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Nolan Pratt Brings Defensive Development Background

Avalanche assistant coach has been important to the team's success on defense

by Ron Knabenbauer @RonKnab / ColoradoAvalanche.com

The deepest position for the Colorado Avalanche this season might just be at defense. The Avs' current crop of rear guards are among the best in the league and their might be its best since the club routinely played in conference and Stanley Cup finals in the late 1990's and early 2000's.

Colorado boasts young, skilled blueliners such as Samuel Girard, Ryan Graves, Cale Makar and Nikita Zadorov--all of whom are 24 years old or younger--and has trusted veterans in the likes of Ian Cole and Erik Johnson. And that's just at the NHL level.

The Avalanche has highly-touted prospects such as Bowen Byram and Conor Timmins coming up through the system, and they could be knocking on the door to the major leagues as soon as next season.

Leading the defensive corps on the Avs' bench is assistant coach Nolan Pratt, who is in his fourth season on head coach Jared Bednar's staff in Colorado.

A member of the Avalanche's 2001 Stanley Cup championship team as a player, Pratt has the experience of 896 career professional games in various leagues around the globe, including 592 as a defenseman in the NHL. He admits he was a defensive-minded D-man during his playing days, but that's not necessarily the way he coaches.

Pratt and Bednar expect all of the Avalanche's players to contribute offensively, and the blueliners are not any different. The rear guards are usually the first ones with the puck after gaining possession and it's their job to distribute it out of their own zone, either by passing it up to the forwards and taking it out themselves.

"The game, as a defenseman now, it's evolved so much that the guys are a part of the offense every time the puck leaves the zone," Pratt said. "They are the start of generating offense for the team, the transition that they provide. If you look at our group, EJ, Cale, G, are a big part of it. It's changed a lot. The speed of the game has changed. It's still hockey, but it's ramped up to another level for me. The production that you need from your defensemen is as important as it's ever been."

While helping to create offense is definitely key, the essence of what a defenseman is, which is playing defense, cannot be overlooked. They are expected to be solid in their own zone and be able to limit the opposition's chances.

Pratt, who was born in Fort McMurray, Alberta, but grew up in Edmonton, has certain expectations for all of his players, whether it be the D-men or the forwards that he coaches during penalty-kill situations.

"I think there are certain things from a coaching perspective that I would always require and ask of defensemen, and to me defending is just a commitment to your team," Pratt said. "I shouldn't have to ask for them to defend, it's a requirement for me."

Ryan Graves is in his first full season with the Avalanche and says Pratt's teachings have helped him adapt his game to reach the NHL and be consistent in his play every night. After three-quarters of the season, Graves leads the league with a plus-43 rating.

"Anything he says I take to heart and make sure I'm listening and implement it in my game," Graves said. "He's always been great with me. There are always ups and downs, but he understands that. He's never too hard, but he's never too easy either."

Pratt's perspective as the defense coach is distinctive because he's teaching and encouraging players to do different things than how he was taught by his coaches and played as a player while advancing through the ranks.

The change has come from his willingness to learn different techniques and adapt to the changes in today's game. When it comes to pro hockey in 2020, it's all about playing with speed.

"It's transition, ability to make plays with the puck, both coming out of your zone, the neutral zone and creating in the offensive zone," Pratt said. "I'm coaching players completely different than the way that I would have been coached. It's probably key for me as a coach. I'm going to treat every player not differently, but I will look at their toolset and their ability. That has been the key for me in coaching, trying to find the way to get the best out of those individuals and grab their talent and skillset and make the most out of them."

He gained that philosophy of trying to get maximize a player's talent through years of playing for and working with different coaches, including current Columbus head coach John Tortorella, who he won his second Stanley Cup as a player with in 2004 while skating with the Tampa Bay Lightning. When it comes to expectation of players, Pratt and Tortorella have similar viewpoints.

"He has a standard for everyone, but he also has a standard for everyone individually. If you live up to that standard that he has for you--I don't think he is asking for any more than what he can get from you individually," Pratt said of Tortorella. "For me personally, I think he knew what I could provide and I tried to give him that every single night, and that is what you need from your players.

"I learned a ton from him, I honestly did. It wasn't always easy, and he would be the first to admit it. It wasn't always pretty or perfect, but the ultimate team message you get from him is what it takes to win in a lot of ways."

He later indirectly worked for Tortorella when the veteran head coach was named to the same position with the Blue Jackets early in 2015-16 while Pratt was an assistant with the Columbus' American Hockey League affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters, in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Monsters were Pratt's last stop as a coach in the AHL before heading to Colorado, as he spent five seasons as an assistant coach for the Blue Jackets' top minor-league affiliate.

After retiring from playing the game professionally in 2011, Pratt moved into a role beyond the boards as a defensive development coach in 2011-12 with Columbus' then-AHL club, the Springfield Falcons. He started as a coach in the press box during that first season--an eye in the sky, so to speak--but he was soon moved to the bench for head coach Rob Riley.

He first worked with Bednar the following season when both were assistants for head coach Brad Larsen, a former Avalanche player himself. It was the start of eight seasons working with Bednar, which included an AHL championship and a promotion to the NHL.

Pratt and Bednar made the move from Springfield to Cleveland once the Blue Jackets relocated their AHL team in 2015, and they immediately had success in their first season on the banks of Lake Erie. The Monsters delivered the city of Cleveland its first pro championship in 52 years, eight days before the Cleveland Cavaliers won their NBA title.

