Solid Coaching Often Not Sexy Enough for Young NHL Players

S BCorrespondent INovember 20, 2009

ST. PAUL, MN - SEPTEMBER 18: Head coach Ken Hitchcock of the Columbus Blue Jackets makes a point to the bench during the second period in a preseason game on September 18, 2009 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Tom Dahlin/Getty Images)
Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

Columbus forward Nikita Filatov left the Blue Jackets, choosing to finish the season playing in Russia.

According to Puck Daddy , a huge part of the issue was coach Ken Hitchcock's defensive system, which apparently felt too constricting to the free-skating, offense-minded Filatov.

Meanwhile, under Hitchcock, the Blue Jackets are off to their best start ever.

Over in New York, coach John Tortorella, who gives his players free reign to take as many offensive risks as they want. The Rangers are 4-6 in their last 10, with the only real offense coming from Marian Gaborik. Rookie defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who started the season brilliantly, has just three points in November and is -5 for the month.

It raises an interesting point: Offensive-minded players like offensive-minded coaches, but it doesn't always translate into wins and/or success. Especially with younger players.

Scott Gordon is pushing a high-risk offensive system on a very young Islanders team, and so far, it's only translated into a lot of ties. It could be years before we see the impact his system is having on the development of his players. He could be producing future offensive giants, but he could just as easily be producing talented skaters who have no idea how to play defense; in essence, human pylons.

The NHL is finally transitioning out of its defense-oriented period. More and more coaches are trying to win with stretch passes. Less and less coaches want battles fought in the neutral zone. But still, we're seeing the value of system-oriented hockey.

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Over in Phoenix, Dave Tippett has revived the Coyotes simply by instituting a system that lets his young players know where they need to be and when they need to be there—something the team lacked under previous coach Wayne Gretzky.

And out in New Jersey, Jacques Lemaire has found considerable success, especially out on the road, coaching an interesting defensive system that relies on offense, smart passing, and puck-control, almost like a trap that takes place in the offensive zone.

Younger players, like Filatov, don't seem to appreciate the value of systems and schemes, which is a shame, since a lot of times, system-oriented hockey is what takes a career to the next level. Say what you will about the Devils and their style of play, but their system-driven hockey has produced an awful lot of NHL studs over the years.

There's no guarantee Filatov would have ever played his way into Hitchcock's good graces in Columbus, and perhaps he was right in bailing out of the situation, but it would have been great if he had seen fit to stick it out. What if Filatov had learned more of a two-way game? What if he had learned the comfort that often comes from playing in a system? Hitchcock really could have elevated Filatov's game, giving it more dimensions.

Any young players watching the evolution of their equally young cohort in New York will also have to think about the value of a strong coaching style — especially if the Rangers rookie defensive corps continues its stagnation.

Hitchcock might not be the most fun coach in the NHL, but his coaching style prepares players to survive in the NHL. Filatov might not find that same benefit in Europe.

Filatov will certainly put up more goals in Russia this year, but odds are, his game won't improve by simply embracing a style he already knows.

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