Getting players to play, not think, a major challenge for new NHL coaches

New coaches have it tough. For one, if they’ve just taken over an NHL team, they're probably being handed a battered frame and a failing engine, not a Ferrari. There are exceptions - Peter DeBoer was handed maybe a pre-owned Audi, and Jeff Blashill was given some sort of fairly peppy Jetta - but most guys are going to need some new parts and elbow grease to get their machines up to racing speeds.

After a few weeks of the 2015-16 season, teams with new coaches are a combined 24-29-5, with only the Sharks holding down a top-three spot in their division. And that's roughly what you’d expect.

The limitations extend beyond raw materials.

Coaches have to learn about their individual players to know how to best utilize them, and they can’t do that without seeing them play a hearty number of games. Then they have to figure out how the puzzle pieces best fit together, which means a lot of experimentation, which means a lot of failed experiments. They have to figure out the motivations of each individual, they may have to adjust to new opponents, and, often, new players have to learn about other new players.

And then, the hardest part.

They have to teach their players how they want them to play - systems, shift lengths, stick position, physical play, angling, and far, far beyond. And here’s where they really run into problems.

Most players intrinsically have some idea of where to go on the ice. If you left an NHL team with no coach, they’d probably mindlessly fall into some sort of 2-1-2 or 1-2-2 forecheck. It happens in summer shinny. But when a new guy wants them doing new things, they have to ... *shudder* ... THINK. This is not a strength of athletes on skates, and immediately puts their reaction time behind that of other players.

Thinking, not playing. It’s the worst for players and their coach.

Consider driving through your neighborhood at home. You can probably pull out of it - no matter how many turns - while eating a bagel, changing the radio, and checking for sesame seeds in your teeth in the rear-view. Sometimes you’ll get to the first major road and be like … wait, did I look at the road once on the way here?

Well, if I come to your neighborhood, I’m going to have to turn down the music so I can concentrate to figure out (what I believe to be) the terrible directions you gave me.

Which pine tree is the big pine tree? Pretty subjective directions, JEFF.

Similarly, when you know the system on the ice, you’re thinking about other things, productive things. Jumping a pass you can read coming, popping by a defenseman before he realizes you’ve got a head start, throwing some misdirection at your opponent with fakes. You know where you’re supposed to be without thinking about it, so you fall into just playing hockey.

When you haven't run the routes hundreds of times, you’re stuck thinking about where your large mass of humanity should be on the ice to show coach you’re getting it, and not doing the little things that make you better than your opponent.

I'm supposed to be around the hash marks, right? Wait, which hash mark? … I’m gonna be on video tomorrow aren’t I?

Even as individuals begin to feel comfortable within the system, there will still be problems (and, in turn, failures) until everybody gets there. It only takes one breakdown to end up in your D-zone, so a chain really is only as strong as its weakest meat-brained winger, or whatever the expression is.

A new coach can solve a lot of problems, but until players get comfortable playing a new style, they’re always going to be a half-step behind.

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Getting players to play, not think, a major challenge for new NHL coaches
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