Coaching and Character

mats zuccarello
The joy of hockey, an effective strategy beyond X’s and O’s.

One of the things that’s gotten some attention this summer, at least in the press, is new coach David Quinn’s approach to building relationships. He’s talked a lot about forming strong bonds with players in interviews, guys who he already has a rapport with, and even went so far as to visit guys like Hank over in Europe (but not Zucc, which was dumb). Some people bring this up as evidence that Quinn is more of a “players’ coach” than a tactician, and while that may be true (and also compensated for by his assistants, so it’s really moot), it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t such a bad approach to coaching, insofar as the term has been used in a lightly pejorative sense.

Alain Vigneault, by contrast to what’s been said about Quinn, was a good systems coach, in that he was able to instill his type of play in guys’ every movement on and off the puck. This was cool at first, with the 2014-15 Rangers in particular playing a run and gun style that was exciting and tough to match, but eventually became stale, with fast breaks becoming predictable, defense suffering, and long stretch passes getting picked off. Add to that the total lack of communication or even accountability and AV went sour pretty quickly towards the end there – it wasn’t just that he wasn’t working out anymore, it was that he was bad. Look at his last press conference – totally delusional, touchy and defensive, and broadly in denial. If he was that bad in public imagine how bad he must have been behind closed doors.

Quinn’s hiring is evidently a move to ameliorate this problem, given his aforementioned emphasis on relationships, and I think that can only mean good things. Although the Rangers are certainly lacking in the elite depth they once had under AV, and depreciating players like Marc Staal and Brendan Smith still remain.

There’s two main advantages here to DQ’s (Dairy Queen? Ice Cream Man? Coach Milkshake? workshopping this one, sorry) new vibe. The first is that it’s entirely possible that the players on the roster, despite not quite stacking up well against the NHL’s best –I still maintain that they won’t be all that awful next season, but that remains to be seen– might not need that intense of a systems coach. We often forget, but are reminded especially in the offseason when guys are posting videos of their informal workouts, that these are professional hockey players. They’ve been training all their lives to do this, and largely know what to do without being told. Even skaters who don’t have excellent vision or hockey IQ can still figure out instinctually how to make plays.

The kind of thing that is needed there, the secret ingredient that Quinn seems poised to add, is chemistry. My favorite example of this is the lockout shortened season: Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan were swishing and dishing all up and down the ice, making slick plays for high-quality scoring chances night in and night out.

The likelihood that they were explicitly instructed on how to do all of this is slim to none – at best they worked on these little moves after practice just fooling around, or in between drills, or during some other unstructured time. They wouldn’t have been doing any of that of course if they didn’t trust each other, communicate well, follow the same wavelengths, or, put it another way, if they didn’t have a strong relationship. Well, with a rebuilding team, and one whose veterans are even reeling from a total lack of common sense under the previous regime, that kind of chemistry needs to be built and David Quinn seems just the guy to do it.

There’s another element to David Quinn’s emphasis on relationships, and, if he’s not heavy on tactics (which I still think is a false dichotomy, but let’s play along for now), that will do the team well, especially in the long run. That’s right, we’re talking about character. The much maligned quality of being “good in the room”, which I’ve even discounted myself, is still a real thing regardless.

These are human beings, with real emotions and thoughts and subconscious awarenesses, and there really is, I kid you not, a locker room. They all hang out in it before and after games, almost definitely I’m pretty sure. That said, the dynamic there, which plays into the trust and bonding I mentioned just before, is definitely important. At the very least it’s better to have a good atmosphere than not.

With Quinn and the Rangers emphasis on a certain kind of character, there will be a definite upgrade in that department. All of this stuff is, at the end of the day, perceptive in that we simply can’t know what it’s like. However based on post game interviews and players’ demeanors, based on the chemistry displayed on the ice, we can get a certain feel for things. Most fans and media suspected eventually that AV had “lost the room” last season, which, whether you believe in character that heavily or not, can only be bad.

