It’s probably fair to say most sports fans are aware of specialist coaches – those who focus on a particular portion of a player’s game. In the case of the Leafs, the clear examples would be Barb Underhill, a World champion figure skater turned power skating coach, and Steve Briere, the team’s goaltending coach.
But beyond name recognition, it’s extremely difficult to gather up a lot of information on specialist coaches in any pro league, and with the NHL I think that rings even truer. There could be a number of reasons for this: It might just be the nature of the sport and/or because it’s fourth in popularity among the big four North American pro leagues.
Either way, this isn’t a topic I’ve seen much material on.
Because it’s tough to dig up a lot of stuff on this, I can’t say I have much of an informed opinion on who’s the best at their craft in this regard. I mean, we know specialist coaches do exist and work for nearly every team, but do we know who really has the “best” approach to improving skating, or precisely what makes a goaltending coach more renowned than others? Not with any amount of certainty.
Beyond all that, there’s a level of subjectivity here: Auston Matthews credits a lot of his development to skating and skills coach Boris Dorozhenko. With those two having such a long-time connection, we don’t know if someone like Matthews might value that familiarity with Boris over working with Leafs’ skating coach Barb Underhill, for example. Who’s truly the better coach? I don’t know.
But with all that said about how many things I don’t know, there are are a few I do know:
- The Leafs are far-and-away the richest team in hockey.
- In a hard cap league, every edge you can get outside the salary cap should be explored.
Someone has to be the best
A few weeks ago I wrote about the idea of building a winning culture. I think most people who provided feedback on that article agreed that teams can take measures and spend money to help bring about that kind of environment and give their players every chance to hit their ceiling. We laid out a disclaimer that, while this team culture stuff is immeasurable most of the time, there’s little doubt it’s real. But if we dig into the details of it, some of the parts of how an organization is structured to create that environment do create easily identifiable processes and tangible results.
Hiring the best and putting an emphasis on player development is part of building that winning culture, and the Leafs’ example of that would be most notably Babcock himself, but also the support staff they’ve put together and presumably will continue to tweak.
Upon signing in Toronto, Patrick Marleau noted in his first interview that the sports science staff there was a selling point, and something he felt he could take advantage of as a player with a lot of miles on the odometer. It appears the Leafs are at the front of the line in that regard, but what about specialist coaches and player development? Is there still an edge to gain there?
It would sort of be ridiculous to conclude that there isn’t.
Like that team culture discussion from last month, I’m going to go into example mode here, and once again dip into another sport to do so.
Chip Engelland is known as the ‘Shot Doctor’, and some would argue he’s responsible for San Antonio turning undervalued picks like Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker into superstars. In any sport, players have their numbers jump up and down from season to season – shooting percentages spike or tank all the time. But that’s a totally different conversation than about the ability to finish, which is what we’re most interested in. Real, tangible improvement in skill.
In (Tony) Parker’s case, the first thing Engelland noted was that while his form was exemplary on his one-handed runners and teardrops, Parker held the ball differently on his jump shot. Rather than keeping his right hand under the ball, Parker had it slightly higher up. So, beginning with training camp in the fall of 2005, Engelland reconstructed Parker’s shot, moving his right hand down, his right thumb out to widen his grip, slowing down his motion and even changing his release point.
Can this sort of learning curve be applied to hockey? Can a player actually become a better shooter, and as such, a better scorer? We harp on Zach Hyman for his apparent inability to finish while playing alongside two incredible playmakers in Nylander and Matthews, but could a tweak in his shooting mechanics fix it? Maybe there’s something he just isn’t seeing.
I mean, we know shooting 1000 shots-a-day would probably put a bit more zip on any player’s shot, but this isn’t about power. It isn’t about being stronger in the gym either. We’re talking about scoring touch, something that we assume cannot really be improved, especially by the time a player turns pro. For the most part, it’s believed you either have it or you don’t.
But going back to Engelland, there are examples of tangible improvement in finishing talent. And this isn’t just a variance thing, like when we see a player simply get unlucky one year and shoot the lights out the next. In the case of San Antonio, players gained pure skill.
Despite the presence of pro defenses and the extra three feet between the NBA’s three-point line and its college equivalent, (Kawhi) Leonard has improved his three-point shooting in the pros, hitting 37.6 percent of his 465 three-point attempts through three seasons. Sports-Reference.com’s college basketball site has full-career data for NCAA players going back through the 1999 season. Since that time, no player who took 150 three-pointers in college before taking the same number of threes in the pros has improved their shooting percentage on triples more than Kawhi.
Here’s another testament, this time from Steve Kerr, one of the greatest shooters ever:
“It was very subtle, before I started working with [Chip], the ball rolled more off my middle finger than my index finger. He taught me to spread my hands out a little wider on the ball and use my index fingers more…He understands that a big part of shooting is the shooter’s mind.”
Is there a Chip Engelland of the hockey world out there? The way players receive and unload the puck is the key part of their scoring success, and any of us can see that the way Patrick Marleau does it and the way Zach Hyman does it are worlds apart. But that doesn’t mean a player at the pro level is everything they’ll ever be. [Note: I’m not trying to pick on Hyman here. He’s a fine player, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say he could stand to convert more often.]
There has to be ways players can make adjustments, even later in their career, that improve their game, and that’s part of a bigger discussion about specialist coaches. As the richest team in the league, these are some of the questions the Leafs front office should be asking themselves, and perhaps they’re already doing that – Toronto does employ Darryl Belfry and Mike Ellis as development consultants, but as far as I can tell they aren’t locked in with the Leafs exclusively. We know the team has tried to get ahead of the rest of the league in other areas such as injury prevention, analytics, and an extensive scouting program. Their approach here should be no different.
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