EDMONTON — The descriptor on Dave Tippett when he arrived in Edmonton was more of a (wet) blanket statement.
"Defensive coach," is the term that followed Tippett here after his years with the talent-starved Arizona Coyotes, where trying to win 1-0 was clearly his only option. And it bugged him, that label, because it inferred he couldn’t coach offence. Or that he didn’t want to.
So, is Tippett what they say?
"No, he’s an all-around coach," said Oilers assistant captain Darnell Nurse, who has enjoyed more time atop the Pacific Division in 31 games under Tippett than in any of his four previous seasons as an Oiler.
"He preaches a lot of structure, and taking care of our own zone. But when we do that, that’s what leads to offence. That’s what we’ve found: when we have good games offensively, it’s because we’ve been checking well. He showed us the way to do it."
Damning an NHL coach for focusing on keeping the puck out of his net is like criticizing a baseball manager for being fixated on good pitching and defence. What we know about hockey is you might win if you score a lot of goals, but you WILL lose if you allow a lot of goals.
So, it becomes about relating to players. Getting them to play your system when they don’t have the puck, then backing off and allowing for some creativity when they do have it.
It’s about having the right feel for the room and the players within, and that’s where we begin to find some common threads when you ask around about the latest in a long line of Edmonton Oilers head coaches.
"It doesn’t matter if you play five minutes a night, or 25, you feel important to the team," said Patrick Russell, literally the 12th forward on this Oilers roster on many nights. "The entire coaching staff … they make you feel part of something bigger.
"He’s an honest coach, for sure. He’ll tell it like it is. But, he’s also good at explaining to you what your role is, and how you can do it the best way," said Russell. "Everyone knows exactly what their role is, and the role they need to fulfill in order for us to win."
As for a guy who transitioned from player to coach back in the mid-90s, now a 15-year NHL head coach, you may have noticed: these are dangerous times to be a veteran coach.
Closets are opening, and skeletons are pouring out. If you’ve ever been a bad guy you’re nervous, a topic that Tippett — like any of his colleagues — embarks upon tentatively.
"It’s the way of the world — there’s lots being said — but I don’t listen. I have no social media going on," said the 58-year-old Saskatchewan native. "I just know the way I like to be treated: with respect. I’ve had the same approach as a coach. I treat people with respect and hopefully you get that respect back. That’s how I live my life."
He was born in tiny Moosomin, Sask., but came up through Prince Albert and the P.A. Raiders.
"Terry Simpson was my junior coach, and we won all the time," Tippett recalls. "He didn’t yell at us — he taught us how to win. He wasn’t disrespectful whatsoever, but as a player you need to be pushed a little bit. He just pushed our teams to win, and that’s what a coach’s job is.
"I learned lessons from him, and that’s where I am today."
Simpson picks up the phone in Saskatoon. He had Tippett again a dozen seasons later when he coached the Philadelphia Flyers. The old coach is quietly proud to have been named as a key mentor by Tippett.
"As a coach in junior hockey you’re paid to develop players," Simpson said. "As a coach in the National Hockey League, you’re paid to win. Sometimes you hit the right buttons, I guess, and sometimes you don’t."
The means were different back in Simpson’s days, but relating to players hasn’t changed much. From Simpson, Tippett learned the "feel" for his players that these Oilers have embraced.
He played, so he knows both sides of the relationship.
"It’s always way easier on video," said Tippett, who played over 700 NHL games as a utility winger, topping out at 17 goals for the Hartford Whalers in the late ‘80s. "Coaches can (say), ‘Why didn’t you go here? Or why didn’t you go here?’ Well, it’s different when you’re a player. You can get too critical, and get your team too down. I’ve seen instances where, no matter what you did, it doesn’t seem like it’s good enough.
"There are times when you have to manage your team’s mental psyche, as well as your structure and how you play."
Let’s dig in on this "feel for the room" thing a little bit. Give us an example:
"I think I’ve got a pretty good feel for when you’ve got to push with some video, when you’ve got to push with some teaching, and when you’ve got to back off a little bit," he said. "I mean, it’s a long season, and everything we do is geared around results. So, one day you might say, ‘I’ve got 10 things that we’ve just got to pound on today.’ Then you see your group and you say, ‘You know what? Today’s not the right day to do it.’ Those are feels that the entire staff has to have. Not just myself."
Still, he has adapted his own thinking here in Edmonton, allowing the top power-play unit to have most — if not all — of every power play. Tippett has been a two-unit guy his whole life, but he recognizes that having Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl is unique, and he is wise to park his old tendencies and open up to a new way of coaching.
His reward? A power play that is relentless, and stands atop the NHL at 32.2 per cent.
He’s a young 58, Dave Tippett, if that is even possible.
"As I get older, players get younger… Fortunately I’ve had a couple of daughters who take me through that whole millennial sage," he chuckles.
"You’re still teaching, talking with people. I like to have relationships with my players, where they feel like it’s a partnership, not a dictatorship. We’re all in this together; I look at it as one team. Players, coaches, trainers — we’re all one team.
"I looked at it that way as a player, and still do today as a coach."