How will the coaching staff operate going forward and who will be doing what?
Mike Yeo, we’ll start with Mike Yeo. I know Mike Yeo from my playing days. I know Mike Yeo from the previous two years, coming to training camp. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with Mike about the team. Mike’s the guy that I mostly called this year in dealing with players and our situation and how things were going here. I’m real comfortable with Mike. He’s a hard-working guy, a passionate guy. He fits right along the lines with me and how I am. So I’m real comfortable with that situation. He’ll continue to do that power play. He will be moved to the defenseman, as you saw (Monday).
Tom Fitzgerald will be joining us. Tom and I will be taking care of the penalty kill together. Tom will do a lot of that drawing on his strengths as a player and his experience. Tom will be a guy on the bench who’s helping with the forwards and matchups with other teams and what teams may be trying to do against us. Right now especially, Tom’s main role and big role and what he can do real well right now is reaching out to the players and establishing a relationship with the players and get us pointed in the right direction. That plays into Tom’s strengths. I’ve worked a lot with Tom in the last couple of years. He’s been our player development guy. He’s been in Wilkes-Barre and our rookie camps and conditioning camps. I’ve spent a lot of time with Tom and we talked about our team in Wilkes-Barre, players in the organization and our philosophies. We used him on the bench a little bit when he came down to Wilkes-Barre this past year. I feel comfortable with Tom. I love his passion, energy and experience in the game, his knowledge of the game. I think that’s going to fit in as well. He’s certainly in his first time in a coaching atmosphere but his passion, energy and ability to have personal relationships, people skills is an addition to the staff that’s going to be welcomed.
Players were surprised by how well you ran the bench in the game. How has that developed? And how much of that goes back to your playing days and how much goes back to your days as an assistant?
I don’t know if I can honestly say in my playing days, if I can draw upon that. I know when you’re a player, you’re certainly on the bench. You probably just want yourself to go out more. You may feel that that was a good call or that guy should be playing more. Some coaches did the bench well and some coaches everyone played the same amount of minutes every game. You talk about that as a player. I certainly have experience from my playing days.
I think at one point last night if I had not had the 50 games or so down in Wilkes-Barre running the bench then last night would have been a little overwhelming. Having had the experience I feel I accomplished what I wanted to do. I got the situations and people out that I wanted to get out. I got different combinations at times. I felt pretty comfortable doing it. I don’t think there was one situation where I thought I wasn’t ready to put that guy on the ice. I felt comfortable and confident and I’m very thankful that I had 50 games down in Wilkes-Barre to have experience to draw on. That was a big help last night for sure.How do you keep the players having fun in the daily practices and daily grind?
I don’t know if “fun” is the appropriate use in the English language. It’s what we’re using right now. It’s what Ray (Shero) has said. It’s what I have said. I don’t do too many things in life that I don’t enjoy doing. I try to steer away from the things that I don’t enjoy doing. I enjoy hockey. I’m passionate about hockey. I think it’s a great thing to be able to come to the rink and challenge yourself to get better, to get the most of the situation, to get the most of the players, to get the most out of the team. I felt the same way as a player, passionate. It’s not always easy. It’s not without challenge. That’s what gives life energy and passion. It’s a unique opportunity. It’s a unique situation. It’s 24 games left and four points out of the playoffs. That’s a challenge. That’s something that I am extremely excited about and energetic about. When you bring that passion and energy to the rink and enjoy the challenge of getting better then that will rub off and be part of the atmosphere that I hope to create. What is the difference in what system you’ll implement than has been here the last few years?
We spent time each year with Michel Therrien before the season on systems and on what Pittsburgh was going to do. He was adamant and we were adamant that we would do in Wilkes-Barre what they did here in Pittsburgh. We had a similar system. The additions that we did make, we had dual systems in Wilkes-Barre. We had the Pittsburgh system and then we had a couple of adjustments that we could go to in Wilkes-Barre that we termed “Wilkes-Barre things.” I think really the main things that were different was that our words and our tone was more aggressive: more aggressive offensively, more aggressive defensively. I think the tone that I’ve seen in the media is that it’s more of an offensive aggressive, on your toes and I think there’s an underlying that we’re going to take more chances. That’s not necessarily the case. Last year in Wilkes-Barre, we were second in the league in goals against. We didn’t set out to be that way but when you play aggressively and you’re attacking, when you pursue the puck and play defensively as quickly as you can, you tend to get to the offensive zone more and you get there with speed, you get there with numbers and you make other team’s defensemen turn and you get to play in the offensive zone more. If you can do that then you’ll be a good defensive team. When you do that, you make teams deal with your skill and speed. You make them play defense more. You make them take more penalties. The mistakes they make, which every team makes, they make near their goalie. When they make them near their goalie it turns into opportunities for your skilled players. That’s the way we want to play. That does not mean there won’t be any attention to defense or playing defense. To the contrary, we’ll be aggressive offensively and we’ll be aggressive defensively. Can you play the game faster even if you don’t have faster players?
Without a question. I think the puck moves faster than anybody can skate. When you play with the puck and you execute north-south and you execute with puck support, you become a fast team. When you make other teams turn and go back for pucks, they start to become slower. Now you’re using your assets – which is speed, puck support and execution – and you’re forcing them to go back and turn for pucks. Every defenseman that has to turn and go back for pucks becomes not as affective. Have the Penguins been turning around a lot lately?
