"Place your people alongside those you want them to become."
It's a simple maxim that's intuitive to most people: we are a product of our environment. But it's a concept that I think many hockey coaches tend to overlook, as I was reminded when I saw this tweet:
#Habs practice lines:— John Lu (@JohnLuTSNMtl) March 14, 2016
De la Rose/Hudon-Danault-Brown
The names of Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk, Sven Andrighetto and Charles Hudon are of particular interest, but we'll come back to them in a bit.
Quality of teammates
Elite coaches as a group do a lot of things right when it comes to handling young players. There are effective deployment techniques to help a rookie "break into" a higher league. Things such as playing them against weaker teams, giving them more offensive zone starts, and not exposing them to high-leverage situations (tied or close games in the third period, power plays, and penalty kills).
However, I have an issue with the other lever coaches often use when dealing with young players: the act of placing them in bottom-six (forwards) or bottom-pair (defencemen) roles and expecting them to "work their way up."
Philosophically, I believe there exist only three types of hockey players:
1) Players who drive possession (and, in the longer term, goal differential and wins) with any linemates;
2) Players who drive possession with some linemates, and;
3) Players who do not drive possession with any linemates.
Type-One players are generational talents and are usually perceived as superior by both the eye test and statistical analysis. Type-Three players do poorly in both, as long as you know what you're looking for. But Type-Two players are trickier to pin down, and most rookies, if they have a good track record as juniors, come into the league as Type Twos.
So if Hudon and Darren Dietz were the Galchenyuks and P.K. Subbans of their former teams, how can you expect them to thrive by playing them with Mike Brown and Victor Bartley?
Would Pacioretty have been discovered (at least by the Habs) as an elite scorer had he not become a regular contributor at roughly the same time as the well-trusted David Desharnais?
Would Brendan Gallagher and Galchenyuk have stuck with the Habs in 2012-13, had the team not come off a non-playoff year with limited expectations placed upon it? (The same goes for Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder exactly a decade earlier)
Would Sven Andrighetto ever have skated on the top line had it not been for the misfortunes of this season?
One of the things I've learned while working with Coach Peter Smith at McGill University, is a better way of integrating rookie players into a team. The concept he uses predates my arrival, but we were able to maximize the idea in the past two seasons with the use of advanced stats.
Essentially, instead of playing a blue-chip prospect in bottom six/bottom-pair roles, we start her off at the top, with our All-. Peter will still manage her ice time as to shelter her as much as possible, but at least she will have an opportunity to start playing in the CIS alongside our strongest possession players.
This allows new additions to spend less time playing in defensive-zone coverage (a weakness for most rookies) and more time handling the puck and creating offence (a strength for most rookies). In doing so, we would also push a productive top-six player down to our third line, which gives that unit a boost and improves our overall depth.
In this process, tracking simple metrics such as shot differential (Corsi) quickly gives us an idea of whether our player can play substantial minutes with proven linemates without dragging them down too much. If we are happy with her progress, then we can gradually increase her responsibilities without altering our lineup. If not, then there is always the option of bringing her along more slowly and selectively in a fourth-line role.
In my eyes, the success of this strategy over the last few seasons speaks for itself. In the past two years, we were able to immediately turn five players who had never played at the university level into elite possession players, skating alongside established veterans. For these players expected to form the core of the McGill Martlets in the coming years, confidence was never far away, and that is a benefit to our entire team.
Note: The ladies of Martlet Hockey are in Calgary for the CIS National Championships. If you'd like, you can show them your support with a small donation for their crowdfunding campaign.
Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.