If I Were Steve Yzerman (2022 Edition) - Part 2
Updated: Jun 2, 2022
In part 1 of this series, we laid out where the Red Wings currently are with their roster and where they need to go. Part 2 of this series will address the first item that needs to be dealt with prior to the NHL Draft and the start of free agency - selecting a new head coach.
Without further ado, let's get started.
Head Coaching Search
In his end of year press conference, Steve Yzerman answered numerous questions regarding the head coaching vacancy. In short, Yzerman said that he would not limit himself to any particular background when searching for the next coach. Both of Yzerman's previous hires in Tampa were hired out of the AHL with no prior NHL head coaching experience, so it's reasonable to assume that Yzerman is truly open to an array of candidates.
What exactly do the Red Wings need in a head coach? In my opinion, today's NHL coach needs to provide the following:
Ability to connect with individual players on a personal level
Ability to identify and develop skills unique to different players
Ability to alter systems/tactics based on personnel and opponent
Ability to utilize analytical information and communicate it in a manner relevant to players
Ability to maintain "The Red Wings Way" with respect to culture and identity
What I've done is identified coaches across the globe that I believe provide at least a couple of these traits. Of note, there are still twenty other candidates out there that I didn't profile that could be options for Yzerman, but (in my opinion) I've selected the 10 candidates that I believe are best suited for this specific job. In order to do this in a logical manner, I have grouped the candidates based on where they are currently coaching and will briefly discuss what each candidate brings to the table.
The first group of coaches we'll consider are the coaches with prior NHL head coaching experience. I've identified three candidates who I believe warrant consideration for the opening:
Let's start with the biggest fish on the market...Barry Trotz. In a surprising move, the New York Islanders decided to hand the reins to Lane Lambert, relieving Trotz of his duties as head coach. Trotz, as most are familiar with, has been a head coach in the NHL since 1998, ranks 3rd all-time in coaching wins, and had reached the 2nd round or better in seven consecutive seasons prior to this year. The hallmark of Trotz's teams is a sound defensive structure which sounds like music to the ears of Red Wings fans after this past season.
Breaking down Trotz's schemes, we can glean why his teams are so effective defensively. In this breakdown by Kelvin Cech on The Coaches' Site, he identifies four things that Trotz's teams do well defensively:
Continued pressure from F1, regardless of score
Excellent back-pressure from forwards as the puck is carried up the ice
Aggressive approach to defending their blue line
Support from first forward back from goal line to goal line
Those tactics have translated to significant defensive improvements in each of Trotz's last two stops.
Despite the substantial defensive improvements, there have been concerns voiced by Red Wings' fans that Trotz's defensive system may stifle the offensive creativity from the Red Wings' talented forwards and could potentially stagnate the development of some of Detroit's younger players. For what it's worth, the Capitals ranked 4th in the league in 5v5 scoring under Trotz and boasted the best 5v5 goal differential in the NHL during his four years as head coach. As far as stifling the development of young players (largely related to how Trotz managed Jakub Vrána), we have seen substantial development from some of the Islanders younger players such as Noah Dobson and Anthony Beauvillier (prior to this season).
(Images via Evolving-Hockey)
Now these two examples alone don't dismiss the critique of Trotz's handling of younger players, as there were frustrations amongst fans at his prior stops. It's merely to identify a couple of examples where younger players succeeded with Trotz as their head coach.
All of this being said, it's unclear if Trotz would even want to come to Detroit or if his interests align with what the Red Wings want. There are rumors that Trotz might be considering a front office role or a coaching role with front office involvement, both of which may not be appealing to the Red Wings. Ultimately, in my position, I would still formally consider Trotz for the position, depending on his interest in solely being a head coach.
Paul Maurice, a former Windsor Spitfire, coached the Winnipeg Jets for the last nine seasons before abruptly stepping down this past season, stating that the team needed "a new voice". Stylistically, Maurice is a very different type of coach from Trotz. On offense, Maurice's teams prefer to play below the goal line, generating a majority of their offense from low-to-high plays.
