What does a hockey coach do?
My cousin Ethan asked me the other day what a hockey coach does. I had to think about it before I responded, but I’m happy with what I came up with since it allowed me to give free rein to my inner sportsdork. Here goes:
They do a lot, but hockey coverage tends not to fetishize the coaches as much as football coverage does. It helps that the coach is behind the players and not capable of roaming all over. Since there is no playcalling as in football, they wear no headset, etc.
What they’re doing is subtle, but very important. For one, line changes are based on rules, and after a stoppage, for example, the visiting team must change lines first before the home team does. That allows the home team to put out its preferred matchup, and puts substance into home ice advantage. So a coach has to be able to scan the ice, see what the other team put out there, and match up properly. The visiting coach has to be creative about whom he puts on the ice to try to create problems for the home coach, etc. It’s quite an intense mind game.
In general, setting lines is where a coach makes his money. Any NHL team typically shows up to a game with three sets of defensemen and four offensive lines. Teams will generally have one defensive pairing that gets way more ice time than the other two, because it’s the one used on the power play. Some defensemen are so skilled that they’re out there for both the PP and penalty killing, which is why d-men always lead in minutes played, and one or two of them will have insanely high numbers. As a coach, you have to watch them and make sure you get them off for rest when you can.
With the offensive lines, you might come to the game with four lines set, but inside the game they often get shifted due to minor injuries, bad nights, to punish slackers, to create matchup problems, etc. Also, when you’re stomping the crap out of a team, you’ll run four lines, and you might even give your fourth line more ice time than your first, to spare the stars the wear and tear. Conversely, if you’re losing, you’ll run two lines (any NHL team strives to have two scoring lines, while the third line and fourth line are there to eat time and play defense against the other team’s top two lines–which is where matchups come in) to increase your scoring chances. It’s an unending struggle to get your lines to produce, and coaches will tinker a lot inside the game.
There are set pieces in hockey, although it’s not so much a matter of calling them in a game (as in, hey guys, let’s do a 32-xj whatever), but putting the right guys on the ice who can exploit a situation. Example: you’ve got a faceoff in the offensive zone to the goalie’s right, so you have choices about how you’re going to try to win the draw, and who you want standing there if it’s won. It comes back to matchups, but coaches will see, hey, that left defenseman for the opponent is sucking wind, and specify that the faceoff should be won (if possible) to exploit that. Lots of little micro battles and whatnot like that going on, all controlled by the coach (and by skilled players who improvise, of course). It’s also up to coaches, as in baseball, to know the habits of opposing players and match up accordingly on faceoffs and whatnot. There are other set pieces, but those tend to be taught in practice and then used in games spontaneously when certain situations present themselves. One of the most obvious set pieces I ever saw was a Jagr/Lemieux/Francis combination they would do when they had a three on two with the third trailing. Francis ran it like a machine, and it always generated scoring chances. You can coach that, but you can’t call it in the game itself.
A key role played by a hockey coach has to do with how they want the game to be played. If you are playing a faster opponent, you’ll scratch your bigger, slower players, and go with anyone fast you can find on your larger roster (all teams carry more players than they can dress, as you probably know). If you’re playing the Red Wings, though, who have Thomas Fucking Holmstrom who will plant his large Swedishness with his butt in your goalie’s face all night, you want to make sure you have a big, nasty wing in your lineup to mix it up with him, preferably one who’s no loss if he’s in the box for getting matching minors with Holmstrom, who is a loss to the Wings when he’s in the box. Within the game itself, if your team is lethargic, you send out third and fourth lines who can’t score to save their lives, but who are generally well rested and sort of hyperactive by nature (lots to prove). They go out and skate around like madmen and hit anything wearing the opponent’s jersey and get the fans into the game. Then you send out the snipers to ride the wave. Of course, if the other team is taking liberties with your stars, you send out your fighters to do what has to be done (my least favorite part of hockey since it’s so pointless otherwise). In sum, it’s about managing a game’s flow and knowing what your team needs to succeed, which is quite variable and not simply a matter of putting the “best” players on the ice, since that’s relative to the situation.
Great coaches pull all the right strings and maximize their team’s potential. Mike Babcock with the Wings is probably the best I’ve ever seen at this among current coaches, and apparently Bylsma is pretty good at this, too, given that the Pens are close to the conference lead and haven’t had Crosby or Malkin for months and have had other key injuries. He gets a lot of mileage out of guys like Talbot, who are pretty bad hockey players, actually.
If you want to see bad coaching, watch an Edmonton Oilers game. Part of their problem is lack of talent, but much of it is dipshit coaching. Clearly their coach teaches up tempo hockey at all costs, and so they skate around like crack-fueled bees, but can’t score to save their lives. Why? Because they play brainlessly, and try to force everything rather than looking for opportunities and grasping them. Watch Nikolas Lidstrom sometime. Guy looks like he’s about to take a nap, but is in total control. That’s a good player with a smart coach.
Otherwise, coaches have roles similar to coaches in other sports: motivation, discipline, bitching at refs to get the next call, etc. Usual stuff.