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Stars don't faze Quenneville

by John McGourty

Colorado Avalanche head coach Joel Quenneville made changes to the way
Al MacInnis played when he was named head coach of the St. Louis Blues in 1996-97.
Looking to another sport, Grady Little got to resign this week as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, shortly after veteran Jeff Kent confirmed what reporters had speculated the last half of the season: That the team was torn by rifts between players, and many players regularly criticized strategic moves.

It's called losing control of the team. It's sad, but it happens. One of a manager's or head coach's chief responsibilities is getting everyone to pull in the same direction – his direction.

Getting the veterans on board is one of a new head coach's biggest challenges. Of course, a lot depends upon the veteran we're talking about.

Al MacInnis, who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 12, along with Scott Stevens, Mark Messier, Ron Francis and Jim Gregory, recently revealed that now-Colorado Avalanche head coach Joel Quenneville made major changes to the way MacInnis played when Quenneville was named head coach of the St. Louis Blues during the 1996-97 season.

MacInnis, being the kind of person he is, gave major credit to Quenneville for improving his game. Another veteran might have looked at the new coach and said, "I'm going to the Hall of Fame and if you're not nice to me, you're going back home to Windsor, Ontario, from whence you came."

But MacInnis wasn't the only player that Quenneville confronted in St. Louis, or now in Colorado, or even before, when he was the head coach of the AHL Springfield Indians.

It's a fine line that coaches walk. You don't get ahead by kissing butt, slapping shoulders and showering false praise and you don't get ahead by terror and insult. A coach must have systems that work, flexible bench maneuvers and a firm manner with players who give him their respect. Those players have to be persuaded that the new coach's ways are better than the ones in place and will lead to victory.

Quenneville gets that kind of respect, plus player assertions that they enjoy playing for him. We often hear one coach described as a "players’ coach," someone they like to play for, like the Philadelphia Phillies’ strategically challenged Charley Manuel, or a strict disciplinarian, like the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick.

It's the rare coach, like Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs the first time around, or Quenneville, that combines both and succeeds.

"Joel really taught me a lot about playing on the defensive side of the puck," MacInnis said. "He showed me how important it was to block passing lanes with stick positioning. He taught me things other coaches hadn't been able to teach me. I didn't understand how important the stick was to a defenseman. Joel improved my game to where I was taking away shots and taking away lanes. It really paid off. I loved him as a coach and we had some great seasons here, including winning the Presidents’ Trophy. Joel was a good combination of tactical skills and emotional encouragement."

Quenneville chuckled when he heard that MacInnis said he had his game overhauled at age 34.

"Al's positioning was fine. I'm surprised he pointed it out," Quenneville said. "We have definite defensive schemes all over the ice, involving all five guys. When I took over in St. Louis, the defensemen were happy to make body contact and separate the opponent from the puck. But we wanted to make sure that their sticks were in position so that the puck wouldn't go through them and deeper into our end. Some players think that if you stop the player from advancing with the puck that you have contained him, but you're letting pucks and passes go through you.

"Your stick should confront the puck at the same time as your body confronts the man. That was the only way I could play."

When you watch NHL hockey, you're watching young players (try to) implement a system taught by an older coach who learned from someone older than him. Hockey skills and strategies are passed down; in Quenneville's case, from Hockey Hall of Fame coach Roger Neilson.

"Roger was my coach when I came up as a rookie with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1978," Quenneville said. "Later on, I was his assistant coach, in 1991-92, when he coached the St. John's Maple Leafs in the AHL, my first coaching job. Roger had the greatest awareness of coaching things from a defensive point of view of any coach I ever knew. I developed this way because I had him as my coach when I was a young pro. From that time on, I relied a lot on my stick."

Neilson was an assistant coach with the Blues when the team lured Quenneville away from his assistant's job with the Avalanche.

