This season, Scott Gordon will be a head coach for the first time since 2010, which makes the Easton native all kinds of excited.
“When you’re the one that’s got to go send a message, talk to a player, figure out a way to get the message across, come up with a solution on the ice or off the ice, that’s the part you miss when you’re not a head coach,” said Gordon, who will be in charge of Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia’s AHL affiliate. “Your wheels turn all the time when you’re a head coach. It’s an adrenaline rush thinking on your feet all the time.”
Being away from pro hockey initially made Gordon feel the pull to return to coaching. Then being unable to get back in the game amplified its appeal.
On May 8, 2014, the Maple Leafs fired Gordon as an assistant coach. Last year, Gordon’s primary responsibility was helping to coach his 16-year-old son Erik in AAA midget hockey.
Gordon also applied for several AHL jobs. He didn’t get them. A coach once considered a guarantee to oversee an NHL bench started to consider Europe, the NCAA, and the USHL.
“There always seems to be a different angle teams are looking at,” Gordon said of AHL hires. “They could be looking at the next junior coach. Or the next guy from the East Coast League. Or within the organization. You usually think your past is enough to get your foot in the door. But it doesn’t mean anything because every team has a different need. If you don’t fit their criteria, it doesn’t really matter what your résumé is.”
Gordon, 52, didn’t think he was done contributing to professional hockey. With his days free — to say nothing of his soul — from being a Leafs assistant, Gordon viewed the NHL with a wide-angle lens. He watched Western Conference teams and players. He thought about concepts and tactics.
Like everybody who watched hockey last year, Gordon recognized the significance of playing fast, even for rosters not stacked with speed. He saw a game that rewarded quick decision-making: retrieving pucks rapidly, getting them out of danger, and not giving opponents time to erect their defensive perimeters.
Once teams gained the offensive zone, the successful ones were in constant motion. To Gordon’s eye, no team did this better than Chicago.
The Blackhawks didn’t just park two defensemen at the points, stretch out their attacking formation, and allow opponents to close on their down-low forwards. They emphasized five-man movement and support. Checkers couldn’t anticipate where the Blackhawks were going.
“They do it with calculated risk,” Gordon said. “As a result, when they get possession of the puck in the offensive zone, they’re not playing as much five-against-three a lot of teams employ below the tops of the circle. They create so many missed coverages because of movement and misdirection plays.”
Watching this energized Gordon. He wanted back in. Trouble was that the most recent entries on Gordon’s résumé were not sources of inspiration.
In 2010, after two non-playoff seasons, Gordon was fired as head coach of the yet-to-ripen Islanders. Gordon resurfaced in Toronto the next year as Ron Wilson’s assistant. He stayed after Toronto fired Wilson and replaced him with Randy Carlyle. But after 2013-14, the Leafs sacked Gordon and fellow assistant Greg Cronin while extending Carlyle. The Leafs have since doused the dressing room, bench, and front office in bleach.
Association with toxic Toronto does not do many favors to would-be head coaches. What saved Gordon was his Bruins pedigree.
In 2003, Gordon replaced Mike Sullivan as Providence’s head coach. Under Gordon’s watch, Providence qualified for the playoffs in each of the next five seasons. Future NHLers who developed in Providence in that time included Patrice Bergeron, Tim Thomas, Tuukka Rask, David Krejci, Adam McQuaid, Mark Stuart, Nate Thompson, and Matt Hendricks.
Philadelphia GM Ron Hextall was one of the executives who noticed what Gordon was doing. Hextall was Los Angeles’s assistant GM for part of Gordon’s stay in Providence. One of Hextall’s primary duties was building and maintaining the roster for the Kings’ AHL affiliate in Manchester, N.H. Hextall liked how Providence competed and prepared players for promotion. It was the same objective he wanted for Manchester, which Hextall helped turn into a development machine.
Gordon didn’t know Hextall outside of their AHL meetings. But Gordon’s work, some of it more than 10 years old, was enough to convince the Flyers GM that the former Boston College goalie was the best fit to initiate the pipeline to Philadelphia.
In Lehigh Valley, one of Gordon’s most important duties will be to prepare young defensemen such as Robert Hagg, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Samuel Morin for the NHL. Gordon’s job is to execute Hextall’s vision: building a championship team in Lehigh Valley with homegrown prospects.
“We want to create a situation where it’s not just a handful of players playing in the minors that are draft picks,” Gordon said. “We want the whole farm system to mirror what we saw in Manchester, where it’s all draft picks and one or two veterans who fulfill a need.”
Landing on an AHL bench isn’t easy. The league is full of talented coaches with NHL pedigrees. Gordon is one of six first-year AHL coaches who have called shots in the NHL. The others are Sullivan (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Boston), Randy Cunneyworth (Rochester, Montreal), Dallas Eakins (San Diego, Edmonton), Todd Nelson (Grand Rapids, Edmonton), and Ron Rolston (Springfield, Buffalo). All of them, including Gordon, hope their stay in the AHL is temporary. But after fighting to get back into the league where you posted your best results, you’re not necessarily in a rush to leave.