For a young team that’s rebuilding, instilling the right kinds of values and building the right kind of vibe is super important. For example, shortly after Rick Nash was traded to the Rangers and in the deepest part of the Blue Jackets’ mediocrity there was talk of a “country club” atmosphere where guys were just checked out, which was one of the reasons they coveted Brandon Dubinsky.

Guys may not necessarily vocalize that they look up to certain players, but suffice to say that they will on some level, even subconsciously, and the captains on the team will set the tone. Guys like Marc Staal can be super helpful there, as well as my personal favorite for captain, Chris Kreider. Letting kids know that there’s a right way to play, a specific path to success and prominence within the team, and a general ethos that pays dividends will be crucial. Quinn seems like he knows who to include in this leadership group. Obviously guys can always go out and be selfish jerks, but with the right kind of group maybe someone like Tony DeAngelo might come around.

Even the quiet leadership of Brad Richards and Martin St Louis contributed to the Rangers’ Cup run, because when a pair of Cup winners with a Conn Smythe and a few 80+ point seasons between the two of them give you advice, you start to keep up the pressure in G7 OT situations, set up great plays, and stick up for your team mates. If you’re looking at those guys and saying “hmm, I think Michael Del Zotto is my guy” instead, then you wind up on the outside looking in.

All of this means that when the team gets back on its feet and reaches contention status, there will be a certain chemistry and style to the Rangers that can only lead to good on-ice play. Guys going hard in the corners, knowing just subconsciously what to do next, and keeping their morale up will be a secret weapon of the Rangers that will make them a formidable opponent. Character is a nebulous thing and still something I don’t think should be prioritized over skill, but the right mix can lead to great things for a team. We all remember Derek Stepan, right?

Quinn will be a great coach for the Rangers. It won’t matter if the Rangers aren’t brilliant on the X’s and O’s because they’re professional hockey players who know how to do it all, and if they’re all riding the same wave they’ll do it together. As Chris Kreider said towards the end of the season “guys are really playing for each other”. Starting from that point under a lame duck coach and heading upwards from there will be the right thing for these rebuilding Rangers, book it.


5 thoughts on “Coaching and Character

  • Aug 10, 2018 at 8:54 am

    Character in the locker room is a great asset to have. Add some real talent to that and you have a contender. Not sure the talent is there yet.

    The Metro division is a very strong division, with all teams (exception of the Islanders) getting better. We probably dropped a rung or two on the ladder. Can Quinn turn potential talented rookies into stars? Let’s give him a year or two before we judge.

  • Aug 10, 2018 at 9:59 am


  • Aug 10, 2018 at 2:26 pm

    Articles like this one are why I keep coming back to this site. Some other sites seem to think that all us fans want to read is their constant whining about how bad whatever the coach, or the front office, has done recently (it’s never good), without any attempt to actually analyze the situation, and provide a reasoned discussion. No, we are subjected to posts saying that as a rebuilding team, we should sign players who have been waived by their last three teams because there’s no way that our new coaches, young players and the remaining veterans could possibly work together and develop the cohesion and chemistry that go into team building on their own.

    • Aug 10, 2018 at 4:22 pm

      I’m honestly struggling to see why the article has so many down-votes. Or why your post here has so many, for that matter. Bunch of Bitter Betties around here lately, I guess.

      The only thing I would mildly raise an eyebrow with in the article, personally…I hope Quinn has some tactical interest and the Xs and Os improve vastly. IMO, that was the biggest problem with AV towards the end. Chemistry is great, for sure, and that was also obviously lacking near the end of AV’s tenure…but tactical superiority is better IMO. No adjustments to his beloved system tactically-speaking, no matter how painfully clear it was that it was no longer working for the roster at hand. I certainly hope Quinn is more flexible with his systems and bases decisions on what is happening on the ice, not what he thinks should be happening according to his massive ego. Winning is the very best thing for chemistry, and I personally think this team will not actually be too bad if the systems are shored up to fit the roster at hand better.

  • Aug 12, 2018 at 1:52 am

    relationships with same B/B+ talent will yield same results.

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