"The team had gone through tremendous changes in the past couple of years," Quenneville said. "I was new to the whole picture but I had two experienced assistant coaches in Roger and Jimmy Roberts. They put things in perspective. We kept the same crew and got better as the year went on. We made a lot of changes the next year when Larry Pleau came in.

"We changed our group of defensemen and got younger. It was really a fun team to work with. Right off the bat, I walk in to a team that had Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger on the blue line. That's a great luxury to have when you're a coach."

Quenneville faced a similar situation when he joined the Avalanche in 2005. He had a star defenseman in Rob Blake and a cast of lesser-known players, highlighted by the durable Karlis Skrastins and young John-Michael Liles.

"We had a group here that was underrated," Quenneville said. "People think of the Colorado defense and think Blake, Adam Foote and Raymond Bourque, but it hasn't been that way for a while. Now, we have a bunch of guys who are trying to carve their niche and become NHL defensemen. Liles handles the puck well, runs a power play and joins the attack. Brett Clark came out of nowhere, basically a minor-league depth guy, to become one of our top defensemen. Skrastins has all that experience that he brings every night. Kurt Sauer has been around and doesn't get talked about much, but he's very consistent and stepped up in a big way last year."

Blake returned to Los Angeles as a free agent a year ago. In anticipation, the Avalanche traded star forward Alex Tanguay to get defenseman Jordan Leopold. Scott Hannan, one of the top free agents this past summer, signed a four-year deal and has become the ice-team leader at 23:39 per game.

Leopold missed most of last season with groin and wrist problems. He re-injured the wrist this week and is projected to be absent until early January.

Quenneville and the team's developmental personnel have to take major credit for Brett Clark and Jeff Finger.

"Scotty was a nice pluck, for sure," Quenneville said. "Hannan plays important minutes and adds size, strength and presence. He has stabilized our defense. We had to be better and there are signs we are showing steady improvement.

"Leopold's injury was disappointing because it looked like he was coming right along and playing well in games. He got healthy and it looked like he was turning a corner and getting his game back in order. Then the setback. He hasn't played regularly for any stretch of games for a couple of years now. He's had a really positive approach during this process and we'll continue to encourage him. At training camp, having him back, it felt like an additional free agent because he had little or no experience last year. But we know he'll be back and he'll help us. We'll need him as we go along."

Quenneville and the team's developmental personnel have to take major credit for Clark and Jeff Finger, the latter a depth guy who attended St. Cloud State, played in the ECHL and spent four years in the AHL. Finger is averaging over 16 minutes per game and is a plus-3.

"Jeff is really diligent and persevering in his professional career, paying his dues, has paid off for him and us. He put in quality time in the minors and it was appreciated. We saw, as an organization, that he got better every year. He does nothing fancy, just plays hard and simple and thus makes an impact and affects games. He's one of the guys I'm talking about when I say we have an underrated defense."

Defense isn't played in a vacuum. It takes all six guys on the ice to keep the puck out of the net. Forwards can help and make a great difference. In both St. Louis and Colorado, Quenneville has been presented with a team that had great offensive players and a less regarded defense. He gets both groups working together to produce fewer goals against.

Goals against dropped from 248 to 239 to 204, went up to 209, and then plunged to 165 in Quenneville's first four seasons in St. Louis. Last season's Avalanche team allowed six fewer goals than the previous year.

"We talk about team defense regularly," Quenneville said. "We have a team that loves to score and make plays. I have to constantly remind them to pay attention to positioning and concentrate on loose pucks. I like the offensive players to be thinking about defense and the defensive players to think about offense. We give the defensemen the green light to go up with the play when the opportunity is there.

"The offense helping the defense goes hand-in-hand with being a strong team and playing a strong team game. We have to reinforce that regularly and make sure that commitment is in place and that all players are capable of playing a strong team game. We can force loose pucks anywhere and get to go on offense into the other end. We have a fun team with a lot of offensive players that we can work with and we have a lot of options when it comes to who plays with whom. We have a lot of interchangeable parts and the players are very receptive."


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