CHANGE IN PHILOSOPHY
They’re turning over new Leafs
After 2012-13, when the Leafs lost a three-goal, Game 7 lead to the Bruins, Scott Gordon and his colleagues thought they were building something good. They were wrong. The following season, they tumbled to 12th place in the Eastern Conference. Gordon lost his job.
Things got even worse. After last season’s 27th-place finish, president Brendan Shanahan turned the organization upside down. Shanahan’s most important hire was Mike Babcock. The former Detroit coach’s first priority is to build a culture that Gordon and his colleagues never assembled.
“He’s talked about how his best players were his hardest workers,” Gordon said. “They set the tone for the rest of the room. [Pavel] Datsyuk, [Henrik] Zetterberg, [Niklas] Kronwall, [Nicklas] Lidstrom, [Steve] Yzerman — that’s something that developed over time. He helped create that culture. It’s the objective of every team to create that. It hasn’t happened yet in Toronto.”
Gordon had good players in Toronto. Phil Kessel was an elite finisher. Clarke MacArthur was a productive but underappreciated left wing. Cody Franson was a steady right-shot defenseman. Other dependable NHLers were Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Carl Gunnarsson.
They’re all gone now, either because of management mistakes or declarations that they did not fit what the organization wants to become. Toronto’s keepers (Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly, James van Riemsdyk) will have to assume more responsibilities. That’s not a bad thing.
“If you look at all the successful teams, their best players do it all,” Gordon said. “Whether that’s Jonathan Toews or Patrice Bergeron or Anze Kopitar, when you look at the best teams, there’s a common denominator with all of them: Their top players do everything.”
HOLE IN THE NET
College goalie coaches take hit
NCAA goalies, like all players with college hockey experience, are having more success finding NHL employment. In 2014-15, 23 of the 92 goalies (25 percent) who saw time in the NHL played in the NCAA, according to College Hockey Inc. In 1999-2000, the first season of data compiled by College Hockey Inc., 20.5 percent of NHL goalies had college experience. There are aces among the ex-collegians (Cory Schneider/Boston College, Jonathan Quick/UMass-Amherst, Ben Bishop/Maine) as well as backups (Al Montoya/Michigan, Scott Darling/Maine, Chad Johnson/Alaska-Fairbanks).
It’s possible the number could rise in 2015-16. Jon Gillies (Providence/Calgary), Matt O’Connor (Boston University/Ottawa), and Zane McIntyre (North Dakota/Boston), three of last year’s four Frozen Four goalies, will be first-year pros. They could see time in the NHL based on performance or injuries to other goalies.
|Year||Goalies from NCAA||NHL total||Forwards from NCAA||NHL total||D-men from NCAA||NHL total|
The issue is that the percentage could be even greater.
Under NCAA rules, each school is allowed to employ a head coach and two full-time assistants. They can have one volunteer assistant, who is usually in charge of goalies. Per the position title, such assistants are unpaid. Jim McNiff, Mike Geragosian, and Karl Goehring, the goalie coaches of the three Frozen Four netminders, didn’t receive a penny for their work. Not paying goalie coaches does not ensure optimal hiring practices.
“For a league — and we’re no different than any other league — that sees itself at the top of the college hockey pyramid, it is a gaping hole that we don’t have this position covered,” said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna. “But it’s not us. The NCAA limits us.”
Bertagna acknowledges both sides. He is an administrator. But he is also the founder of Bertagna Goaltending, which completed its 42d summer of operation instructing young goalies at five Massachusetts locations.
According to Bertagna, the NCAA originally introduced the rule for hockey out of fear that the richest programs would cram their benches with coaches. Now, as programs recognize the imperative of developing the most important position, cost is not as much of a concern. In theory, paying a goalie coach would pay off downstream.
But amending the rule would require NCAA overhaul. That, said Bertagna, isn’t happening.
“If the 60 schools playing D-1 hockey said, ‘We need to pay the goalie person, this is ridiculous,’ and they feel it’s 60-0 in favor, we still don’t have the means to get it done,” Bertagna said. “We don’t have the autonomy to change the employment structure.”
Some schools are taking steps to address the problem. Former University of New Hampshire puckstopper and Hingham native Mike Ayers is an assistant coach at BC, not a goalie coach. Ex-goalies Joe Exter (Merrimack), Jason Tapp (BU), Josh Siembida (North Dakota, Quinnipiac), Jared DeMichiel (RIT), Kris Mayotte (Union), and Nick Petraglia (Miami) are also assistants at their respective colleges (Ohio State, Union, Yale, St. Lawrence, Providence, and Miami). They are full-time employees, on hand to coach goalies as well as skaters.
