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Coaches Room

Goals, crazy comebacks getting to be the norm in October

MacLean believes loosey-goosey hockey results from players looking for fast start coming out of training camp

by Paul MacLean / Special to

The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2019-20 season by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. Paul MacLean, Rob Zettler, Rob Cookson and Randy Carlyle will take turns providing insight. 

In this edition, MacLean, former coach of the Ottawa Senators, breaks down why the first couple of weeks of an NHL season at times looks more like shinny than the structured blueprint coaches are looking for.

Welcome to loosey-goosey hockey, otherwise known as the early October portion of the NHL season.

We're barely two weeks in and already we've seen some significant offensive explosions and massive comebacks. 

The Montreal Canadiens were down 4-1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the third period at Scotiabank Arena and came back to win 6-5 in a shootout Oct. 5. 

Just 24 hours earlier, the Winnipeg Jets found themselves trailing the New Jersey Devils 4-0 and rebounded for a 5-4 shootout victory.

Entertaining to fans? Yes.

The cause of ulcers for coaches? Yes.

Surprising? No. Not for this time of the year.

Here's why.

Understand that players come out of training camp wanting to start on the right foot. Early offensive production gives guys confidence. They want to accrue points in those first couple of games so they feel good about themselves.

Video: Mantha on his four-goal game against the Stars

As a result, their primary focus is to get to the net and make things happen offensively. 

That's all fine and good. The tradeoff, however, is defense or, specifically, a lack thereof. Odd-man rushes in the transition game by the opposition thrive this time of year because of the uneven number of players with a nose for the net.

As a coach, you get that. You spent training camp implementing tweaks to your system, if not changing it altogether.

The trouble here is, for a good chunk of training camp and the preseason you are not featuring the lineup you'll be using opening night. Instead, you are mixing and matching veterans, prospects, guys on professional tryout contracts. You're doing that because you have to make decisions that are best for the organization, not just the parent club. 

For example, you might be taking a long look at a couple of guys you know might be ticketed for the farm because they might be the top candidates to be called up in case of an injury or trade. Seeing how they fare against NHLers often can't be gauged in just a couple of practices or one preseason game.

Your actual practice time with your final 23-man roster often doesn't get into high gear until the final few days before the season opener. And even then, it can be hectic and chaotic through the first couple of weeks of the season.

Take the Maple Leafs, for example. They had three games in four nights and four games in six nights to start the season. I'm sure coach Mike Babcock would have liked some more practice time, but you have to be careful not to burn out your guys too soon. It's a balancing act right from the get-go.

Add it all up and it takes time for the players to get into the flow of the defensive side of the game. It's much easier for guys to play offense. And, for most, more fun too.

That's why, as a coach, October is an important time in the video room. You have to keep pointing out to players where the leaks are in their own end.

Eventually, they'll catch on. At least you hope they do. That's why some of the offensive explosions and comebacks we've seen recently don't really catch coaches off guard. 

Now, if your team is still coughing up 4-1 leads in December, well, that's the foundation for legitimate concern.

Video: EDM@NYI: Neal scores four goals against Islanders

As a coach, the two areas you usually work on the most this time of year are getting your guys to tighten up in the neutral zone and making better offensive-zone entries. If you don't pay attention to these details, it will lead to turnovers. And there are few things in the sport that are more lethal than those.

Interestingly, two teams that are off to good starts, both in the standings and the goals-against department, are the St. Louis Blues and the Boston Bruins, the teams that met in the Stanley Cup Final in June.

The Blues are 2-0-1 and have allowed seven goals in three games. The Bruins are 3-0-0 and have given up four goals. They've been the exceptions to the rule of October pond hockey.

There are a couple of reasons for that.

First off, neither of these teams made major personnel changes during the offseason. The foundation of the rosters that made the Final remains primarily intact. That makes it easier for players to remember the system. The fact that they had success with that style makes the buy-in much easier for them.

Secondly, they played in June. For a hockey player, that's not that long ago. It's easier to remember what worked for you. 

By the end of November I think you'll see a definitive trend of scores getting lower throughout the League. Coaches will have had enough time to get their messages across regarding how important the goals-against category is.

The teams that figure it out by then should be in contention for the long haul. The teams that don't could be in trouble.

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