Coaches' second year's the charm
Seven second-year coaches are enjoying considerable success this season
Pete DeBoer, John Anderson, and Scott Gordon have seen dramatic improvement
Atlanta's Anderson was surprised by how much teaching he does in the NHL
In this era of instant access and gratification, how much time is enough when it comes to coaches taking over a team and getting results?
Well, by this season's early returns, the second season is when a coach's vision becomes clearer. Certainly, every situation is unique, especially when veteran coaches take over without missing much time between stints behind the bench. Joel Quenneville in Chicago and John Tortorella in New York come to mind. Quenneville has provided the perfect touch to bring along the young and supremely talented Blackhawks at a rapid rate. They continue to move up the ranks into the elite of the league. Similarly, after taking over late last season, Tortorella has the Rangers playing aggressive hockey, with a very active blueline on the attack.
Last season, though, wasn't really about proven bench bosses. It was more about coaches getting their first shot in the NHL. Pete DeBoer took over in Florida, Scott Gordon on Long Island, John Anderson in Atlanta, and Todd McLellan in San Jose. The Sharks were a mature team with expectations, yet after rolling through the regular season, they fell in the postseason. The other three teams all were in various stages of building/rebuilding/retooling, with different expectations.
This season, McLellan's Sharks are again atop the league in fine fashion. For the coach -- who took the post after winning a Stanley Cup as an assistant in Detroit -- and his players, the scrutiny won't truly begin until April. In the other three situations, however, the questions began on opening night. All three teams had missed the playoffs last season, so the curiosity factor was immediate. And to date, all the look markedly better, with winning records thus far.
The Panthers almost overcame a 4-9 start to the DeBoer era by finishing with 93 points, only to lose a tiebreaker to Montreal for the eighth and final playoff spot. This season, DeBoer faced the loss of lynchpin defenseman Jay Bouwmeester via free agency. The transition didn't go smoothly, as the Panthers stumbled out of the gate 1-7-2. Yet, DeBoer has his charges back in the mix, at 8-2-2 over their past dozen games. The Panthers are playing hard, determined hockey and DeBoer's defensive message seems to have really taken root.
While DeBoer came from the ranks of Canadian junior hockey, Gordon and Anderson are from the AHL. Both initially struggled to instill their brand of hockey with their respective teams. There was uncertainty, as both men wanted to change not only the philosophy, but the culture in the locker room. With such wide, sweeping agendas, their teams' early struggles were probably predictable. But, they stayed passionate, diligent and open -- themselves learning as they went along. This year, the Islanders and Thrashers have surprised many with their cohesive competitiveness, much like the L.A .Kings out west under Terry Murray, who is likewise in his second season at the helm.
All three coaches cite teaching as the root of their experience. All three teams have prodigious young talent, with many of the key players still teenagers: John Tavares of the Islanders, Zach Bogosian of the Thrashers, and Drew Doughty out in the Kings. For Murray, the teaching aspect drew him back behind the bench after last serving as a head coach in 2000-01 for the Panthers. "This opportunity was very appealing," he says. "I welcomed the challenge and part of the attraction was the need to teach."
For Anderson, he knew there would be an adjustment period when he came in, as the Thrashers learned his progressive breakout and attack schemes. The biggest lesson learned in year one? "I thought the guys in the NHL would be more familiar with certain things, but there is much more teaching at this level than I realized," he says. "It took longer than I anticipated to see things gel."
Still, the second half of last season saw the Thrashers post a winning record and they've picked right up where they left off. Anderson's team is aggressive offensively, engaging the defensemen to overwhelm with numbers on the attack. Last season, Atlanta's D scored 31 goals. This season, the blueliners have already netted 19. That's just one measure of the growth -- and promise -- in the second year.
Gordon, too, had lots of teaching to do. He also found the Islanders garnering plenty of attention after they drafted Tavares first overall last summer. Tavares hasn't disappointed, but some of the other youngsters who were there are showing definite signs of advancement, especially Jeff Tambellini, Frans Nielsen and defenseman Jack Hillen. Granted, the acquisition of veteran netminders Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron has allowed some mistake forgiveness as both have played consistently well, particularly Roloson. The tandem is buying Gordon and his young team some time, while still garnering 25 points in 24 games.
How much time? That's the question applied to coaching. In the cases of the guys who took over their posts a year ago, definite improvement is evident in their second seasons. Their programs are in place at the NHL level, where the expectations include building, growing and winning, and they're delivering.
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