NHL coaches send messages the collective group and to individual players all the time. How those messages are interpreted will go a long way toward fostering the kind of environment the coach is striving for in order to get the most out of his team.
Last week, Todd Richards, the second-year bench boss of the Minnesota Wild, followed up a 3-2 home ice loss to Columbus with a grueling bag skate practice with no pucks. It is an age-old form of punishment where the saying goes, "If you guys don't want to skate, compete, work hard (pick one) at night, then we'll skate in the morning." Evidently, the Wild got some good out of the exercise, as they won their next two games before falling in Vancouver, 5-1, on Saturday night.
Typically, though, punishment practices are more for the long term. They aren't something that Richards can conjure up again anytime soon. Chastising your charges too often in that manner will fail to resonate if you rely on it too heavily. Richards was simply trying to set a standard, as his team's lackluster effort against the Blue Jackets was totally unacceptable. His group flogging by whistle is a means to bring the entire team to that realization at the same time.
What stands out to me in the Wild's case is that it happened so early in the campaign. Part of the timing has to do with the fact that the league is so fiercely competitive on a nightly basis. Very few teams can afford to throw away points due to a lack of effort. Get beat? Sure, it happens and will happen. But not giving yourself a chance to win can't be tolerated. Richards said it loud and early. If this Wild team is going to progress and make the playoffs, its effort has to be constant and unquestioned.
The other aspect of Richards' decision has to do with his team's makeup. The veteran leadership of this group changed when GM Chuck Fletcher brought in Matt Cullen and John Madden as free agents. Both have played in multiple cities and have Stanley Cups on their respective resumes. Cullen won it in 2006 with Carolina and has added an element of offensive savvy to the league's leading power play. Madden is a former Selke Trophy-winner known for his tenacious checking as part of Chicago's championship team last spring and, prior to that, two of New Jersey's Cup-winners. Richards' calling the team out early gives these two proven players a chance to take control of the room with the coach's standard fresh in everyone's mind.
Meanwhile, the Devils' rookie coach, John MacLean, made headlines for making marquee scorer Ilya Kovalchuk a healthy scratch on Saturday night against Buffalo. Under the guise of internal business and being "between me and the player," MacLean was sending a message to Kovalchuk and his team as a whole: something along the lines of "no one is bigger than the team" and/or "the same rules of team play apply to everyone, no matter your role or bankroll."
FARBER:Cryptic MacLean complicates Kovalchuk issue
The problem for MacLean is that his team didn't back him up. It fell flat in a 6-1 loss to a team that has been struggling in the early going. On top of isolating Kovalchuk, MacLean chose to play newly acquired backup Johan Hedberg ahead of Martin Brodeur on home ice, where the Devils remain winless at 0-4-1.
Now, with the Devils playing the next night against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, splitting the two games isn't a big deal on the surface. But given the drama created by Kovalchuk's benching, starting the backup introduced too many variables, too many questions for a team to answer on game day before going out and competing, which the Devils hardly did as Hedberg yielded four goals on 15 shots.
The Devils are reeling in the short-term. The messages from the coach got garbled along the way. Order was restored to an extent against the Rangers as Kovalchuk returned to the lineup and scored the Devils' lone goal. Brodeur was his usual stout self, stopping 31 of 33 shots before falling 3-1 as New York's Brandon Dubinsky sealed the game with an empty net goal with a single tick on the clock remaining. But the loss put the Devils at 2-6-1.
Can they rebound? Certainly. The Devils are a veteran group and MacLean has been with the organization for a lifetime as a player, assistant coach, and AHL affiliate head coach. He knows the expectations and ideals that fuel the franchise. Quietly efficient has been the norm. Kind of like a coach standing alone at center ice in an empty arena, no pucks present, just the metronome cadence of blades carving ice as the whistle blows again... again... again...