These types of low-to-high plays are sometimes considered "safe" offense as the passing lanes are generally open and it results in shots from the point which are "low percentage" chances. However, if you have a team skilled at deflecting the puck and retrieving rebounds, this is a system that can generate sustained pressure in the offensive zone. An example of a team that executes this style well is Tampa. I believe the Wings have the personnel to play Maurice's system, using their speed to forecheck aggressively, challenge zone exits, and win puck battles.
Ultimately, there are concerns about Maurice's ability to take the team to the next level. Maurice had early success in his career, surprisingly reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2001-02 where his Hurricanes lost to the Red Wings in five games. After leaving Carolina the first time, the team won the Stanley Cup the following season. His second tenure with the Hurricanes was slightly more successful, reaching the conference finals in 2008-2009, but ultimately the team struggled to sustain their success. The Jets only reached the 100-point mark once and moved past the first round only twice. Is Maurice perhaps better as the guy that helps the team take the next step as opposed to the guy that pushes them over the top?
Last but not least, there's Claude Julien. The former Montreal head coach is best known for taking the Boston Bruins to two Stanley Cup Finals, winning the whole thing in 2011. What makes Claude Julien an attractive candidates for the Red Wings?
Julien's teams are extraordinarily responsible in their own defensive zone. He does this by implementing a zone defense system that challenges his players to be positionally responsible. One of the hallmarks of Julien's defensive system is funneling the offense into the corners where his forwards can collapse on the puck and outnumber the offense.
The focus on zone defense as opposed to man-to-man coverage challenges his defensemen to communicate with one another and make accurate reads when switching. There can certainly be challenges when adapting to this system, but when executed correctly, it can lead to tremendous results. There's no better example of this than the Boston Bruins. Between 2007-08 and 2016-17, the Bruins were the best defensive team in the league, ranking 1st in 5v5 GA/60 and 3rd in 5v5 xGA/60 (data via Evolving-Hockey). With Moritz Seider and the likely arrival of Simon Edvinsson, the Wings have a couple of high-IQ players on the backend to execute Julien's system well.
Ultimately, there are pros and cons to hiring a coach that's been around the NHL for a while. The pros are clearly that they understand what it takes to win in the NHL and are intimately familiar with the league process. The potential downside is the question of whether they are able to adapt their tactics/systems/philosophies as the game changes or if they're fixed on seeing one "specific" way to win. In the NHL today, you have to be able to win hockey games in a variety of different ways. It remains to be seen if these three coaches could adapt their strategies to a new circumstance.
The International Candidates
Overseas, there are a number of coaches that have found tremendous success in their respective leagues who may be interested in an NHL job. It's worth noting that there's no guarantee that any of these coaches would actually leave their respective organizations for a position in the NHL. There are four coaches in particular that I believe deserve merit for this particular position (sorry Jukka Jalonen, Olli Jokinen, and Igor Larionov).
Cam Abbott - Rögle BK
Sergei Fedorov - CSKA Moscow
Rikard Grönborg - ZSC Lions
Roger Rönnberg - Frölunda HC
Starting in the SHL, Cam Abbott took over as head coach of Rögle midway through the 2017-2018 season. Abbott has had an atypical journey in his path to becoming a head coach. During his playing career, Abbott played for Cornell University before a tumultuous ECHL experience that left him and his brother, Chris, scrambling to find an opportunity. They found that opportunity in Sweden where both finished their playing careers, funnily enough playing for one of our other candidates, Roger Rönnberg. Unfortunately Cam's playing career was cut short in 2015 due to post-concussion syndrome at the age of 32. Two years after wrapping up his playing career, Abbott was named head coach for Växjo J20. In his first and only full year with Växjo J20, Abbott led a dramatic turnaround, taking them from a 7-17-3 record in the previous season to a 17-8-2 record that concluded with a loss in the finals. Shortly thereafter Abbott was named head coach of Rögle BK.
