Only three NHL teams have changed coaches this season, so the post-Olympic break practice sessions are important for the Flyers' Peter Laviolette, Blue Jackets' Claude Noel and Blues' Davis Payne. Why? Well, the practices in advance of returning to play provides the opportunity to implement more of their systems.
"We're gong to go over some things that get put on the back burner because you don't have the practice times you're looking for," said Laviolette, who took over for John Stevens on Dec. 5. "I've been here for over two months now and it was really difficult. There are a lot of things that just didn't get taken care of early on. I think we've taken care of most of them and gotten everything in that we needed to get in. We started to execute better with what we want to do.
"We'll work on different parts of the game," Laviolette said. "I think we'll go 30-35 minutes to make sure that we get our legs under us and we're touching the puck a lot with passing, shooting, conditioning and skating because skating is a big part of our game. From there, I think we'll slow it down for about 20-25 minutes and we'll try and take one or two items in the next four days and see if we can work on things we don't get to work on as much due to time constraints."
Laviolette and Payne changed some things that their teams had been doing, while Noel, who has had the shortest tenure, has focused his team on relaxing and playing the Columbus system with more joy and less pressure. It's been working.
"We've played five games since I took over and everything was in place," Noel said of replacing Ken Hitchcock Feb. 3. "I think 'Hitch' has done a marvelous job with our team in regards to the technical, tactical areas. So they had dealt with that.
"There will be some changes after the break, but not a lot. We'll play faster, quicker, and then tweak some areas of it. But more than anything, there will be a better understanding of how we're going to achieve the quickness. I think the team already understands it but there are a lot of other levels you can get to to achieve what we're trying to get to."
St. Louis has had a variety of problems. The Blues rank poorly in holding leads and they don't rally well. Their penalty kill is great, but they take too many penalties and they have a weak power play. But they have had significantly more success since Davis Payne replaced Andy Murray on Jan. 2.
"There are some areas of our game that we want to expand," Payne said. "In the brief time that I've been here, there's a baseline that's been put into place and we want to look into expanding our options. Most importantly, from an offensive perspective, how we execute on some rush scenarios, how we can create some second-wave opportunities. There are some scenarios in the offensive zone where we want to look at extending some of our possessions and extending some of our zone time, making that more effective.
"Beyond that, there is some tweaking in certain areas and some situational stuff through the neutral zone and defensive-zone coverage where certain scenarios have crept into our game. We'll also look into some specialty situations, not just power play but 4-on-4 stuff and odd-man situations, whether it be 6-on-5 or 5 vs. 6. We want to make sure we are prepared and don't have to use timeouts. We want, in these situations, to have it well-ingrained, what we expect to do when we face these situations over the last 20 games.
"Changing mindsets, expectations and beliefs," Payne said. "How we are going to play? What drives our success? Trusting in that. It's tough to come in and say this is how we want to play. There are some bits and pieces that the team is doing well. We want to shift into certain areas and getting all the guys to trust that immediately. These things don't happen overnight. We've had some success over the 22 games that I've been here. We've also seen some moments where we've slipped back and we want to make sure we're becoming as automatic as we can over the last 20 games."
The Blues earned 47 percent of available points through Jan. 2 and 57 percent since, moving to within four points of the eighth position in the Western Conference standings. The Flyers, out of a playoff position when Laviolette was hired, are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, four points ahead of ninth-place Tampa Bay Lightning. The Blue Jackets are 14th in the Western Conference, nine points out of a playoff spot.
"It's make or break for a lot of teams, including the Philadelphia Flyers," Laviolette said. "You're in a position where you can see the end of the road off in the distance and it's how well you play down the stretch that will determine whether you're going to play in the postseason and what position you'll play in the postseason slot. So, the end is in sight."
"Getting to a complete game, getting to an up-tempo style and getting everybody to buy into pressuring and pressuring in the right situations is key," Payne said. "Getting everybody playing on their toes and going in a predictable direction with the puck. In large part, that's the generic answer, but I think we can also boil it down to individuals who have played certain roles.
"Penalty killing continues to do a good job. Chris Mason is starting to show what he showed in the last weeks last year. Both Chris and Ty Conklin are going to have to continue providing that kind of goaltending. I don't think anyone sitting four points out or four points in is going to get one of those spots without good goaltending.
"We have to be better in our discipline. We look at our penalty differential and we're on the wrong side of things right now. In our last game against Washington, we gave them seven power plays and that's too many for any team, not just them."