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Coaches Room

Stanley Cup Playoff races difficult time to avoid distractions

Carlyle says coaches try to keep players' focus on things they can control

by Randy Carlyle / Special to NHL.com

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. David Marcoux, Rob Zettler, Rob Cookson and Randy Carlyle will take turns providing insight.

In this edition, Carlyle, former coach of the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs, discusses what's going on inside a team's locker room in the midst of pressure-packed races for Stanley Cup Playoff spots.

It's the time of the season for scoreboard watching and standings watching, with intense races for Stanley Cup Playoff spots going on in the Eastern and Western conferences.

Things are particularly tight in the Pacific Division and for the wild-card positions in the West, with several teams bunched together. 

If you're wondering if your favorite team is fixated with scoreboards and standings, you should know that there are different approaches, but it's likely the majority of coaches will be trying to get their group to not pay attention to things they cannot control.

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As for focusing on things they can control, that's easy to say but much harder to do. And that's because of the amount of information that's available in today's world. Information is nearly limitless, and within an organization, the interest in it starts at the ownership level and goes through the management level and the coaching level, then through the training staff and medical staff. Everybody's immersed in what's happening.

The potential for it to be a distraction is high, so the teams that are able to put that aside and take care of their own business have better opportunities to reach their goals. You only have to look at the teams in the past two or three years that have had runs before the playoffs and into the playoffs; those teams have shown that with focus, they can find confidence and that it's possible to build on that and have success into the playoffs.

And that applies to all teams in these races. It doesn't matter if you're battling for first place or the first or second wild card. The only focus has to be on getting in, qualifying for the playoffs.

The scores and standings are there for everybody to see, every minute of every day, so there's no point forbidding talk about them or doing something like taking down a standings board if you have one near your locker room.

What's important for a coach is that he's set the program at the beginning of the season, and the ongoing priority must be to hold himself and the players accountable to those principles as much as possible. If a coach is true to the things he's done and the staples he believes in as a coach, and usually those are things he's had success with, he can create momentum by sticking to them at critical times like now.

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For the team, the focus has to be singular on our program, our way of doing things, attention to all details. It's important to keep in mind that the game hasn't changed dramatically over the years from the standpoint that if you make fewer mistakes on the ice than your opponent, usually you're going to win the game.

But this is where the pressure of races, the pressure of big games and the external pressures of all the what-if situations come into play. Mistakes add to these pressures.

You'll also find that this is a time of the season, with tight races going on, when officiating sometimes becomes a flashpoint. It can happen to a coach, to players, to general managers, and I can tell you it's happened to me, that when the pressure mounts, different calls or events in a game can become distractions. We're all human. We sometimes lash out at officials or calls, at things we have no control over. And it's a dangerous perch to be on.

If you as a leader do those things, it just opens the floodgates for your players to add to it or pile on, and that's unlikely to help anybody.

It's one of the many lines of leadership a coach must take, asking for focus and showing his own during pressure-filled times.

Another is reading his own team in the midst of these tight races. What's the fatigue level, for instance. How will it be handled? How can we try to give the players a physical and mental break from it all?

If a coach can somehow make the player or the team feel good about themselves while he's going through these challenges, he can give them an opportunity to flush the negativity or pressure when the races get tight.

Sometimes when the pressures of tight races are mounting and the results are not as expected, the coach and his staff have to create some sort of event to try to snap the team out of it. It could be as simple as challenging a player in between periods or making a statement with some video. There are many ways to do it and many levels of events you can try.

One option is to ask the players to present a meeting or even a practice plan, tell them, "It's your turn to pick what you want to do for practice." Something like that can lighten the mood. That kind of changeup can be very helpful.

But the list of options isn't long. A coach can try 1-on-1 communication, addressing the team as a group, controlling time on ice or even not playing a player. There are not a lot of other tools left, and the players are aware of most of them this far into the season. Above all, you don't want to stray away from the program.

When it comes to big games in March and beyond, there is intensity, but staying in the regular preparation zone is always best. The teams that are most consistent, that understand the template that's given them success, they apply that.

As soon as a coach can get the players to hold one another accountable in that way, to understand why it's important, the better.

They may be aware of the standings or the out-of-town scoreboard on any given day, but if they're dialed in on optimizing their own performance, no barrage of external information should deter them.

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