Each week, Justin Bourne’s column will cover three different topics in varying depths. Think of it as a three course meal with an appetizer, main course, and dessert…
Appetizer: The days of not prioritizing your equipment are over
A recent conversation with Daniel Briere on Hockey Central made me realize how far things have come in the world of equipment. Not equipment specifically, I guess, but the need for players to have the right equipment.
He was talking about the advantage he gained by switching to a more flexible stick as a season went on, which he did because he’d lose his summer muscle over the course of the year. In that era, he was in the minority of guys who paid ultra-close attention to such fine gear-based details.
If you ask any equipment manager at just about any level, they’ll tell you that how particular guys are about their gear varies a wild amount from player to player. There’s always been high praise for low maintenance guys, and there still is to some extent. What’s changed over the past decade, though?
It’s now far more acceptable to be what used to get you called a “gear b—-,” which was essentially a “person who cared a lot about their equipment,” but used pejoratively. Grinding over the specifics of your gear is now seen more as “caring.”
To professionals, little issues can make a big difference. If your skates aren’t sharpened perfectly, it can affect performance. Same if your curve is off a little, or if there’s a scratch in your visor, or if your gloves are soaking wet.
My last season was 2009, but even then there was a stigma that came with complaining about what gear you were handed, particularly for call-ups. When I got called up to the AHL from the Coast I used a curve I hated (shout-out to Eric Boguniecki, whose leftovers became mine) because I was only up for a few games, the ones I brought with me had snapped, and nobody on the team used what I liked. I deeply regret “sucking it up” and not insisting on having the tools I wanted.
In my experience with the Marlies from 2015-17, I saw equipment managers held to a whole new standard. There are big dollars and careers at stake, as the game has become so good that the difference between success and failure has gotten smaller. Nowadays, I think it’s crucial that players have precisely what they need. There’s always a line to be walked between caring about the details and blaming the tools, but players today are given the benefit of the doubt in that area more now than ever before, and so they should.
Dinner: I expect coaches to come out of this hiatus better prepared to utilize their teams than ever before
Perhaps the most common phrase I’ve written since I transitioned back to media from coaching is some iteration of “coaches just don’t have time.” I say it a lot because it affects everything. You prepare your butt off for each game. You worry about the lineup, special teams groups, system tweaks of the day, keys to beat the other team, specific players that need to be talked to, putting together the video meetings and postings for the team to go over…the list goes on and on.
Then off you go again: the game that was just played needs an autopsy, there may be travel involved, there’s likely personnel changes to make due to injury or otherwise, plans for how to approach a new opponent need to be made and meetings once again prepared.
The point isn’t that it’s unmanageable, it’s that it’s precisely manageable, and no more. There’s little time to take the reports from the R&D department and figure out why one player’s numbers are so good or bad every time X happens, and to figure how that’s avoidable in the future while keeping everything else in place. There’s rarely time to take the video coach’s scouting notes about a weakness on the opposing team, draw up a new forecheck, and practice it before the next game. There’s no time to go back and watch enough video to answer every curiosity about the game that just was played and also the one that is up next, to satisfaction.
So this March and April, boy. This has been some strange opportunity for NHL coaches, hasn’t it? We’re talking about a multi-month pause, with most rosters fully intact, defined, and unusually healthy, with time to consider every possible statistical oddity your people can dredge up. There’s time to watch video of every line combination as they’ve looked together at different points on the calendar. There’s time to pick apart your most likely playoff opponents atom by atom with tweezers, then sift through that fine dust to determine how they can be stopped.
Questions answered about your team always lead to more questions, meaning I have no doubt that teams – and I’m thinking about the Maple Leafs here, having worked for Sheldon Keefe and Kyle Dubas – will have gone down a few rabbit holes looking at their own team and others over the past couple months.
What will be interesting, of course, is how that effects what they want to do coming out of this break. (And I’m writing about it like they’re going to, at some point, which is certainly no given. But that’s another conversation, and one that’s changing constantly.) It’s possible that a team will have figured something out about their own playing style and decide they’d be better off making a change.
Maybe upon a further review, they’ve had more success with a certain neutral zone forecheck over the past couple seasons than they’d realized, and maybe they want to adopt it full-time. Maybe they’ve come up with an optimal lineup construction through data and video that they’re going to decide to roll with full-time, rather than conducting continued experiments. Maybe they want to adopt certain systems against certain teams, rather than using the same systems (as most teams do) against everyone.
