San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan was supposed to be in Detroit on Saturday, facing his off against the team he used to be an assistant coach for, in the middle of a brutal of a six-game road trip that included games at Washington, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Instead, thanks to the NHL lockout, hockey dad Todd McLellan was at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minnesota watching his oldest son Tyson play for the San Jose Jr. Sharks U16 team in the North American Prospects Hockey League showcase tournament.
The NHL's loss was the NAPHL's gain, because on Saturday, McLellan led for a roundtable-type discussion for the coaches and scouts in attendance at the tournament. McLellan talked for about an hour about general coaching philosophy, and it was pretty incredible. I probably learned more about coaching in that hour than I'd learned the rest of my life combined. There's almost too much to put into one post. Here's some of the highlights.
It's tough not to address the elephant in the room with the NHL lockout. McClellan was asked about it towards the end of the session, specifically, if coaches felt like they were in a difficult position being between the owners and the players. McLellan didn't see it that way, saying that coaches might be in the best spot because they're not involved either way. He said they(meaning coaches) miss going to the rink, and are waiting to work. He also said they're in a good position because when they come back--and he gave no indication one way or the other of when that might be--there won't be any blame or lingering bitterness from either side towards them because they're not involved in the process at all.
The 'Why' of Coaching:
If McLellan had a main thesis for the other coaches, it was the importance of not just getting players to do what you tell them, because, as McLellan said, players will do whatever you tell them to do. The key is getting them to understand why they are doing those things. He believed that when players are just told what to do, they get over-coached and start to lose instincts.
One of the first things the other coaches wanted to know from McLellan is how they go about teaching their players "hockey sense," and for McLellan, it all came back to getting players to understand 'why'. He said he believed coaches are killing hockey sense by coaching it out of players implementing too many systems that stress where should players should be on the ice, but not why they should be doing those things. He cited Tomas Holmstrom as a player that isn't much of a skater, but has had a great career because he understands the 'why' better than anyone.
Obviously a huge part of any coaches job, and McLellan had a lot to say. "Players have to know you care about them. Everyone remembers one or two teachers from elementary school. Was it the positive teacher or the negative one? For me it was the positive ones. You have to be able to earn a player's trust, and then you can teach them."
The topic of positive reinforcement came up a couple of times. "As coaches we're programmed to fix things. We're like mechanics that want to get underneath the car and fix every problem we see. But players want to get caught doing things right too. You need to give them positive reinforcement too."
Managing a Season
One question that was asked related to managing a season, and keeping things from getting stale, especially since at the pro level, the season can sometimes drag on to over 100 games once you factor in preseason and playoffs. Said McLellan, "Sometimes even when you're winning, you have to shuffle the deck to keep things fresh". He gave the example of sometimes changing up a line, even if it is playing well and producing just so the players aren't going out with the same guys every shift, every night. But he also gave examples of smaller things, such as changing the color of jerseys a line wears in practice, or scheduling practices/meetings for different times just to shake things up and keep things from getting stale.
The other question related to that was whether or not he has a set plan for what he wants his team to be doing throughout the season. He said that training camp and the preseason are very structured, because that is where they set the foundation for the season, but there's no set plan once the season starts. "What we did or didn't do today will affect what we do tomorrow. Once the season starts, you're either in repair mode or advance mode. And if you're spending more time in repair mode, you're probably not going to be a team that makes the playoffs."
When asked about the idea of giving players certain roles within a team: "First of all, everybody is a goal-scorer. Jody Shelley gets in his car on the way to the rink wanting to score just like Patty Marleau does." That said, he did say that while there are certain standards for everyone on both ends of the ice, obviously going to be areas that certain players specialize in. He believed in nurturing players for those roles, but not pigeon-holing them, because clearly defining what they are can be dangerous. He gave the example of giving a guy that fights or stands up for a teammate some time with a scoring line or on the power play as a reward.
Specifically in the NHL, he did say that the idea of shutdown checking lines still exist, but they largely end up just playing against other checking lines. His argument was that with teams investing so much money in their top guys, teams want to get as much out of them as possible, so often, top lines end up playing against the other team's top line, and the second line ends up playing against the second line. That's why he thought the key to winning at the NHL level was having a very strong third line.
Long-time NHL official Dennis LaRue was also in the room, and McLellan talked a bit about the relationship that goes on between the coaches and officials. He said officials are in charge of the game, and it's the coaches responsibility to know when he's had enough, and to figure out ways to relate to him. When it came to arguing calls, McLellan said, "In my experience, officials will give you time, but it's a matter of when you get that time." He said he knows he's not going to get an official to change his call in the moment, so instead of yelling from the bench immediately, he'll ask--or sometimes just non-verbally signal-- for a minute from the ref at some later point in the game to discuss and make his argument.
Overall, it was a very illuminating look into what it is like to coach a team, and an interesting look into what it is like to coach at the NHL level. Just watching McLellan's ability to handle a room and the depth of hockey knowledge he had, it wasn't hard to see why he's coaching where he has, and having the success he is.