On an appearance on the Glass and Out Podcast, Abbott detailed what he believes to be the three keys to winning in the SHL:
Limit odd-man rushes against
Win the penalty differential battle
Limit expected goals against relative to the rest of the league
Offensively, Abbott goes on to state that he wants his teams to focus on "puck management" as opposed to "puck possession". He elaborates on this, stating that he doesn't necessarily need his players to hold on to the puck - rather, he focuses on a balance of smart dump-ins where his team can forecheck aggressively and puck possession to maximize offensive opportunities. We've seen this type of strategy work in the NHL, with the Carolina Hurricanes being a notable example. The strategy has also clearly worked in the SHL for Abbott. In his four and a half seasons, Rögle is 135-75-32 (.567 points%) and has reached the SHL semifinals or better in each of the past two seasons. Over the past three seasons, Rögle has ranked 3rd, 2nd, and 7th in 5v5 xGF% (data via Daniel Weinberger). Rögle has also bought into the importance of analytics in decision-making, hiring Zach Ellenthal as their lead data analyst last year - another checked box for Abbott.
The other attractive aspect about Abbott is his commitment to developing young players. On the Glass and Out podcast appearance, Abbott talks about the development of Nils Höglander and how he tries to portray himself as a coach willing to develop the skills necessary to be successful. Seeing the success of Höglander and Moritz Seider, who played his last pre-NHL season under Abbott, as well as the tremendous growth of William Wallinder this season, offers a glimpse of Abbott's capabilities. Abbott is just 38 years old, which would make him one of the youngest coaches in the NHL. Still, he has a sound coaching philosophy that has led to great results which keeps him on my list of candidates.
Moving up the coast to Göteborg, we meet our next candidate, Roger Rönnberg. Over the last nine seasons, Rönnberg has been at the helm of one of the most successful programs, leading Frölunda to two championships and an additional three semifinal appearances. The Frölunda Way, as it's known, is rooted in a dedication to developing his players. I can't begin to do the philosophy justice so I will refer you to pieces from The Athletic's Max Bultman and The Coaches Site's Matt Dumouchelle. What I will highlight are a few key aspects of Rönnberg's philosophy that I believe are matches to what the Red Wings need in a coach.
From his interview with Dumouchelle, one defining quote stood out:
I think the X's and O's are one part and that's important for all coaches, but I'm more into the leadership and psychology of the game. How can I be a better leader to lead different people, because that's the challenge. If I can have the skills in my leadership to be a leader for as many different people as possible. It's so important when you work on developing humans that you don't look for certain type of people to bring into the program. We think we can help every person to grow their character and we have our role models in the men's team who have tremendous character to help them.
Without a doubt, that philosophy is clearly aligned with The Red Wings Way. The ability to focus on players as humans and individualize development is tantamount to being a successful manager of people. When you consider the number of NHL players that have passed under Rönnberg's tutelage, it's clear that he's making a significant impact:
John Klingberg, Alex Wennberg, Pierre Engvall, Mattias Janmark, Rasmus Dahlin, Artturi Lehkonen, Victor Olofsson, Lucas Raymond, Gustav Lindström, Jonas Brodin, Robin Lehner, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Adam Larsson, Patrik Nemeth, Gabriel Landeskog, Jesper Fast, Calle Jarnkrok, Rikard Rakell, Filip Forsberg, Oskar Klefbom, William Karlsson, Elias Lindholm, Mika Zibanejad, Hampus Lindholm, Viktor Arvidsson, Andre Burakovsky, Victor Rask.
Obviously Rönnberg alone is not responsible for the development of every single one of those players, but even recognizing that he's had a small part in their development is incredible. Ultimately though, results are what matter. While we talked about the titles and playoff success already, what impresses me the most is the dominance at 5v5 year after year. In each of the past three seasons, Frölunda has led the league in 5v5 xGF%, indicating that they generate more quality chances than their opponents.
However, Rönnberg is not without some concerns. There are some fan grumblings regarding player management which may give a slight pause to Red Wings' fans. Ultimately though, these are rumors with nothing further substantiated since the initial report. Thus, I'll keep Rönnberg high on my list of coaching candidates.
