I’m in a good gapped up position. That’s probably been the biggest emphasis. I mean just to use the legs, they are one of my best assets and that’s going to get me into games, and then once I’m into games then just play and feel and use my instincts. That has been my strength over the last bit of hockey.”
It was apparent during our conversation on and off the record that Nurse, and all the defencemen I’ve talked to recently, are really enjoying Coffey’s messaging and most importantly his delivery. His resume speaks for itself, but his knowledge of the game and how he communicates it has been his biggest strength. The entire D corps looks more relaxed. Winning always helps that, but they’ve won a lot of regular season games before, and I don’t recall this type of exuberance across the entire defence corps.
It is early, but Coffey has really focused on their best assets as individuals. He shows them repeatedly what they are capable of, and the players believe it. And of course, they love it. Who doesn’t like receiving positive reinforcement about how they are doing? It can become infectious seeing yourself play well, but also your teammates.
It has only been a few weeks, but the early return on Coffey’s hiring has been apparent.

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