Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Time to step up: The coaches


So your professional hockey team endures perhaps the most disappointing season in its ten-year history.  Forwards aren't scoring as anticipated, defenders are falling like flies, goalies can't hold serve for longer than a game or two.  But despite all the disappointment, it's still the third-highest point total in that same period of time.  What's a general manager to do?

If you're Scott Howson and your team is the Columbus Blue Jackets, you keep the team together and wipe the slate clean in the coaching suite.

Yup, Ken Hitchcock and his band of long-time CBJ assistants all were shown the door over the course of a few months.  Howson then went out and looked for a new head coach, interviewing established assistants and rising stars alike.  After conducting that wild and wooly coaching search, Howson's preferred choice, Guy Boucher, was poached by Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning at the last second.  Which leads us to...

What a curious situation to be in, the second choice in a coaching search.  Clearly you're qualified for the job, having made it to the final round of interviews, but you're not THE guy that the boss wanted.  Honestly, I'm not sure how I'd handle that if I was in Scott Arniel's shoes.  I suppose I'd just saddle up and do my best - as if I was the top pick - and hope that time proves my selection to be the right one.  Still, there's no getting around the fact that it's awkward.

Is Scott Arniel ready to have his name in lights?
Until you win.

Luckily for Arniel, he has won quite a bit, with a 181-106-33 record over four seasons with the Manitoba Moose, the AHL farm team of the Vancouver Canucks.  He took the Moose to the Calder Cup finals once and, perhaps more importantly, never missed the playoffs in any season where he was head coach.  That's saying something considering the talent level on a farm team can drastically change from season to season - heck, from day to day - depending on the whims of the NHL club.  So that he has won consistently with a less-than-consistent roster...that's important.

But now he's stepping up into the big leagues, and it's a whole new game.  Sure, Arniel has the pedigree - longtime player, assistant under longtime Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff, head coach in Manitoba - but being a head coach at the top level requires a level of creativity and skill that comes from trying to motivate players who make multiples of your salary and probably could have you fired with a couple of phone calls.  Does Arniel have the deft touch to massage the egos, install his system and actually win games at the NHL level?  Knowing that Scott Howson doesn't make any move (let alone select a head coach) without a ridiculous level of due diligence, I'd tend to think that he does.  But time will tell.

The defensemen and penalty kill will be coached by Brad Berry, a former long-time University of North Dakota assistant/associate coach and, briefly, an assistant to Arniel in Manitoba.  Berry, too, is a former NHL player, having played on the same Winnipeg roster as Arniel for a brief spell in 1985-86.

Brad Berry is the coach's guy,
but can he lead the transformation
of the CBJ defense?
While I have to presume that Berry can coach defense - Arniel surely would not have hired him if he didn't think Berry could do the job - I'd like to suggest that Berry's past affiliation with Arniel may be more valuable to Arniel over time.  It's lonely at the top, and many great top dogs have had a confidante "number two" with whom they could share private thoughts.  Columbus is not as pressure-packed an environment as many NHL markets (I think Ron Wilson is absolutely insane for taking the Toronto job, for example.), but things have the potential to get ugly after nine seasons of less than optimal results (and one playoff season).  Arniel will surely be leaning on his friend for advice and counsel, but also for support.

Then there's the job for which he was hired.  Arniel professes that he will bring a "puck-possession" system to the Blue Jackets, one that I understand has defensemen carrying/moving the puck out of the defensive zone and - where appropriate - joining the offensive rush.  Hold it right there.  Wasn't this defensive roster set up to play Hitchcockian faux-clutch and grab defense?  Are these the right guys to turn on the jets and fly into the neutral zone to assist in scoring plays?  With the exception of Kris Russell and maybe Anton Stralman, are we not talking about a case of square pegs and round holes?  With the conditioning and injury issues plaguing the defense and almost sinking goalie Steve Mason's career last season, can these guys be relied upon to 1) be in shape, 2) be healthy and 3) pick up a (to them) radical new system in the course of one training camp?  To the guy who has to coach in that situation, all I can say is:

And now, the wild card of the coaching bunch.  Bob Boughner is the owner and former coach of the reigning two-time Memorial Cup champion (of the Canadian Hockey League, a conglomeration of three regional "major junior" league for players aged 16-20) Windsor Spitfires.  A former NHL player himself, Boughner apparently has a dream to coach his own NHL team and has decided that Columbus is the place to break into the National Hockey League.

