What NHL coaching staffs do to improve during the off-season

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, back, runs drills at practice during NHL hockey training camp ahead of the Stanley Cup playoffs in Toronto on Tuesday, July 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Every September, NHL players come back to training camp and the wave of “best-shape-of-his-life” stories flood in like clockwork. It’s understandable though, as it’s possible to physically develop well into your 20s. Training builds on previous training, weaknesses get worked on and new heights are reached. The quality of NHL hockey gets better by a few percentage points each off-season, so players have got to at least match that to not fall behind.

Ipso facto, a ton of players really are in the best shape of their lives. Got it.

Having spent years in that cycle myself, starting with junior and working my way up to my first NHL camp, I couldn’t have imagined a coaching staff did much of anything during the off-season while I was running the stairs of Kelowna’s Apple Bowl or adding weight to the squat rack.

After getting hired to be a video guy in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, though, I quickly learned that could not be further from the truth (at least in this era of the NHL). Which was disappointing for anyone who was hoping for full summers off.

Like the players, a coaching staff has to take some time off. The season puts you on a steady metaphorical treadmill, day after day of preparing for games, which end and signal the beginning of the next game’s prep with seemingly no break in between.

You’re back on it way too soon though (emotionally, anyway). Because if you’re hoping to improve from within, as players are with the physical training, it’s usually the work you do early in the summer that leads to the big gains later on. The following comes from my perspective as a video coach, who has to do a lot of the facilitating between players and staff given everyone lives all around the globe.

Individual player projects

NHL / AHL teams have full-on stat departments now, and there’s almost always red flag numbers (something that doesn’t match the consensus of staff opinions) that need looking in to. Teams want to know: what are we missing there? Maybe the question is: why does the left side of our D allow so many more zone entries when our better defencemen play that side?

On top of that, there are usually numbers that do match the eye-test (for example, a D-man that struggles turning retrievals into breakouts) and teams want to know what the common problem is, and what can be done differently.

Once answers are found, which can take pouring through a good amount of time-on-ice, the player has to be looped in. They need to be shown what’s been found to better understand what can be worked on.

This is where the player development staff get involved. Fixes often need to be made (maybe that defenceman needs a better pivot to get back on dumped pucks quicker to buy themselves an extra half-second), and drills need to be designed to help that player improve in that very specific area.

Teams use a great variety of technology here, and it’s not the responsibility of those people to have the technology side nailed down. That falls on the video coach.

Team projects

This takes the above concepts, but exists more specifically for the staff. If the team played a variety of systems throughout the season, you’d want to parse what worked better for the team, and with which personnel in which roles. Teams try to do this in-season, but they play 82 games, with AHL teams playing over 70. They rarely have more than a day off in between games, and you’re always wary of sample size at mid-season. Once it’s all said and done, you can put together a better retrospective on what worked for the group.

It’s here that I liked the idea of coaches coming together with new on-ice ideas to put in for the next season, and that does happen. It’s integral that after stepping away, everyone is able to come back together and come up with big-picture adjustments. But if you’re a regular NHL watcher, you’re also aware that “new ideas” aren’t exactly a thing that’s regularly welcomed or implemented beyond theory.

Upgrading technology

Technology is improving at the speed of light, but most coaching staffs at the pro level are 40-60 years old and didn’t exactly grow up writing code, if you’re picking up what I’m putting down. So whatever it is that’s coming next needs to be tested, installed on everyone’s laptops, and some teaching is required.

One of the biggest advancements right now is in video sharing, allowing coaches to do so much more from a distance than they used to be able to. They can send players video and will know if they’ve watched said video, and they can ask them questions at certain points of the video while prompting them to respond (and the video won’t play beyond certain moments if the players don’t).

New player onboarding

Each summer new players are welcomed to the organization, whether through the draft or trades or free agency. It would be silly to ask these guys to show up on Day 1 of camp and start working with them then. Once camp is upon a team, that treadmill begins anew, which is a bad time to start learning to run at the team’s preferred speed.

So the work gets done to prepare meetings with those players, often including the systems the team play, and occasionally includes skill additions that the player development team wants that player to work on. When you get a new player, you want the best version of them.

As I said, it’s unlikely that these people are in the same building, so a lot of video changes hands, with the goal of everyone showing up on Day 1 without feeling overwhelmed and unprepared.

Draft and UFA prep work

Let’s not forget that some of the biggest off-season questions for teams are just who to bring in the next year. With that, there’s a lot of video mining of potential picks and free agents — many, many of whom will never play for the organization. It’s not uncommon for teams to want video packages on all potential players (this can be harder for say, junior-aged kids overseas, but there are ways to get it all). Usually, teams just want to get a sense for what their skill sets are, without requiring the higher-ups to watch a dozen games of every available player given that there are so many to track (and if they do, they at least need to be condensed down to just that player’s shifts).

At some point, there’s still actual hockey that gets played in the off-season as well. Player development camps happen and games are logged and clipped and picked through just like regular season games. There are prospect tournaments and overseas events and never a shortage of hockey to draw the attention of team brass.

The work is different, but there’s still work.

I imagine that decades ago, the off-season for an NHL general manager or coach was mostly filled with playing golf and enjoying themselves. Let’s not kid ourselves: some of that still happens, which is a healthy thing. But hockey has moved pretty close to 365 — call it 335? — and it’s no longer just the players who put in the off-season work to get better.

Fitting then, that for a lot of coaches and managers these days, coming back to camp must feel like they’re in the best (mental) shape of their lives.

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