Over in Switzerland, Rikard Grönborg is making a name for himself, most recently leading his ZSC Lions team to a heart-wrenching Game 7 loss in the NL Finals. Grönborg has primarily coached at the international level, making a name for himself as the winningest coach of Team Sweden with 16 medals in 12 years. However, what makes Grönborg attractive as a head coaching candidate is his approach to player management. In an interview with Chris Johnston in 2018, Grönborg described his philosophy as preferring to carve out specific roles and assigning tasks as opposed to a set X's and O's system.
There's so many X's and O's out there - I think most coaches coaching at that level, they know their X's and O's - but how do you get the players to grow in your environment? How do you communicate with those players? How did you get them to excel and become better and buy into the system?
This type of philosophy sounds enticing when you consider the stable of young players on the Red Wings. Grönborg further expanded on his philosophy on coaching young players in an interview with with Scott Wheeler of The Athletic.
Working with younger players, you're not looking at tomorrow or the day after - you're looking at a year or two down the road...
That's music to the ears of Red Wings fans. Additionally, another exciting aspect about Grönborg is his stated approach to the incorporation of analytics into his decision-making. In the interview with Wheeler, Grönborg talks about the importance of packaging the information and presenting it to players. He discusses the importance of distilling the information down to specific decisions that need to be made over the course of a season for individual players. Again, another box checked on what we're looking for in a head coach.
For all of Grönborg's success at the international level, it is worth noting that he's only been the coach of a professional team for three years - his past three seasons with ZSC. His ZSC teams have ranked near the top of the NL in 5v5 xGF%, ranking 1st, 3rd, and 3rd in each of the past three seasons. He had a hand in developing Pius Suter into a 30-goal scorer that ultimately led to him receiving an NHL opportunity with the Chicago Blackhawks. But, it's still a relatively small sample of work with a professional team.
Finally, our last candidate is one that most every Red Wings fan is familiar with - Sergei Fedorov. After retiring from professional hockey in 2012, Fedorov has served in the CSKA Moscow organization, first as GM for five years, then as an assistant to the board of directors, before taking over as head coach this past season. All he did in his first season was lead CSKA Moscow to the Gagarin Cup (KHL Championship). Fedorov has shown that he's not afraid to challenge conventional thought with his strategies.
We don't have a lot to evaluate Fedorov on as a head coach given that he's been with CSKA for just one year, but there are a few things that are encouraging. Obviously, as a player, Sergei was one of the most intelligent players in the history of the NHL. Alex Ovechkin called him the best player he played with back in 2015. Former Red Wings head coach Scotty Bowman suggested that if he had left Fedorov on defense, he would have been an all-star defenseman. If (and this is a HUGE if) Fedorov shows the ability to communicate the "how" behind his skills to younger players, the sky is the limit for him as a coach.
There are also logistical issues beyond just the one year of head coaching experience. Fedorov is currently in Russia and it's unclear if and when he would be able to come to North America. Furthermore, there's the jersey retirement conundrum that has yet to be addressed. Finally, there's the concern that, if Fedorov is not successful, what does it do to Yzerman's relationship with Fedorov if he has to fire him? It's certainly an awkward situation, but not an absolute barrier by any stretch.
As we discussed with the NHL candidates, there are pros and cons to hiring from the international pool. From coaching on a different ice surface to having less involvement in roster construction, there are a number of differences between the NHL and international leagues. We haven't seen an NHL head coach hired from Europe in more than 20 years, and I'd wager that that's not entirely by chance. However, there are clear pros. A fresh idea or a new perspective could lead to innovative changes and future success. The thought of introducing new concepts and philosophies to the NHL is exciting, and any one of these candidates would be in position to do just that.
