NHLers Enjoy Aggressive Coaching Just As Much As Fans Do

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Guy Boucher wild eyed tries to direct his team on the bench during the Lightning game against the Bruins in The Eastern Conference Final game 5 at TD Bank Garden in Boston, MA

After the last NHL lockout, the league put an emphasis on trying to take trapping out of hockey, saying that fans didn’t want to watch a team trap for three periods.

So the league tweaked some rules and did what it could to put some more speed into the game. And for the most part it worked. But I always wondered how players felt about it. For many NHL players, trapping was all they knew. Some, like Scott Gomez, had refined their game to thrive in trapping situations. Players like that couldn’t have been too excited about the game moving away from that.

But now, here we are six years later, and it seems that younger players, players who didn’t play through the trap-dominated 90s, are anxious to play for coaches who err on the side of aggression.

Look at the Tampa Bay Lightning, about to start year two under coach Guy Boucher.

Boucher got a lot of notice at the start of last season for his aggressive, unusual-for-the-NHL systems, but he wound up getting a lot of respect by leading the Lightning to a surprise playoff run.

Boucher talked to The Tampa Tribune about what this season will be like:

We start back at zero, but I just go faster to solidify right away with, this is what we were and this is want we want to be and now let’s take this a step further once we re-master what we mastered before and start back at zero and not presume that the players remember, they don’t remember the details because there are too many details to remember and that’s why it’s a long process. It’s a year long process.

I’m not sure if Boucher had problems with player buy-in at the start of last season, but it certainly won’t be an issue this year. Players have seen what Boucher can do for a team. More importantly, players have seen what Boucher can do for an individual. Sean Bergenheim seemed destined to be another talented NHLer who couldn’t live up to the flashes of potential he occasionally managed to show. Under Boucher, his game came together in a lights-out playoff performance that Bergenheim parlayed into a four-year contract with Florida.

Bergenheim is practically a living infomercial for Boucher’s highly responsive systems.

So while Boucher is starting things at zero, in the sense that it’s the start of a new season, he really is starting a little further along. Players are much more inclined to listen to a coach when they believe the coaching will translate to success.

Zach Parise, of the Devils (for now), says he is psyched to work with Peter DeBoer, his new coach:

The way his team played in Florida—aggressive—I think that’s something we need. It’s in-your-face, aggressive and the ‘D’ pinching. That’s how we need to play. I think it will be good for us and a welcome change.

It’s not just the Devils who are changing (although Parise seems to have forgotten former Devils coach Brent Sutter, who certainly coached an aggressive system). While fans (or at least the NHL’s perception of what fans want) led the charge against over-trapping, it seems NHL players are also becoming more interested in aggressive systems.

All summer long, I kept waiting to hear about ex-NHL coach Ken Hitchcock landing a job somewhere, but it looks like another NHL season is about to start without a head coaching job for him. Is it because Hitchcock’s defensive system is a tough sell to players?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Dave Tippett, one of the NHL’s more defense-oriented coaches, coaches in Phoenix. Given the chaos that surrounds that team, it’s got to be very hard to attract free agent talent. So Tippett’s coaching style really can’t make things any harder. When players consider signing with Phoenix, they’re probably already out of better options anyway, so the coaching doesn’t matter.

Which isn’t to say Tippett isn’t a good coach. Because he is. He’s done more with the Coyotes than anyone imagined.

But NHL players want more out of a coach than safety. They want aggression and skating. And more NHL coaches are accommodating that wish.