March 17 2014 10:16AM
It is interesting how winning changes people's perception. Jonathan Toews is applauded as a great leader and is credited with leading the Hawks to two Stanley Cups in four years. It is hard to argue that, however, I notice he gets much more credit for the Hawks than his head coach, Joel Quenneville. I don't have a problem with that, because I believe the players impact the game more than a coach, but if you coach a losing team much more of the blame falls on the coach. Why?
The saying and thought process is you can't fire 23 players, so it is easier to fire the coach when things aren't going well. That is true, but bad hockey teams remain bad regardless of who coaches them. There are cases where firing a coach makes sense, especially if your team has the talent to play better. Quenneville is a perfect example. He replaced Denis Savard and quickly added a bit more structure to a highly talented Chicago team and they succeeded.
Coaching can help, but ultimately no coach wins unless they have good players, and then the good players need to be willing to listen and follow the system he puts in place.
If you are an average team and you replace the coach, usually we see an early spike in success, but then reality sets in and the team goes back to being average. Look at the Winnipeg Jets. They won 9 of the first 11 games Paul Maurice coached. Many suggested he was the difference.
They have won 3 of their next 11 games. I doubt he suddenly became less intelligent during the last 11 games, instead we started to see the real Jets. The better question would be why has Maurice, just like his predecessor Claude Noel, used Andrej Pavelec more than Al Montoya?
Coaching is important, but if you don't have a skilled, committed group of players it is very difficult to win. We have seen great coaches go to bad teams, and they never had the same success they did when they coached a good group of players. Look at Ken Hitchcock's career.
In eight of the ten years that he began the season as head coach of Dallas and Philadelphia they finished with 100+ points. He was fired during the other two seasons. He was fired 50 games into the 2001/2002 season after a 23-17-6-4 start. Rick Wilson took over and the Stars went 13-11-7-1 the rest of the way. Under Hitchcock the Stars were on pace for 91 points. Wilson had them on an 87-point pace.
In Philly he was fired only 8 games, 1-6-1, into the 2006/2007 season. John Stevens took over and led them to the worst record in the NHL. In the off-season the Flyers added Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen and Jason Smith while Braydon Coburn and Mike Richards emerged as key pieces. Coburn was acquired at the traded deadline in 2007 and was a top-three D-man the next year. Richards went from 32 points in 2007 to 75 in 2008. Stevens was behind the bench when the Flyers got back to 100-points, but changing out that many key players made a bigger impact.
Hitchcock wasn't out of work very long as the Blue Jackets hired him a month later. The Jackets went 28-29-5 under Hitchcock that year, then they made the playoffs in 2008, but he was fired 58 games into the next season with a losing record. The Jackets had one good year under Hitchcock, but they didn't improve much after he left, because the players weren't that good.
My point is you need players to win, and those players need to take charge of the team.
Are Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz and Nail Yakupov ready and prepared to lead this team? If they are, they will need to show more leadership moving forward than we've seen thus far, and they will also need some quality veterans supporting them in their quest to climb out of the basement of the NHL standings.
Pittsburgh drafted Chris Joseph 5th overall in 1987. He was one of the pieces sent to Edmonton in the Paul Coffey trade and he spent parts of 16 seasons in the NHL. I asked Joseph his thoughts on leadership, coaching and more. (My thoughts are in italics.)
Gregor: How much of a difference does it make having veterans at the position that you excel at? Do you need a guy who is similar to your style to learn more about the game in the NHL, or is learning from a veteran of any position beneficial?
Joseph: I’m not sure that you need a guy that’s your style. Leadership is valuable obviously, but you can have a leader that plays a different style of game. For me, when I first came into the league there were guys like Kevin Lowe, Steve Smith, I’m just talking defencemen, Craig Muni, Charlie Huddy. I don’t know if you would say any of those guys played the same style that I did, but they gave me a lot of valuable insight and made it clear what’s expected of me daily in practice, what’s expected of me in preparation wise, and how my role sort of complemented their role on the ice. So I’m not so sure that you need that exact type of player. I think that it can be beneficial, but good quality leadership is of the utmost importance and whatever form that comes in is, you take what you can get.
***Ference has helped Schultz a lot in this way, especially when they were paired together. He spoke to Schultz after every shift, but who is helping the skilled forwards, and are they listening? I wonder if having a veteran in the top-six would help them, but they need to be willing to take the advice and implement it into their game.***
Gregor: Did you have the veteran players tell you what was expected of you in practice and the games more than the coaching staff?
