Good one, Peter.
That was the message delivered to the Toronto Maple Leafs new head coach from his charges following his first victory as the new man running the bench — albeit, as his nameplate reminds, on an interim basis – when they draped a combat-patterned hoodie over his broad shoulders Friday night and crowned him “Player of the Game.”
When Horachek wore the hooded sweatshirt – military civvies atop a suit – to his first post-victory press conference, it was a not-so-subtle sign that the look, at least off ice, has changed in Toronto. Ironic that a man decked out in camouflage is so immediately conspicuous.
“Peter’s a guy that any guy in our room can go and talk to and feel comfortable doing so. (Steve) Spotter’s the same way, and so is Steve (Staios),” Maple Leafs defenceman Cody Franson says of the new lineup of suits strolling the Leafs bench.
Horachek, who helped develop Franson when both men were with the Nashville Predators, has been joined by Steve Spott and a new Steve, Staios, since Randy Carlyle’s firing last week.
Franson applauds Staois’s interaction with the players, explaining that the former NHL defenceman – just three seasons removed from the league as player – has been “very interactive” with the players. Read between the lines, and one gathers not all coaches have been so buddy-buddy.
“There’s the saying of [internal] competition is the best thing for a team, but sometimes being able to let your shoulders down and take a deep breath in your dressing room and be able to talk to [coaches] like they’re anybody else is a nice feeling,” says Franson. “It relaxes you a little bit, allows you to go out and play less-tight hockey. They do a great job of finding that balance.”
Says Horachek, whose Leafs have outshot the opposition 84-66 in the three games since he took over, “I feel like there’s definite buy-in and a positive attitude.”
That positivity, according to sophomore defenceman Morgan Rielly, originates from the new staff, which is making the effort to communicate more frequently – and not just about closing gaps and quickening breakouts.
We ask Rielly, 20, to explain the biggest difference since Horachek took over. But he says nothing of his ice time, which hovered just under 18 minutes per game under Carlyle. With Horachek dictating shifts, Rielly played 23:31 versus Washington, 21:41 against Columbus and 20:18 in Los Angeles.
“I think they’re more approachable. I think they’re easier to talk to,” he says.
It’s only been a couple games – and stats heads will justly asterisk the Horachek era with a small sample size – but Rielly says the players each had a one-on-one chat with Horachek after he was promoted.
“They talk to you after practice and stuff. He comes up and asks you what’s happening and just has a conversation about what’s going on in your life, and I think that goes a long way,” Rielly says.
“He’s always trying to help me. He’s played the game. He was handling the D for a while [before being named head coach]. He tries to encourage me, and if I’m not playing well, he keeps it positive. He tells me how I can get better.”
If Horachek is indeed making strides to change the culture of the Maple Leafs – or, at least, player-staff relations – he could give an assist to a head coach he worked under for nine seasons in Nashville, friend Barry Trotz.
“One thing I know about Peter is that he’s got a lot of order. He’s well-prepared. He’s won at every level,” Trotz told reporters of his friend last week. “He’s got a good balance between discipline, responsibility, accountability. I think he’s done a real good job.”
Franson beams when discussing how things operated between coaches and players on his former team.
“That’s one of those things where Nashville is really good. They have a family embracement from management down through the coaching staff to the players. Everybody was a tight group, and a lot of that had to do with how Trotzie handled himself,” says Franson, who spent his first two NHL campaigns as a Predator.
“Between Peter and Trotzie and the other guys that were there, they were working with me. They worked on areas I was good at too, with my shot and things. But they ran a lot of film: ‘You have to do this differently. You have to box out here.’ The maturing process that comes with a young, big defenceman is something that doesn’t come quick all the time,” Franson says. “They were patient with me and let me figure it out along the way, and that’s all you can really ask for as a young guy coming up.”
Sounds like that’s exactly what Rielly is asking for now.