What we know for sure is that teams won’t want to change anything systemically to kick things off. There is just about a zero per cent chance teams concern themselves with anything technical at first, though you may see lines look different than they did before the layoff. Teams will want to keep it simple out of the gate, they’ll be worried about fitness and crispness and getting back into the routine of just playing hockey.
But I have no doubt that coaches will be armed with more knowledge about their own team and others than at any other point in the history of NHL coaching. Even before playoffs you only have so much time to prepare for your opponent. Some can be done early if the matchup is set well in advance, but you still have to concern yourself with the regular season at that time. This is a crazy opportunity to do team analysis.
I’ll let Colorado’s Jared Bednar put a cap on those thoughts, from an interview he gave SN a few weeks back:
“When you get into the season it’s, review and breakdown your game, review it, show what you need to, move on to the next night, there’s just no break in the schedule. So, I found instead of letting things get away from you to do a bit of a review at that bye week/all-star break. Take some time, refresh mentally, then start digging into some projects.
“Putting together numbers, like where you’re at with your goal scoring, and you get analytics coming at ya all the time too in the regular season, but you just don’t have a lot of time to dig into some more extended projects that might be able to help your team, say, down the stretch run or in the playoffs for this year. I dug into a couple things over the break, some special teams stuff, some 5-on-5 things, started comparing some numbers and taking a look at a few things. Some I shared with our team and some I didn’t, y’know, it’s just nice to have that knowledge in your back pocket. So we’re gonna do the same thing here over this break.”
They’re going to do the same thing here over this break, which will be oh, 1,000 per cent longer than the bye-week/all-star break. It’ll be interesting to see if the Avs, and other teams, make any surprising tweaks when things get back up and running.
Dessert: The rise and fall and rise of Rich Clune
I want to wrap today up by taking a look at something pretty cool in either direction. In the near future you’ll be able to see a documentary on Rich Clune of the Maple Leafs organization, who’s dealt with issues of addiction and mental health, and has had to sort through those challenges while ascending the ladder to the NHL.
He’s had an unbelievable career to date despite the roadblocks, playing in the NHL for multiple seasons and winning a Calder Cup in the AHL.
I can’t say enough about the man himself, having played against him in the minors and working with him on the Marlies. But I also can’t say enough about what a worthwhile documentary this will be. His story is fascinating, and the good Rich is doing at a time when we could use some good … it’s just perfect timing.
The movie is called “Hi It’s Me, Dicky.”
It’s our wish that this story can be a message of hope, and that no matter how dark things may get, there’s a way out.
— Rich Clune (@richclune) April 28, 2020
So that’s the “pretty cool” in the future. The “pretty cool” in the other direction is a quick look back at what makes Rich such an effective hockey player, aside from being physically strong enough to punch you from said past to the future.
The below goal was the biggest from one of the seasons I was with the Marlies, and was put home by the man himself. It’s peak Dicky. Game 7 of the Division Final, tie game, at home, against our biggest rival on the year, the Albany Devils. Dicky scores, we win, and advance to the Conference Final.
This was our “fourth line,” which included Clune, Ben Smith (who won a Cup with the Blackhawks) and Nikita Soshnikov. As fourth line players go, consider in this scenario A) how much we have to trust this group given the score and time of game they’re on the ice, and B) just how much that trust was rewarded by the things they did, specifically Dicky.
A quick list of things a coach likes in about 18 seconds of game play from Clune:
Hard in on the forecheck, first to the puck after F1 stops the breakout.
Keeps his feet moving, moves the puck low-to-high.
After a point shot, he’s got the score in mind. There’s a loose puck, he’s holding ice as F3.
We get the puck, he goes directly to the net, gets under the D, and makes life hell for their goalie in front.
As the puck gets moved around the perimeter and the Devils have to change shape a bit, Dicky maintains his claim to the most valuable ice on the rink.
So, when the shot comes, he’s reacting. Soshnikov is almost always going to shoot from … well, anywhere, so Rich is jumping, he gets a favorable carom off the boards, and he’s ready to put it away for us. Series over.
Hi It’s Me Dicky, coming soon.