One of the things we’ve lamented most over our entire time doing this, and in a connected fashion probably one of the reasons for our “success,” is how inaccessible hockey coaches and media make information that might teach others the game. Getting any sort of useful nuggets of insight from a coach or player is akin to finding a good dentist in Atlantis. They just don’t give it to you. Most of the time I’ll give the players a pass, as stringing together sentences is enough of a challenge and they’re most assuredly following orders.
We all know why. Everyone takes their cues from football coaches, whom these days are taking their cues from Bill Belichick. But there was a holier than thou quality to football coaches long before Belichik turned it into something of an art, and this shit didn’t really fly when he was coaching the Browns. And even in football, it’s a little silly.
I’m struggling to find the video, but there was another perfect and infuriating example on HNIC’s pregame show on Saturday, which was setting up the Capitals-Leafs game that night. Both Mike Babcock and Barry Trotz were facing mini-controversies in how they sent out their forwards. Babcock has long refused to pair up Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, even though they’ve been a fist in the face of God when he has. Trotz had split up Niklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin of late in a bid to juice scoring through more of the lineup.
The pregame show played clips of pressers each had earlier in the week. The clip of Babcock showed him responding to a question from some member of Toronto media person about the Matthews-Marner axis with, “When you coach the team you can set it up however you want. When I coach it I’ll do what I want.”
The clip of Trotz that followed wasn’t much better. When asked about Backstrom and Ovie–and by a female reporter but I’ll save that raised eyebrow for another time–Trotz’s response was, “Because I felt like it.” And he repeated that when pressed, and good on her for asking a follow-up, which seems to be a lost art these days.
What’s frustrating about these things is that no one was asking about specific game strategy. It’s not like we wanted Babcock to tell us how they were going to attack the Caps when John Carlson was on the ice that night. It’s like almost every coach doesn’t know that their team is being scouted by every other team in the league. If Babs feels that Marner and Matthews are too weak defensively to be playing together, you can be sure every other team knows that already. If Babs thinks that Marner needs the puck too much to be effective and Matthews hasn’t quite learned how to play without the puck totally effectively yet, or something like that, what’s the cost in telling your fans that? Sure, it doesn’t cost Babcock anything to keep his fans in the dark and questioning as long as the wins pile up. But it doesn’t cost him anything to not do so either.
And of course, I can totally understand the urge to tell the Toronto media to find something to spin on. We all do.
We face the same thing here in Chicago. Things are rosy for the moment, especially in the glow of Top Cat’s hat trick last night against several wildebeests masquerading as Anaheim Ducks. And if your next questions is, “Where would wildebeests get Anaheim Ducks unis?” believe me I’m right there with you. Still, A.D.B has shown he already has NHL top six skills, and yet he isn’t playing there. He fashioned a goal with his line last night, but the other two goals were when he was out there between line changes and got to run with Schmaltz and Kane. And this has kind of been the story all season.
At this point, we know Schmaltz is in the wing spot Top Cat would take in the top six because the Hawks want him to shoot more, and maybe give him a touch more space for his vision. Maybe they also don’t feel DeBrincat is ready for tougher competition. Maybe they don’t think Schmaltz has the strength or determination down low in his own zone yet to play in the middle.
But have we heard Q say any of this? None of this would be news to his opponents. They have scouts and those scouts have eyes. We’re basically guessing at what the reasons are. I’m pretty confident that the Predators know that for tonight Schmaltz is more likely to pass than shoot when in a given spot, no matter what Quenneville gives us or doesn’t.
While it’s pointless to continue to point to the NBA as comparison, one of the things serious NBA fans love about that league is that coaches give their press something. They’ll tell you if a guys spreads the floor from the four or they like his defense on the wing from the bench or whatever else. They’re not going to give you specific sets they’re going to run ahead of time but they’ll tell you why they did something in the past. You can learn something and watch your team differently.
Again, it doesn’t cost hockey teams anything to be run like this. We’ll still watch. It’s just annoying that they think they’re guarding government secrets. It might make for a more enjoyable time for everyone.