NHL coaching is now about relationships as much as it is Xs-and-Os

Adam Proteau
Evgeni Malkin (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
Evgeni Malkin (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

New Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Johnston traveled to Russia this weekend to talk with star center Evgeni Malkin about the team’s new direction in the wake of sweeping change to management and the playing roster. The trip is a must for Johnston, because, now more than ever before, relationships can mean the difference between coaches winning and losing at hockey’s highest levels.

The days of autocrat bench bosses barking orders at their charges are long-gone. Just ask the short-gone John Tortorella and his former employers in Vancouver who can’t do enough to distance themselves from that awful experiment. The Canucks replaced Tortorella with Willie Desjardins, an affable, considerate man who paid his dues in the hockey world, but who also has a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in social work. Desjardins may not succeed in his new gig, but his well-rounded background will serve as the template for NHL coaches in the years to come.

Seeing the continued evolution of the coaching profession brings to mind something former Leafs executive Dave Poulin told THN a few years back: he believed the label “coach” didn’t accurately describe what the men who served in the role did every day. He thought baseball had it right in calling their coaches “managers”, because so much of the average NHL coach’s job today is about managing: managing on-ice strategic adjustments – in-game and game-to-game – and, more importantly, managing the personalities of players as they attempt to form a cohesive unit.

That was certainly a problem for the Penguins last season. Despite having all-world talents such as Malkin and fellow superstar Sidney Crosby on the roster, the Pens never looked like a collection of players who would go to the wall for one another. Many times, they looked like the last place they wanted to be was within shouting distance of the wall. That’s not all on former coach Dan Bylsma, but his inability to galvanize the group was a key reason he was dismissed shortly after GM Ray Shero was shown the door.

Johnston knows he’s got players who know how to play the game, but he also knows he must convince them to want to play the game, if not for him than for their teammates and themselves. He’s got to steer them through the doldrums of the regular season and ensure they’re focused on peaking at the right time (hint: the right time isn’t anytime before mid-April of next year). And if he can’t, he knows Penguins management won’t have much patience to keep him around.

The average hockey fan only pays attention to a coach when he’s behind the bench during games, or standing on a practice rink teaching players. But much of the job now takes place away from the prying eyes of the media and public. A good coach is like a good movie director: they have to know what scenes they want, but to create them, they have to manipulate the emotional cores of their actors.

That’s why Johnston traveled to Russia this weekend. All the Xs-and-Os knowledge in the world won’t mean a thing if he doesn’t make a genuine connection with his players.