The Other Candidates
The last group of candidates we'll talk about are candidates from the juniors/NCAA/AHL. There are three coaches that I would like to consider here:
David Carle - Denver University
Ryan Warsofsky - Chicago Wolves
Benoit Groulx - Syracuse Crunch
Starting in the NCAA, David Carle is a name most Red Wings fans are familiar with after he coached prospects Carter Mazur, Antti Tuomisto, and Shai Buium to the NCAA championship with Denver University this past season. Carle, like Cam Abbott, had an atypical path into coaching. Carle was an excellent defensemen coming out of high school and was expected to be a 2nd/3rd round draft pick in the 2008 draft. Unfortunately, at the combine, it was discovered that Carle suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, cutting his playing career short. Carle had been planning on going to Denver to play hockey. They honored his scholarship, allowing him to stay on as a student-coach. He later left to coach in the USHL before returning as an assistant to Jim Montgomery. After Montgomery left for the NHL, the 28-year-old Carle took over as head coach at Denver and has not looked back.
In his four seasons as Denver's head coach, he's reached the Frozen Four twice, winning the national championship this past year. Under Carle, Denver dominates the puck. In his four seasons as head coach, Denver has ranked 3rd, 14th, 3rd, and 24th in even-strength Corsi For%, including a dominant 60.7% this past season. What stands out about Carle is his ability to communicate and relate to his players. Carle landed at 13th in Craig Custance's top-40 under 40 in hockey. To support his case for inclusion, Montgomery stated that the thing that makes Carle so unique is "his ability to communicate effectively and concisely with people from any generation, and his emotional intelligence". While some may be afraid of naming a 32-year-old as head coach, Carle's body of work and approach to the game should quell those fears.
Moving over to the AHL, Ryan Warsofsky has coached in the AHL for the past four seasons, leading the Charlotte Checkers from 2018-2020 and Chicago Wolves from 2020-2022. This past season, his Chicago team went 50-16-10, good for the best record in the AHL. Furthermore, they led the AHL in goals scored, were fourth in goals against, and were fourth in PK%. Warsofsky, like Carle, is on the younger side, but again has demonstrated the ability to connect with his players and implement innovative strategies. Mike Sullivan, Warsofsky's neighbor when growing up, said that Warsofsky "has all the attributes to be a real good NHL coach". With strategy, Warsofsky's teams are best known for their aggressive "power kill" while shorthanded. In the past two seasons, the Wolves have scored 16 shorthanded goals, tops in the AHL. Ultimately, Warsofsky has the communication skills, work ethic, and innovative approach necessary to be a successful NHL coach.
Over in Syracuse, Benoit Groulx has served as the head coach for the Crunch since 2016-2017. In his six seasons, the Crunch have made the AHL playoffs each year they were held and reached the Calder Cup final in his first season. Groulx is probably best known for his development of the plethora of young players that are currently leading the Tampa Bay Lightning on their quest for a third consecutive Stanley Cup. Erik Cernak, Anthony Cirelli, Carter Verhaeghe, Mathieu Joseph, Ross Colton, and others have passed through Syracuse on their way to the NHL, having the opportunity to learn from Groulx.
On the ice, Groulx's Crunch have a 5v5 GF% of 55.5% since 2016, best in the AHL amongst teams that competed in all seasons (data via AHL Tracker). Groulx has been called a "hockey genius" by Julien Briesbois. In an interview with The Athletic's Joe Smith, Groulx talks about the importance of building close relationships with players, collaborating closely with his staff, and the need to continuously evolve as a coach. In the interview he says "You ask players all the time to get better. As coaches, you have to come up with fresh ideas. You have to evolve. You have to be unpredictable". All of these are desirable traits in a head coach.
Ultimately, selecting the next head coach of the Red Wings will not be an easy decision. There are twenty other candidates not even mentioned in the article who could fit the bill. For me personally, the decision on who should be the next head coach has to fall in line with the direction taken with roster construction this offseason. Will the next head coach be stepping into a roster that's been rebuilt with the expectation of contending for the playoffs, or will the next coach be stepping in to a team that's resetting their contention window and focusing on individual player development? Using the candidate profiles I laid out above, I grouped and ranked the coaches based on how well I think they fit the two strategies.
In future parts of this series, we'll go on to discuss the two different paths that can be taken this offseason. Once we decide on the path we want to take, we'll select the appropriate head coach. Part 3 of this series will pick back up with the 2022 NHL Draft.
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