Given all the skill and physical gifts that hockey players possess, it’s amazing how much of the game can still be mental. The relationship with a coach can be crucial to a player’s success and sometimes the right fit isn’t always there. But as we’ve seen early on this season, some of the shakeups behind the bench have paid off handsomely.
Anecdotally, I look at Chris Kreider as the perfect example of a player flourishing under different leadership. Back in 2010, Kreider was a key member of Team USA’s world junior team, the same outfit that stunned Canada in the gold medal game when John Carlson scored in overtime to silence the Saskatoon crowd. Kreider was a great interview, a happy-go-lucky kid with speed to burn on the ice. He would return to the WJC the next year in Buffalo and I would once again seek him out for quotes. After his tenure at Boston College concluded, he jumped straight to the NHL playoffs with the New York Rangers, where he went on a Cinderella run, garnering seven points in 18 post-season tilts.
At the time, Rangers coach John Tortorella tried to tamp down expectations on the youngster, saying Kreider had a long way to go on the defensive side of the puck, but the press loved the storyline anyway.
Then the summer came. Every year, Upper Deck and the NHLPA hold an event where about 20 prospects poised to become NHL rookies get their first hockey card photos taken. They slip on the jerseys, do a round of interviews and later hit the ice and do a bunch of official hockey card things.
Kreider was there and I thought to myself, awesome, Kreider’s always a great interview. But he came out stone-faced. The quotes were quick and rote. What did the Rangers do to fun Chris? Maybe he was just having a bad morning, but it was surprising.
The following season would be an epic struggle for Kreider. He would suit up for just 23 of New York’s 48 games, tallying three points. It was clear Tortorella wasn’t satisfied with his game.
Then Alain Vigneault takes over. This season, Kreider started off in the minors, but earned a call-up and now has six points in his first seven games. Despite playing half the games, he is tied for third in Rangers scoring. He’s playing more than seven and a half minutes more a night than last year and the Blueshirts are 4-3 with him in the lineup after starting out 2-5.
And before you think this is an indictment of Tortorella, let’s jet across the continent to Vancouver, where the former New York bench boss is now coaching in place of Vigneault. Ryan Kesler is playing four minutes more per game year over year, jumping over the board for an average of 23 minutes a night under ‘Torts.’ He’s kept up a nice scoring pace and has even seen time alongside the Sedin twins, giving the Canucks a dangerous wrinkle in their attack plans. The Vancouver penalty kill ranks third in the NHL and Kesler leads all forwards on the team in PK duty ice time. Last year he was fourth or fifth, depending on whether you count Manny Malhotra’s nine games or service, and the penalty kill ranked eighth.
Tortorella works his stars and for Kesler, it’s working out just fine.
Finally, there’s Semyon Varlamov in Colorado. Yes, he’s embroiled in a legal controversy over charges stemming from alleged domestic violence, but before that came out, the big story was his resurgence on the ice under Patrick Roy and new goalie coach François Allaire.
Allaire came to the Avalanche in part because of his history with Roy and Varlamov had told me earlier in the season that it almost felt like he had two goalie coaches, since his new bench boss happened to be one of the greatest to ever play the position.
Last season Varlamov won one game on the road and just 11 in 35 appearances. This year, he got his second road win in his second road game and has an 8-1 record through nine games.
While there are always going to be multiple factors for success and failure, it is interesting to see how these players have excelled under their new bench bosses.