Joseph: Ah… yes. The coaches would tell you what’s expected and then the players would tell you how to get that done. Sometimes there was a bit of a communication gap between players and coaches and if you had a veteran leader there with you, they sort of fill in the gaps if there is something that you’re not comprehending from what the coaches are saying. But mostly the veteran leaders I found led by example. They didn’t have to talk. Mark Messier rarely had to talk, Kevin Lowe for me rarely had to talk, it was what they did day in and day out that really led the way for me.
When I first came in at 18 years old, I thought that I was a hard worker, I thought that I was doing things well and working well and I thought that I gave it my all, but then I came to the Oilers and I saw what Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and Kevin Lowe and Jari Kurri did every single day, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to start working harder.’
So that’s the sort of leadership that is invaluable to a young player because there is a big jump skill wise moving up to that level, but in your preparation and in your everyday activity there is a huge jump as well.
Gregor: I do think that a lot of players will believe, ‘hey I’m a hard worker, I’m working hard’ but you get to that next level and it’s not just about skill. The best players on the team usually are the hardest workers. How did you suddenly improve your work ethic?
Joseph: Well I don’t think that it suddenly happens. I think you sort of grow into it over time. As a young player you think that you can get away with a lot of stuff, but you realize you can’t. I was the type of player that needed a lot of… ah, I took a lot of chances; offensively I would try to jump in and I pinched lots and I got burnt, but I had the speed to get back at a young age. Now I jump up to the NHL and I don’t have the speed anymore. I still have the speed but everyone else is faster. So you have to learn how to play your position properly and then of course as you get older, you become the veteran and then you actually start losing your speed. Now you’re much wiser, but your body just doesn’t do what it used to do, but your smarts allow you to stay in the game a few more years.
I think that it takes a while and during the progression of a career you learn different roles, but it doesn’t happen overnight. That’s the beauty of good leadership, those guys that I mentioned, and there was a lot more guys that just those guys, but the guys that I mentioned they did it every day.
I remember one time in Philadelphia. I come off the ice after practice and I’m bagged. I played with Paul Coffey, the guy that I got traded for here, so you come off of the ice in Philly and Paul would look at me and say ‘let’s go jump on the bike’ and the last thing in the world that I want to do is jump on the bike, but I thought, ‘I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Paul Coffey ride the bike without me.’
That’s the type of leadership that goes a long way, and that’s the type of thing that you need from the veteran guys for the younger guys.
***I think a main issue in Edmonton is the overall work ethic. The top-six along with Petry and Schultz need to battle harder and more consistently than we've seen thus far. Their consistency hasn't changed whether Renney, Krueger or Eakins was the head coach. This is on the players. They need to work harder away from the puck, and many of them need to be more consistent. Right now Hall is the most consistent, as far as being in the game. Yes, he makes mistakes, but of all the young forwards and D-men he is consistently the most engaged in games.***
Gregor: Chris, do you think that’s a concern in Edmonton where the young skilled guys haven’t had enough veteran leadership in Edmonton?
Joseph: Oh absolutely. Any time that you have a team that’s packed with young guys like they are, you have to go out of your way as an organization to bring in those leaders. Now are those leaders going to be around for the good days ahead? Probably not, but you have to bring them around. And you know, a good example that I see is Ryan Smyth with the Oilers. He’s a hard working guy and you watch him day in and day out, he gives it his all. So for me that’s a good example and the young guys can learn from him. Now you probably need more than just him. I think that Shawn Horcoff was a good leader as well, but you need to bring those guys in.
I think MacT has tried to do this year, but you have to bring them in now and if that means that they’re not going to be around for the good times, so be it, but you have to teach the young guys the importance of preparation and work ethic and what’s expected on a daily basis. It wouldn’t hurt if they had a veteran skilled forward to show the kids some tips about attacking D-men and such, but having guys who know how to compete and succeed in the league is the most important.
In junior, kids have good
games and they have bad games. Sometimes we watch some of these guys and they go
lights out for one or two games and then they go in the tank for ten. In the NHL you have to
get to that level where you go lights out for ten and you’re maybe
off for one or two, so you’ve got to change it up. That’s all preparation and
the way that you prepare for games and your daily routines and your work ethic.
**Joseph's assessment was 100% correct. The young, skilled guys have shown glimpses of what they can do, but it isn't often enough. It takes time to learn how to play at the NHL level, but their consistency, more than any other factor surrounding the organization, will play the biggest factor in them improving as a team. Until they learn to be consistent in every aspect of their game, I don't see this team improving.**
Gregor: At what point does having the leadership change over to having the internal drive and how much is it on the young players themselves to become better players regardless of who else is in the room?
