NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Play a game, head for the airport. Take a day off, play another game. Squeeze in a practice when you can.
The pace of a regular NHL season is challenging enough, but coaches who take over in the middle of a season are forced to play catch-up, making changes in meetings while mostly using video to help make their points.
The NHL’s delayed restart has given six coaches hired or promoted during the season a chance at a fresh start with a training camp they never got with their current teams. The time is invaluable since all 24 teams jump right into the playoffs beginning Aug. 1.
John Hynes (Nashville), Geoff Ward (Calgary), Rick Bowness (Dallas), Sheldon Keefe (Toronto), Peter DeBoer (Vegas) and Dean Evason (Minnesota) have the chance to show what they can do with a couple of weeks featuring nothing but practices, meetings and scrimmages.
”The sole focus is on your installation, your execution, your attention to detail, your practice habits, your systematic details without having to have a ton of compete against other teams,” said Hynes, who was fired by New Jersey on Dec. 3 and hired Jan. 7 by the Predators. ”So that should help,”
Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm said players have to get used to a different voice, even if there’s not much difference in the systems being used.
”And now we really get a chance to look at the full package of what his philosophy is, how he wants us to play,” Ekholm said. ”So I think for us, that’s a really big advantage.”
Calgary forward Sean Monahan agreed, noting the Flames were learning as they went with Ward following Bill Peters’ abrupt resignation amid allegations of mistreating players.
”So to have this training camp and get familiar with some changes, and obviously doing it on the ice, that goes a long way,” Monahan said.
Having previous connections to the franchise helps. At least that’s what Ward, named interim head coach of the Flames on Nov. 29, thinks of himself, Keefe, Evason and Bowness.
”You sort of know how the players fit together, what their personalities are, what they bring to the table as a group,” Ward said. ”But sometimes you can’t always get in everything you need to because practice time is so short during an NHL season, especially in the second half.”
Keefe coached the Toronto Marlies to their first AHL Calder Cup championship in 2018. The Maple Leafs hired him to replace Mike Babcock in the first coaching change of the season back in November. Even with his familiarity with Toronto, Keefe sees having a camp now as a great advantage.
”We didn’t have much time to really sit down and tackle all the different areas we wanted to improve upon,” Keefe said.
Toronto defenseman Jake Muzzin thinks Keefe has taken advantage of this July training camp after being able to analyze how systems work with the Maple Leafs.
”He’s been able to, and all the coaches, have been able to look at tape and study video, and what works best for us, what we need to get better at, and we’re doing that here in camp right now,” Muzzin said.
Bowness was in his second season as an assistant with Dallas when the Stars fired Jim Montgomery on Dec. 10 for an off-ice issue and named him interim head coach for the rest of the season. Goalie Anton Khudobin sees having a training camp now as a break for the Stars.
”Oh for sure,” Khudobin said. ”He has more time to get ready.”
Bowness believes he already had an advantage: The Stars had won seven of eight when he was promoted so ”we didn’t have to make a lot of changes.”
Evason took over a Wild team that had won seven of 11. He went 8-4 after taking over and started this training camp by having the interim tag taken off while being given a two-year contract extension.
Vegas had only lost four straight when Gerard Gallant was fired on Jan. 15. DeBoer had a training camp with San Jose before being fired Dec. 11.
Now the slates are clean and the stakes simple with the NHL’s expanded playoff format to be played in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta. The replacement coaches have healthy rosters and more time in amp before even an exhibition to space out and focus on preparation.
”All those things, I think for guys that come in halfway through the year have been an advantage for sure,” Ward said.