Lightning quick is the Boucher way
Innovative rookie coach Guy Boucher tailors his team to the game's faster pace
Lightning players are training for much shorter shifts and quick, explosive bursts
Joe Thornton's extension should allow the Sharks to more easily patch roster holes
Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher might never get a Dos Equis commercial, but he surely is the most interesting man in the NHL.
The rookie coach studied sports psychology, biosystems engineering, environmental biology and history at McGill University. Now he is working on his Ph.D. in NHL time management.
Boucher, who bristles with theories, is doing nothing less dramatic than resetting players' biological clocks.
For the past decade or so, NHL coaches generally viewed the ideal shift as lasting 45 seconds. They preached the holy 45, tailoring practices and concocting drills to spread the gospel. When Bob Hartley was coaching in Atlanta, he had the Thrashers do a series of suicide skates in which players, depending on their positions, would have to finish in between 42 and 45 seconds.
Most players grasped the wisdom of short shifts better than their progenitors. The average shift length morphed from essentially forever in the Phil Esposito era to something more aerobically sensible. While there still are on-ice dawdlers -- some shifts by Alex Kovalev of the Ottawa Senators are so lengthy that they merit their own chapter titles -- 45 seconds, give or take, became the standard.
Now the 39-year-old Boucher demands that the average shift for the Lightning should last 30 to 35 seconds.
This sounds like a McShift, a cameo appearance more than a full shot at making something happen. Of course, these are idealized numbers. Given where the puck is and what is happening on the ice, bolting for the bench isn't always an option. But this is Boucher's thought process: in the NHL's hurry-up world, if you are playing with the speed and intensity he expects, your body will be screaming "Get off!" after 35 seconds.
The task of getting players to adjust their personal clocks has fallen, in part, to Chuck Lobe, the Lightning's strength and conditioning coach. I don't know him. I spoke to him for the first time last week. But he must have something working in his favor because this is his third season in Tampa Bay. He's a survivor of the franchise overhaul under owner Jeff Vinik and general manager Steve Yzerman.
In the interval training that all teams do to replicate the cardiovascular demands of a game, Lobe has quickened the pace. He also has helped players learn more about rest and recovery in the 90 seconds that they will have on the bench, assuming that Boucher is rolling four lines. Lobe says some players can take their heart rates down from 170 to 115 in a minute and a half.
"The 35-second shift is something the body can adapt to," he said. "If you've been training for 45 seconds, you can get it down. It's not like the old two-minute shifts dropping to 45 (seconds). That was a whole new ball game."
As Lightning forward Dominic Moore notes, players aren't really even training for 30 or 35 seconds. They are training for four critical seconds, the moments when they need explosive bursts to carry them past a defender or win a race for the puck.
But the 35-second rule is only one aspect of what makes Boucher a coach to watch. The man knows his mind.
For example, Boucher doesn't want any of his forwards to average more than 20 minutes of ice time. This is hardly a radical theory for four-line teams -- Detroit tends to spread its ice time around even though Pavel Datsyuk topped 20 in four of the first five games -- but the Lightning are hardly lousy with Red Wings-style depth. There is a marked decline between Tampa Bay's top and bottom six forwards. The question, then, is: why wouldn't you want your best forwards such as Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis on for 23 or even 25 minutes if they can handle the workload without significantly sacrificing pace?
John Tortorella and Mike Keenan had the shortest benches in the league, and both won Stanley Cups. Yes, the game is quicker now than in 2004 when Tortorella won with the Lightning, but players are also better conditioned. In a month or so, come back and check on how closely the Lightning is adhering to the standard.
With Yzerman's blessing, Boucher, the 2010 AHL Coach of the Year while working with Montreal's farm team, even made fascinating choices for his assistant coaches. He imported his Hamilton staff, including Dan Lacroix, who had a three-year stint as an Islanders assistant, and Martin Raymond, a former McGill teammate who had been the coach at the university for 14 seasons prior to working in the pros for just one year. The goalie coach is Frantz Jean, who had been employed by Moncton in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The only truly familiar NHL fixture on the staff is Wayne Fleming, a longtime assistant who had been a high-level head coach once -- with Omsk in the KHL.
Anyway, Boucher has gotten nothing but rave reviews. Lightning players have gushed about his energy and attention to detail. (Ex-Hamilton player Mathieu Darche, by the way, called Boucher the "best coach I ever played for." Darche, now with the Canadiens, has played for Tortorella and Jacques Martin, among others.) The Lightning's impressive go-go 4-1 start served to burnish the glow for a coach who will have to finesse spotty goaltending and a balky back end, flaws that were apparent in a 6-0 loss at Florida last Saturday.
To borrow a New York Post line once written about Bobby Valentine when he was managing the Mets, if Boucher knew there were going to be days like that, he would never have reinvented the game of hockey.
So what do Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun, Dallas center Brad Richards and Montreal winger Andrei Kostitsyn have in common -- beyond superb early season numbers? They are potential unrestricted free agents next July 1. ("I think it's the last year of his contract, isn't it?" Martin observed after Kostitsyn scored the tying goal and assisted on the winner in a 4-3 victory on Saturday over the foundering Ottawa Senators.) Richards, who has 10 points in the first five games for surprising Dallas, and Vokoun, who had consecutive shutouts last week, would be intriguing additions to any team's virtual shopping cart next summer -- assuming they get that far.
Of course, the biggest potential UFA came off the market last weekend when Joe Thornton, the Sharks' newly-minted captain, signed an extension for $21 million over three years.
Given the huzzahs lavished on Thornton for taking the extension at substantially less than maximum cap money -- currently 20 per cent of $59.4 million -- you would have thought his signature on a contract constituted the most charitable act since Haitian earthquake relief. Yes, Thornton probably left a few dollars on the table, although that presumably will enable San Jose GM Doug Wilson to patch holes on the perennial playoff bridesmaid, but it's not like Jumbo Joe settled for food stamps. Getting $7 million for 100 points and a playoff round or three is not exactly doing the Lord's work.
Thornton is comfortable in San Jose, the money was fair -- albeit it not Richards' current $7.8 million -- so he stayed.
End of story ... except this story is about Thornton and comfort.
Thornton, then with the Bruins, was flying to the 2002 All-Star Game in Los Angeles on a Friday morning after having played a match the previous night in Montreal. His seat was 16E. I know this because I was in 16D, delighted to have an unoccupied middle until Jumbo galumphed onto the plane just before the doors closed. I apologized, told him I'd consider switching seats, but because I was claustrophobic and ... "Nah, no problem," Thornton said, folding his 6'-4" frame into the three across. "I'll probably sleep most of the way." Which, after yakking for maybe 20 minutes, he did.
I'm not sure which stretches credulity more: an uncomplaining Thornton or a league that sends players cross-continent to its All-Star Game in coach.