McLellan’s Challenge: Don’t overcoach North America’s ‘wild horses’

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PITTSBURGH — The NHL has become such a structured and defense-first league over the past two decades that pretty much every team and player is designed to play the exact same way.

Just about every team wants their star players to play a safe, responsible 200-foot game that is almost free of any and all risk. Anytime a team or player drifts away from that mold — even if it’s just a little bit — it really stands out and there are always questions about whether or not they can succeed with that style.

You saw it a lot last season when talking about the Dallas Stars and their high-flying offense. You saw it a few years ago when the Washington Capitals shifted from an all offense-no defense approach to a no-offense-all defense team and set the franchise back several years. You hear about it every time Erik Karlsson touches the puck.

On the international stage, we might hear similar questions about Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

It’s a collection of the best young (age 23 and younger) talent from the United States and Canada in the league, and after watching their three pre-tournament games over the past week it is pretty clear that they are going to be one of the must-see teams over the next two weeks.

They are fast, skilled, and so far have played a style that has opened the game up to odd-man rushes, scoring chances, and wide open back-and-forth play.

That style of play is obviously exciting and can create a lot of goals, especially when you are dealing with a team that has the type of talent Team North America has.

The downside to that style of play is if a team is not careful it can border on reckless and create opportunities going back the other way. There are also questions as to how they will stack up against bigger and stronger teams like the United States and Canada, while Vladimir Sobotka of the Czech Republic said on Thursday that if you finish your checks against them they might be “afraid to play with the puck.”

The challenge for coach Todd McLellan is going to be allowing them to play to their strength, while also trying to control them so the game doesn’t get out of hand due to reckless and careless play with (and without) the puck.

Before Wednesday’s World Cup pre-tournament game against the Czech Republic, a 3-2 loss, McLellan compared his team to a group of wild horses.

“It’s like a group of wild horses you have to corral,” McLellan said. “You get two of them in there, but the gate is still open and four of them take off and leave you. So you’ve got to go get those four, and the other two take off.”

There was a little bit of taking place during the game on Wednesday, especially early on with some breakdowns that resulted in Czech Republic scoring chances that forced goalie Matt Murray to keep his team in the game.

McLellan pointed out that they made a couple of critical mistakes that ended up in their net because they were “vacating a dangerous area before we have the puck.” They also have a tendency to overpass the puck and try to do a little too much playmaking instead of just ripping shots at the net when they have the opportunity.

Obviously a team doesn’t want to find itself in a situation where it completely abandons all defensive responsibility, or gets caught making an extra pass that is unnecessary and results in a turnover.

But too often in the NHL there is a seemingly constant desire from a coaching standpoint to go too far in the opposite direction.

McLellan seems to recognize that and doesn’t want to completely eliminate their skill and ask them to be something they are not.

“We don’t want to over-coach this group,” McLellan said on Wednesday. “We don’t want to slow them down, we want them to read and react.”

The talent on this team does not lend itself to playing a gritty, NHL style game. If they try to play that type of game, especially against Canada or the United States, they will probably lose.

They are loaded up front and might be the fastest team in the tournament. Their strength is playing with the puck and using their speed — especially at forward — to their advantage.

But they also can’t be reckless with it because if they get caught flying out of the zone too fast (as they did at times on Wednesday) or get caught in transition trying to make an extra play (as they did in each of their past two games) the more talented teams in the tournament are going to capitalize and make them pay.

There has to be a middle ground between all-out attack and just sitting back and removing all risk.

Finding that middle ground is going to be their biggest challenge and what determines how far they are able to go in this tournament.