The NHL playoffs are an absolutely brutal test of teams. In order for a team to shine and hoist the Stanley Cup they need a few key things – excellent goaltending, depth, talent, and a whole lot of luck. Most significantly of all, though, a team that wins the Stanley Cup will have an excellent coach – or at least a coach who is operating at full capacity in that moment. To keep a team focused and on task through two months of adversity is a very difficult task, and that responsibility lies on the shoulders of that coach. Because coaches are so important in playoff hockey they are also very important in the handicapping of playoff hockey. Here are six factors to consider when looking at the impact of the coaches in the handicapping of playoff hockey:
How long has the coach been with the team? – This is an important factor to think about, though there is no one best answer here. Basically, what you are looking for is that he hasn’t outlasted his welcome, that his message is still getting through to his players effectively, and that his relationship with his players is still positive. Some guys – like Barry Trotz in Nashville or Lindy Ruff in Buffalo – can manage that while being with a team for decades. In other situations, though, you’ll see the effectiveness of a coach start to wane after just a couple of years. Essentially, you want to make sure that the coach is still in some sort of coaching sweet spot – an spot that is different in every situation. New coaches that are in their first year or took over midseason can also be very potent in the playoffs. That isn’t always the case, though. You need to make sure that the coach has had long enough to implement his systems, and that he and his players are clearly on the same page. Some coaches can gain that kind of control in almost no time, while for others it takes more than one season.
Has the team been consistent under him in recent months? – Heading into the playoffs the short term history – the last couple of months, and even the last couple of weeks, are what is most interesting. Has the coach had the team on a consistent level, clearly building towards the playoff effort? Or have they been more inconsistent, so you are uncertain at any time what team is going to hit the ice? The more consistent a team is – one that is peaking at the right time – the more control the coach has over the team, and the better the team is likely to do in the playoffs. They don’t have to be playing the best hockey in the league necessarily, but they just need to be playing consistent, focused hockey – hockey with a purpose. One thing you want to make sure of, though, is that the team was playing games that mattered. If the team had already clinched their playoff spot with a couple of weeks to go and couldn’t improve their situation significantly then a lack of focus down the stretch is more inevitable than concerning.
What is his public attitude? – You can tell quite a bit about the mindset of a coach from how he presents himself in public as the playoffs begin – his interviews and scrums. There is no one specific attitude you are looking for. All you want to see is a coach who is relatively relaxed compared to what he normally is. If a coach normally jokes and is light in interviews then you would be concerned if he was tense or testy, but would have no concerns if he was like he always is. On the flipside, if a serious, intense coach seems happier and more relaxed then that could be a very good sign.
What is his contract status? – Players are very aware of what the contract status of their coach is, and how likely they are to be playing for the same guy next year. If the coach is likely not to be renewed, or if there is a good chance he will be fired unless he has a deep run, then players can often respond negatively to that. They won’t kill themselves for the coach – unless they have a very strong relationship with him and are motivated to save his job – because they know they aren’t likely to answer to him next year. It’s a childish attitude, but unfortunately a common one.
How has he done in the past in the playoffs? – Some guys are playoff coaches, and some guys aren’t. There are guys who just seem to know how to get their team ready for the postseason. He doesn’t always win the cup, or even a series, but his teams are always ready to play, and perform at least as well as expected. Other guys just seem to get tentative in the playoffs, and their teams always look better in February than they do in April. They can’t seem to handle the pressure. By looking at what has happened in the past you can usually get a good sense of what kind of coach you are dealing with.
Does the public care about the coach? – There are some coaches that the public holds in very high esteem. They view them as truly elite, and they will bet on them because of their presence and their aura. Scotty Bowman in the NHL or Phil Jackson in the NBA are the ultimate examples of that type. Other coaches are so relatively unknown that even some serious hockey fans couldn’t reliably come up with their name. It’s important to get a sense of what – if any – impact the coaches will have on how the lines are set and how the public bets.