While Pratt's focus nowadays is on the Avs' development and winning in Colorado, he still keeps tabs on the players that he has coached throughout the years and is proud of the progress and the success they've had. Many of those players on that 2015-16 Lake Erie squad have graduated to the NHL and are playing large roles with the Blue Jackets or with other squads around the league.

"I take a lot of pride seeing those kids go on and have success," Pratt said. "The work that they put in to be coachable and wanting to be coached. The best players are usually the ones that want to be coached the most and are the most willing to work with you."

Those AHL players' goals at the time were to ultimately make it to the NHL, much like Pratt did back in his playing days. The coach had the same mindset in his post-playing career.

He figured it would take six or seven years to be prepared enough to earn a job in the best league in the world, and his determination soon paid off.

Pratt was hired as an Avalanche assistant coach by general manager Joe Sakic and then head coach Patrick Roy on July 15, 2016, nearly a month after he and Bednar had helped lead the Monsters to the Calder Cup.

The Avs were looking for a defensive coach who could help develop young blueliners in the organization, and Pratt's previous experience working with Columbus made him an ideal fit for the job.

"We were lucky enough to win in Cleveland, we won a championship, but the development side was very good for us as an organization too," said Pratt. "A lot of those players, forwards and defensemen are playing in Columbus. We were part of that, and it's something you look back as a coach and feel good about."

He was soon joined in Colorado by his friend Bednar, who made his own separate journey to the base of the Rocky Mountains a month later when he was hired as the Avs' head coach after Roy resigned from his position in August.

"You never know how things are going to work out, but the stars aligned a bit for us to continue to work together," Pratt said or reuniting with Bednar. "To go through the process with Joe, Patrick Roy and [assistant general manager Chris MacFarland], it was satisfying to some degree that the opportunity was there ahead."

Pratt has been a trusted ally for Bednar during their four years together in Denver.

"He's an open coach who is open and receptive to all of the assistants being involved," Pratt said. "Ultimately he has the final say. There will be moments within a game that I might say something to him and he's like, 'I Iike it, I was thinking the same thing, let's do it,' and then there are certainly moments within a game where it is like, 'yeah, let's just stick with the way we are right now and see how it goes.' I think I've built a level of trust that he trusts my opinion.

"The one thing I always try is to give him my honest opinion. I'm not going to sit down and agree with whoever just because that is what they're saying. I think he relies on all of us assistants in that way and values our opinion. We try and be as open as we can with him."

Among the duties that Pratt is tasked with as the Avalanche's defensive assistant coach is the club's penalty kill.

The PK rarely gets the glory of the power play as its focus is to prevent goals instead of scoring them, but it's a situation that Pratt loves to coach.

"It's something I speak to our players about in training camp, it's about taking pride in it and a passion in it," Pratt said. "Killing penalties is one of the ultimate sacrifices for players because no one is out there scoring goals. You're defending and chasing pucks and blocking shots. You need players to have the passion, and I try and sell that to the players as well."

After taking over the PK, Pratt has helped improve the Avalanche in the category. Entering the 2019-20 campaign, the Avs' penalty kill over the previous two seasons combined was tied for 10th best in the NHL at 81 percent. Colorado finished fourth overall (83.3 percent) and first at home (91.7 percent) in 2017-18, setting an NHL record for the fewest power-play goals allowed on home ice (10).

"It is my passion," Pratt said of the man-disadvantage situations. "As an assistant coach, it is something that you can grab onto. It's not mine, but it's part of me and it's my coaching stamp on the team. First year was a tough year. The second year we finished fourth overall, and I think we set a record at home for the least power-play goals given up in a season. You have a standard set."

A lot of the same principles that are part of the Avalanche's foundation on offense are also built into the team's defense and PK, though in an inverted way. Putting pressure on the opposing team, playing fast and communicating are all important when defending, especially when down a man on the ice.

"If you're not in-sync with what we're trying to do, then it breaks down," Pratt said. "Good teams are going to break you down, that is what they do, but we're a unit of four that should work together all the time. Credit to our players, they've been incredibly detailed. I like to think it's getting better as we go."

Bednar credits Pratt for his work with the players on the defensive special teams. It's often not the sexiest job for players and often results in plenty of bumps and bruises, but it's the one that often determines who wins and loses games.

"I think 'Pratter' has done a real good job with our game plan," Bednar said. "We've been flexible on certain nights… Nolan's being real clear and presenting that to our guys.

"The buy-in from the killers, they take a lot of pride in it. They're sacrificing and that little extra makes a big difference."

Just like a player needs to keep improving and adapting his game to new styles constantly, the same can be said for a coach. Pratt has done that since breaking into the business and recognizes the importance of doing just that.

No matter how long one works in an industry, there are still opportunities for growth. That is how Pratt views his coaching career as he strives to be better every day.

"If you're playing or coaching and the day you decide that you're going to stop learning and accepting information and knowledge, you're probably in tough as a coach or a player," said Pratt.

"I had a plan when I started coaching, and my plan was that I wanted to be a coach in the best league in the world. From an individual perspective, I think that is an accomplishment in itself. To continue to grow as a coach and help our players grow is ultimately what I take a lot of pride in."

The work continues for Pratt and the Avalanche to not only continue to coach up the next generation of NHL players, but also help them reach the ultimate prize like he was able to do as a player: have a long playing career that features a Stanley Cup championship.

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