Can Bob Boughner's championship coaching prowess transfer
from major juniors up to the National Hockey League?
Here's the catch: I'm not certain how great a coach Boughner is.  Clearly, he can run a team.  He took over the Spits in 2006 and went from doormat to two championships in that time.  But he was coaching kids.  Really, really good kids like Taylor Hall, Ryan Ellis and Cam Fowler.  How much of his success was attributable to talent acquisition, and how much was coaching?  More importantly, how will he do when his team is not the Beast of the League?

The concerns I have about Boughner are largely the same about Arniel (former AHL head coach) but magnified.  Putting Boughner in charge of Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette and the CBJ forwards is like installing a powerhouse high school football coach as offensive coordinator of the Green Bay's football, with 11 guys on a side, 6 points for a touchdown and 1 for the extra point kick...but it's just not the same game.  I pray that his past NHL playing experience can carry him through to this new level of coaching competition.

The other big concern I have about Bob Boughner is his time management.  The September 13 edition of The Hockey News ran a brief piece on Boughner's....ummm....split loyalties between the Blue Jackets and the Windsor Spitfires.  While he won't be coaching the Spits any more, he's still the owner and "intends to be [hands-on] even though he'll be about a four-hour drive from Windsor."  He's planning to be back in Windsor one day a week during the season (on scheduled days off) and says that his current plans are to have 10-12 different reports sent to him from Windsor every Wednesday.  This, for the guy who has the responsibility of jump-starting an anemic offensive club in Columbus.  I'm not suggesting that he needs to spend every waking hour on the Columbus Blue Jackets (Such an approach probably wouldn't hurt, though!), but the notion of him running one club in a meaningful way while trying to coach for the Blue Jackets at the same time suggests either burnout or less effective coaching.

Let's hope he knows what he's doing, and that both Scott Arniel and Scott Howson have a sufficiently tight leash.  The NHL isn't major juniors, and we need all hands on deck.  Especially those who are trying to make a name for themselves at the big league level.

Out of left field (Sweden, actually) comes Dan Hinote, the last of the new Columbus Blue Jackets coaches.  Hinote literally retired from playing hockey in the spring, called the Blue Jackets about the possibility of being an assistant at the AHL Springfield Falcons franchise and landed himself an assistant coaching gig at the big club in Columbus.  Man lives a charmed life.

Did you know that Hinote is married
to Jenny McCarthy's sister, Amy?
Now you do!
While he literally has no coaching experience (gulp), Hinote is no idiot.  He was on track with his studies at the United States Military Academy at West Point when he was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche.  He switched tracks and went into junior hockey, rising up through the leagues until he was playing for the Avs.  Point is, West Point doesn't tolerate jokers - so perhaps Hinote is a good one.  And he's got himself the "eye in the sky" coaching job under Scott Arniel to prove it.  

And Hinote is young.  He's only 33 years old, making him younger than some of the guys that he'll be coaching.  It's clear that Howson is placing a priority on making sure the coaches can relate to the players, and Hinote won't have much trouble talking the talk.  But can he coach?  We'll find out...


The team largely was in poor shape coming into last season, and it killed the Blue Jackets coming out of the gate.  Collins hopefully will make sure that's not the case this season.  He has had a fair number of player in town over the summer, so it'll be all the easier to see his effect on the players.


Rook is Steve Mason's guy.  Period.  It seems like he's the one who had the "Come to Jesus" talk that got Mase to get his game back on track last season, so I give him major points.


In my opinion, this is a raw group of coaching talent that has to prove their mettle at the NHL level.  It is the absolute opposite of Ken Hitchcock and his cadre of long-time CBJ assistants.  These guys are young, they're aggressive (at least until the season starts, we'll see after that point) and they profess to be able to relate to the players - an area that needed a lot of improvement in the wake of Hitch.

But let's be clear.  This is not the CHL.  This is not the AHL.  This is the National Hockey League - the best hockey league in the world.  These four guys need to be ready to go yesterday, and they need to have a great training camp as they teach their system and instill a winning ("Hardcore Hockey") attitude while helping the team un-learn their old systems and stomping out a defeatist culture from the locker room.

This won't be an easy job, not in the least, and all four men need to step up to meet the challenges that they'll face over the days ahead.


  1. EXCELLENT piece, sir.

    I agree about Boughner - I'm concerned about how that's going to go. But on the other hand, he's also sharing an office with the other three assistants, and I have a feeling he'll get slapped on the back of the head if they feel he's not paying enough attention in class.

  2. DBJ -
    The 'Time to Step Up' series has been excellent reading. Thanks a lot. Less than 24 hours...


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