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Seattle's Coach Choice Just as Important as Roster Picks

April 23, 2021, 11:15 AM ET [4 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
I am greatly interested to see whom Seattle Kraken general manager Ron Francis chooses as the first head coach of the new expansion team, and what type of team identity the club seeks to form. Starting from scratch with a roster selected from 30 other teams (the Vegas Golden Knights are exempt from losing a player, but really shouldn't be at this point) is both a tremendous opportunity and a massive challenge.

Picking talent from column A and column B and then signing a few free agents will be one part of the equation. The other part will be for the new head coach to mold that group into a cohesive unit. The Golden Knights blasted it out of the park a few years ago; not just with their roster selections but also with the selection of Gerard Gallant as their inaugural head coach.

Say what you will about the built-in advantages that the Golden Knights were afforded through very generous Expansion Draft eligibility rules that no previous expansion team enjoyed. The team still had to built from scratch and Gallant had to get his group to buy in to playing his system and forging a sense of identity and pride in being Golden Knights.

Right off the bat, the Golden Knights were a tough team to play against; a roster constructed with speed, skill, grit and goaltending. The roster was well-tailored to execute the way Gallant wanted his team to play. For example, right from the get-go, Vegas effectively weaponized the high-flip out of the D-zone with aggressive retrievals as well as any team in the league. They often created neutral zone turnovers by the opposition and turned them into opportunistic goals.

There is no such thing as a perfect or unbeatable system in hockey. There are many different ways a team can win. I'm of the belief, however, that you really need a balance of player attributes in your lineup. If you are going to be built to go deep in the playoffs, like it or not, you will need some size, heaviness and physicality to go along with your finesse and speed guys. It doesn't mean you need to put other teams' players through the boards or rack up a lot of fighting majors as a team. It just means finding a blend. I thought Vegas blended their roster quite well from the outset to enable the small, finesse players like Jonathan Marchessault to do their thing while others excelled in the trenches.

Of course, goaltending is the backbone of any strong team. But any good goalie needs strong team defense -- emphasis on team, playing as five-man units -- to be given a fair chance to, well, give his team a chance. They are intertwined; inseparable. Taking pride in "playing the right way" -- not cheating out of the defensive zone, giving second and third efforts, being patient against tight checking, protecting your goalie, striking a balance between aggressiveness and discipline -- is something that every team speaks of in platitudes but the proof is inevitably in the doing and not the talking.

Sometimes, the right coach for one team is all wrong for another. When I look at the Washington Capitals' squad, with the possible exception of their goaltending, I see a team that was tailor-made for Peter Laviolette to come take over. He favors an aggressive attacking-oriented style and has a Type A coaching personality. Not every team has the horses to play the way he preaches (and, when it doesn't work, the GAA soars and cohesiveness seems to fall apart) but the Capitals have a very formidable blend of skill and grit.

Many years ago, when Mike Milbury was the New York Islanders' GM, he asked me for an opinion on whom I thought would be a good head coach. Milbury and I were on better terms at the time, and I was flattered that he asked. I told him that I thought Laviolette or Dave Poulin, for different reasons (as they have quite different personalities and hockey philosophies) would be my first two choices if I were in his shoes. I'm not saying that my suggestion had anything directly to do with Lavy's selection -- he was on quite a few hockey people's radar screens as Providence's head coach and Boston's assistant under Mike Keenan -- but the point I'm making is that some coaches are just right for some groups.

Laviolette ended up doing an underrated job with the Islanders -- a team that missed the playoffs seven straight years before he arrived and got them into the playoffs in back-to-back seasons before he was gone and the team missed postseason play again in four of the next six seasons (bad roster moves and iffy ownership clearly played into it, too).

I have always always had a lot of respect for John Tortorella. As a referee, I rarely had a problem with him. He was tough but reasonable. When I've watched his teams, he makes his expectations to players crystal clear. If you don't put the team first, you will have issues with Torts. He really doesn't care who you are, either, or his contract status/ job security level vs. the players. I respect a coach like that. Likewise, Pat Burns and I had our share of on-ice issues with each other, but I thought he was an outstanding head coach. Ditto Mike Keenan.

The choice of head coach, though, also depends on what you're trying to accomplish and what identity you want for your team. Terry Murray was an outstanding "teaching coach" for young players; demanding of two-way play, structure and good training and practice habits but not a yeller and not egotistical in having to always show he was the smartest guy in the room. Murray got the LA Kings from laughing stock to contender and then Darryl Sutter was the right guy to finish off the job when the Kings went over the top. Without the groundwork that Murph laid, I don't think Sutter would have found the same success.

No coach is infallible. Every coach has a certain shelf life. Every coach needs the right personnel at his disposal. There are only so many buttons to push. There comes a time when new blood is needed and GMs sometimes need to give some unproven coaches a chance. That's how the game moves forward. A team can be too "safe" in their coaching choice just as it can be too safe by never making a bold roster move for fear of looking foolish.

However, the NHL coaches who achieve longevity -- namely, the ones who take multiple teams deep in the playoffs and who rack up Jack Adams nominations -- do not do so by accident. A coach who never evolves is going to run out of steam pretty quickly.

The late, great Fred Shero hated being called an innovator, even though it's exactly what he was. Why? Shero figured that true innovation is when someone defies conventional thinking and is thought to be an oddball for it. Subsequent success breeds acceptance and imitation; thereby making what was once innovative into what's now conventional. Every successful coach eventually risks falling into this trap where his repertoire has become stale and too familiar. He's no longer finding new methods to innovate because he's become too comfortable, even complacent, in his own ways.

The Seattle Kraken can't try to duplicate the Golden Knights' year-one playbook. They will have to find their own path to success. The team's head coach selection, nonetheless, is going to be quite telling about their game plan before the puck ever drops on the opening faceoff of their first game.

I'll leave you with this: Being an armchair GM, head coach or referee is quite easy. We all love to do it as fans, myself included. You're never wrong. It's a hell of a lot more difficult when you're actually the one in the biggest office, behind the bench or on the ice.

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A 2018 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Visit Paul's official websites, YaWannaGo.com and Officiating by Stewart.
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