How does your previous familiarity with head coach Guy Boucher and assistant Martin Raymond allow for open communication and putting you ahead of the curve in terms of coaching philosophy?
I think that was the best way for us to come in. That was one less hurdle. Knowing the way they work was really a great advantage for me. I worked for the New York Islanders prior to working with them and not knowing their style of coaching, I picked it up in just one year in Hamilton and had some success. I feel that we put a pretty good team together. So in coming here, I felt all of us were able to see the game a different way and bring a lot of new ideas.
As a player you played the position of left wing, so how exactly did you become responsible for overseeing the defense as an assistant coach?
I actually played mostly center, and I did play left wing as you mentioned, and actually some defense. I played three positions, and to be honest, I wasn’t that talented of a player so I spent a lot of time watching from the bench what players were always good at playing the game, and I would keep that in mind specifically about the defensemen. I think though that I’ve always had an eye for more of the defensive part of the game, and when I did retire, I started coaching and I began with the defensemen in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. I researched the position a lot more and made a lot of calls to former defensemen and former teammates of mine, and I even attended a lot of coaching conferences and started breaking down the position a lot more. Obviously it’s a different perspective as a defenseman rather than a forward, but it’s something you can learn and observe.
Along those same lines, the New Jersey Devils are known as a defensive-minded team with an innovative scheme. How closely do you study opponents for the sole purpose of picking up on certain tactics and weaving them in to your own strategy?
We always have to stay on top of new trends. The NHL is a copycat league. You’ll see teams win the Stanley Cup, but they win it in different ways with the lineups they have. So, while they win and there are only two teams in the Final, there are 28 other teams watching and trying to emulate them because that’s where they want to be. We’re no different. We look elsewhere at what’s being done and what is being done right, and we apply that to our own system. That being said, we also know what works for us. We know our personnel and we tend to focus on that mostly, but if we see something we like, there is always room for little tweaks here and there.
Many pundits believe the position of a defenseman is the hardest to learn at the NHL level. Why do you think that is, and what specific skills make a player a good defenseman?
Good defensemen are hard to come by. You look at our guys like Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier, and as forwards, you ask yourself what do they want in a game? Well, they want the puck on their tape. The skill in this league is to make simple plays under pressure. There’s more pressure now under the new rules from the last lockout in 2004-05 that puts a lot of pressure on defensemen to make plays. It’s extremely hard for them, so we look for defensemen who are extremely smart, who can move the puck tape to tape, and get out of our zone. We feel that if we can get out of our zone with ease, the forwards will be carrying the puck more and they’ll be able to create more offense.
How do you think your days as a player better prepared you for coaching?
I think all of the experiences you go through in life, whether as a player, or as a fan of the game, or as a student of the game, those are all experiences that make me a better coach. The fact that I was able to play on some really great hockey teams and have great teammates helped me see what really good leadership is. I played with Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, I saw how Kevin Lowe ran the dressing room at times, and all of those were great experiences. Transitioning into coaching, it made it a little bit easier. Plus, we have a little bit of a different background with our coaching staff, so that makes it fun. You can never have enough good hockey people around.
The guys on the team know you as somewhat of a prankster, and while when it comes time for the puck to drop it’s all business, how much do you think keeping the guys loose in the locker room and on road trips contributes to the team’s success?
The cornerstones of our foundation are work ethic and enthusiasm, and you need both to win. For us, those two things are things we talk about every day. But you also need to have fun. It’s a long season, there are a lot of games, there is a lot of travel, and all of that can be tough on players, so we’re fortunate that we have a great group of guys who recognize when it is time to ease the tension with a joke or a prank. At the right time, that’s the way to go. For us, as a staff, we want to keep the players on task, but also build chemistry between the lines and among teammates. It’s all part of our job. There are different ways to do that, whether it be a team-building activity or a little something on the side. Those are all ways that we contribute to the cause.
Lastly, you started coaching in the QMJHL, moved up to the AHL and are now in the NHL. In terms of coaching, what have you learned at each stage that has allowed you to get where you are today?
I learned the preparation aspect of coaching in junior hockey. I was fortunate enough to coach with some really good people and people who worked extremely hard at their craft. I didn’t realize as a player what went into coaching. Back then, I’d come in and you’d see the coaches make the game plan and watch a lot of tape, but experiencing it first-hand, and having to travel on busses, and cutting down tape, you see how much preparation is involved. All of that prepares you for having a better work ethic and teaches you about putting in the time and knowing how to schedule yourself. All of those were great experiences for me and I was very lucky to have such a great opportunity.