But assistants are also tasked with recruiting. They’re on the road regularly. They miss practices. Even if an assistant with goaltending experience is on site, the other assistant could be traveling, which leaves the staff a body short. Goalies usually suffer the consequences.
There are good goalie coaches in college hockey. Even on a volunteer basis, it helps coaches from a marketing perspective to have college connections when they sell their services via offseason clinics.
But it’s hard to attract good, young coaches without pay. They may go elsewhere — juniors, pros, or start their own businesses. This isn’t ideal for college goalies. They arrive on campus at an important time of their development. They deserve the best coaching they can get.
“It makes so much more sense as they professionalize the position,” Bertagna said of paying goalie coaches. “The fact that they can’t is very frustrating.”
During visits to USA Hockey coaching clinics this summer, Bertagna has come across teams maximizing cross-ice situations. This is good for young skaters to work on in-tight skills and creativity when full sheets are unavailable. But it’s hard for goalies to develop good habits in cross-ice play because they’re positioned against the half-boards with no crease available. “The first question I ask coaches is how many have a full sheet of ice,” Bertagna said. “If there’s 80 guys in the room, four hands go up. So in an hour-and-20-minute practice, a 10-year-old kid is never in the crease. Now, cross-ice is good. But when you’re trying to teach goalies without letting them practice in the crease, that’s really difficult. It’s the building block on how to play.”
Lucic caught in numbers game
Had Milan Lucic been traded to a team other than the Kings, the ex-Bruin could already have his next contract in place. The 27-year-old left wing, with full health, a primary role, and motivation on his side, is in line to have a good season. An extension now would cost less than a new deal next offseason. But LA’s first priority is re-upping Anze Kopitar, who will also be unrestricted on July 1. And that will be a complicated transaction. Had business proceeded normally, Kopitar would have signed an extension comparable to Jonathan Toews’s eight-year, $84 million blockbuster. Kopitar is LA’s version of Toews. But within the context of a slow-to-rise cap, Toews’s deal is inflationary. As much as they need Kopitar back, the Kings have to be conservative. Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli will be restricted after 2016-17. In that context, Lucic is a secondary priority for the Kings. He may even be a short-term acquisition in the Kings’ push to return to the playoffs.
Gearing up for swtich
In 2017-18, Adidas will replace Reebok as the NHL’s uniform provider, according to TSN. The deal could introduce advertising to jerseys. Ex-Bruin Blake Wheeler wrote on Twitter that sponsorship would tarnish NHL jerseys. However, uniform advertising would be considered hockey-related revenue. Teams and players would profit. The cap would go up. Players are already wearing sponsored equipment. Everybody is used to branding on helmets, gloves, pants, skates, and sticks. Remember how Tim Thomas ruined the sport by using his Reebok stick to rob Steve Downie in 2011? Didn’t think so.
Anaheim’s goaltending tandem of Frederik Andersen and John Gibson may not continue in 2015-16. The Ducks acquired Anton Khudobin from Carolina for James Wisniewski on June 27. The ex-Bruin could be Andersen’s backup, leaving Gibson to develop in the AHL. If so, it would break up the best mask duo in the league. Andersen will wear another logo-themed lid in 2015-16, this time with a Batman mask over a duck’s face. Gibson will have a mask based on Duck Hunt, the classic 8-bit Nintendo shooter game. Both masks are the products of Swedish artist Dave Gunnarsson (www.daveart.com).
The Ducks lost Matt Beleskey to free agency. But they’ll be just fine on the left side with Carl Hagelin providing even more speed than Beleskey. The ex-Ranger, who signed a four-year, $16 million extension on Aug. 14, will be a top-line option to skate with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Hagelin’s ability to stretch defenses would give his grinding, puck-heavy linemates more space to do their stuff . . . The Sabres, Bruins, and Devils will shuttle between First Niagara Center and HarborCenter for their rookie tournament next month. The Sabres will play their two games at the varsity rink. The Bruins and Devils will play at the smaller HarborCenter (approximately 1,800-spectator capacity). Jack Eichel makes that much of a difference . . . The Globe’s smart folks are busy designing whiteboard concepts for our website. They should be ready for puck drop on 2015-16. The idea is to sketch out plays, goals, and situations to explain game play and complement our online coverage. Any diagrams or ideas you’d like to see, please drop a line . . . On Aug. 15, as he does every summer, Dallas Eakins competed in the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, one of the toughest bike races in the world. Eakins clocked a time of 10:39:43 in the Colorado event. That’s a lot of agony. But suffering at Leadville was probably cake compared to coaching the Oilers.
Training camp will be a whole new experience for three rookie head coaches coming from very different coaching backgrounds. Even though this will be their first season running an NHL bench, they’re no strangers to success.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.