Joseph: Well, you know the old saying ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink?’ So, you know, we have talked, you and I just now about the value of good leadership, but honestly I believe that it still comes down to the player more than the leader.
So you take some of the young guys in the Oilers dressing room, [Nail] Yakupov for example. He's got to want it bad enough that he sees those veterans doing it, but eventually he’s going to have to want to do it for himself. He’s going to have to want to do that extra stuff for himself. I’d have to say that it has to be 95% on the individual young player and maybe 5% on the leader. They can only do so much and they can show them what is expected, but if a player won’t do it, then it’s a moot point, it doesn’t really matter. And I’ve seen lots of that as well too. We’ve all seen it, you ask Struddy [Jason Strudwick]. We’ve all seen guys with loads of talent that don’t want to do it and then their careers sizzle out. Then on the opposite end of the spectrum you see players that maybe don’t have the skills that other ones have, but they work their guts out every day and they make it happen, and they end up carving out a nice long career. The best players work the hardest, and the fringe players who last a long time stay in the game due to their work ethic more than their skill.
- Leadership is important for sure, but each player must be better prepared to play and battle. You can't keep expecting the coach or a veteran player to magically instill this into them. It has to come from the players. The reason I said Ference should be captain was because I felt none of the players are ready to be the main leader. They still have to work on motivating themselves to be prepared for the games. It isn't easy, and I still feel this team needs a few more veteran leaders, ideally one who is a top-six forward and one who plays amongst your top-four defenders. It will be difficult to acquire those types of players, but even if MacTavish does, I still think the young players need to do more on a game-by-game basis.
- He has very good skills, but the thing I like most about Yakupov is when he is engaged in the game he doesn't show fear or hesitation. He isn't afraid to shoot, or stick a guy or jump in a scrum like he did yesterday. As Joseph said earlier, Yakupov, as well as the other young players, needs to be engaged for 8 out of 10 games, not 2 out of 10. Learning how hard you have to compete to succeed in the NHL is the biggest learning curve for most skilled players. The game was easy for them at lower levels, because they were so much better than everyone, but the NHL is filled with players just as good as them, and often they are older, stronger and more experienced. It is a tough lesson, but I'd like to believe the kids are sick of losing and will realize that they have to help themselves become winners. They can't wait for a new coach or a veteran to magically instill a winning attitude inside the dressing room. They need to take charge and do it.
- The streak is over. Prior to yesterday's 2-1 win the Oilers hadn't won a game where they out shot the opponents since January 10th, when they defeated Pittsburgh in OT. The Oilers out shot the Hurricanes 33-30 yesterday. It was only the 4th time in 2014 that the Oilers had more shots.
- Last year the Oilers were out shot 32.8 to 26.8 and this year they have improved slightly to 32.4 to 27. Getting more shots won't guarantee you success. Ottawa, Carolina, Islanders, Phoenix, Detroit and New Jersey are out shooting their opponents but none of them are a playoff team.
Meanwhile, Toronto (6.0), Dallas (4.7), Tampa Bay (2.6), Columbus (2.2), and Colorado (1.9) all give up more shots, but they are poised to make the playoffs.
- The Oilers are 9-4-3 in their last 16 games and they've been out shot in 14 of the games. Some believe they can't keep winning if they get out shot, but that isn't completely true. The Oilers likely can't keep getting out shot by an average of 9.2 (34.8 to 25.6 during the 16 games) every game, but teams have proven you can win by being out shot by a smaller margin.
- It was only two games, but Anton Lander looks like a much different player than last year. He is stronger on the puck, looks a bit quicker and most importantly he has confidence with the puck. It is amazing what confidence can do for a player.
- I'm not saying Eakins gets a free pass, but I'm pointing out it is foolish to believe he is the only reason this team is losing. If you want him fired, fine, but then you better want many of the important players traded, because they are failing in their roles just as much as he is. If your excuse for the players is that they are young and inexperienced, then wouldn't the same theory apply to Eakins? Both the coaching and the players need to be better. Not one or the other.
- The Edmonton Rush have won 10 straight games. The Trappers and Eskimos won 10 straight, and the Oilers record is 9. The Rush could become the first to win 11 this Friday. It is crazy how big of a role one day played in allowing Derek Keenan to build such a dominant team.
- We sold out the 3rd annual Gregor Charity WSOP tourney in 27 hours last week, so we have added a 2nd day. Rules and entry fee details are here. Winner gets entry to WSOP main event ($11,200 CDN), hotel, flights and spending money. Entries for day two will go on sale this Wednesday at 10 a.m. You can call 780.643.4060. Good luck.
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