To me the game is won by playing in the offensive end. If you can’t get out of the defensive end and you allow teams to play in the defensive end, no matter how good you are defensively, no matter how good your players are, if you play more time in the defensive end in the game – it doesn’t matter what the skill is on their team, it doesn’t matter what the skill is on your team – you’re going to lose a majority of those games. You’re going to be on the penalty kill more often. They’re going to have more zone time. There are going to be more pucks in the crease. There’s going to be more bounces that go against you. The balance is in the other team’s favor. If you can add skill and speed to that equation and you can get to the offensive zone, now you can tip the scales in your favor. That’s the way the game needs to be played.
Different players do it differently. Sid Crosby does it differently than Matt Cooke
. Miro Satan is going to do it differently with Max Talbot. The message and how we play is going to be the same. We’re going to play with speed. We’re going to play north-south and execute. We want to have the puck and we want to get to the offensive zone with it. When we give it up, we’re giving it up because we know that we’re going to get it back with speed and the forecheck and physical play. Why is it important to have an assistant such as Fitzgerald reach out and establish a relationship with the players?
At every level of professional hockey, every level of life, but especially at the NHL level, you’re dealing with professionals. You’re dealing with grown men. They need to be respected and they need to feel that respected. You need to have that relationship. At the same time, you still have expectations and you hold them to those expectations and accountability just like you would in any business, any job. Tom Fitzgerald was a captain in this league. He’s a veteran in this league. He’s played over 1,000 games. He established those relationships before. He’s looked guys in the eye and challenged them and held them accountable. He’s done it in a way that at the end of the day they respect. That’s what Tom Fitzgerald came bring right now for the Penguins.
Will you use Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the penalty kill?
You’re asking me questions that at 3 o’clock on Sunday, I started entertaining those thoughts that you’re entertaining to me. Penalty killers have to be aggressive. Penalty killers have to dictate where the play is made. They have to be ready to battle and get it out. Guys that are ready to do that will earn ice time in that regard. Their skills, the way they read the game, their speed all indicate that they could be guys that could play on the penalty kill. How was getting the call to be coach related to when you were a player and got called up?
It’s really similar in a lot of ways. The butterflies from the initial phone call, you realize this is being called up so to speak. It was a flood of emotions for sure. Ideas start to bang off the side of your head. I think this one was a little bit different in terms of the confidence level that I bring to this call up than I did to the first one. When I walked into a room with Wayne Gretzky, I was pretty confident at that point and time that I wasn’t as good as he was and I didn’t know if I could play in the National Hockey League. When I walked into the room yesterday for the pregame meeting, there was a sense of confidence that I could look these guys in the eyes. I was confident in what I was going to say and how I was going to say it and the message I was saying, and confident that I could to the job.
Did you get a sense that the players were looking for a new voice?
I don’t really have any interest in comparing what was going on four days ago and what’s going on now. One of the things I was looking for is the response of the players in terms of their body language and their eyes and their attentiveness when I speaking in the meeting with the message. I was very happy with their eyes. I was vey happy with their heads, a lot of nods in the right direction. I was very happy with the message I said. I said it how I wanted to say it. I had a good feeling about what was going on in that room. From my aspect, one more point would have made the day a lot better but I was pleased with how I said my message and how they received it. Are you a “players’ coach”?
I think the word “players’ coach,” the initial response is that it’s an easier time than a firm and demanding coach. I don’t think that applies to me. There will be expectations and there will be demands. I think every player needs to work on getting better in their foundation continually. That’s a continuing process. That’s something I want to the players to be involved in. I want our team to be involved in that. That’s something that I’m passionate about. There will be a respect factor. There will be a demand factor. There will expectations that we’re going to have passion, be energetic and this is going to be an enjoyable ride. To be in a competitive environment, to lay it on the line, to get better at what you do and to do it with a chance to compete at the highest level. It’s a chance to be a great team in the National Hockey League. I think that’s something they’re going to be passionate about as well. Will the term “players’ coach” come about? I think the chances are better yes than no but that’s not the intent coming out. The intent is to provide an environment and atmosphere where our players can get better, where our team can get better and we have a chance to become the team that we can become.
Do you have a chance to drop the hammer, so to speak?
I guess I was surprised this year when I was coaching in the American Hockey League, I got a few bits of information back from agents and other people that I was demanding and hard. I didn’t necessarily think that I was that demanding and that hard. They preface it in a good sort of way. I think there are expectations. Tyler Kennedy
can be a real good player. It’s his job to get there. It’s my job to help him. It’s my job to show him how to do that. It’s my job to point him in the right direction when he’s playing well and when he’s not playing well. That goes for everybody. I think it’s the job of a coach to know when you need a push, know when you need a kick and know when you need a pat on the back. That’s the process that I’m going to try to establish through the players and try to establish through the team. Any guys stick out in your career that told you stuff that you didn’t want to hear but did it in a manner that you respected?
I think there are definitely coaches I can draw upon in that regard. Andy Murray, on more than one occasion I left a meeting and didn’t know if he kicked me in the backside or patted me on the back. It’s one of those, “I think he just told me I played good five games ago but I think he just said I better play good tonight.” There was a push and a shove but also a “this is how you do it.” I left those meetings with a bit of respect knowing that he pushed me and prodded me but also gave me a chance to go out and do it. That is something that as a player at that point and time I said when I’m a coach, that’s how I want to be. As of right now I think that’s how I am, and I will be going forward.
How do you instill a sense of urgency into the team?
That’s a great question, it’s a difficult answer. I said to the players yesterday when I met them for the first time, “We don’t have the benefit of a training camp and 82 games. We don’t have a building of trust and relationship that we would go through for the first 20 games and training camp and build and build as a team,” which I think is a key part of building an atmosphere and a team and growing together. We don’t have that. It’s got to happen now. We talked about passion and energy, and Ray talked about passion and energy, and that needs to show up in how we come to the rink. That’s a challenge. It’s a great challenge. I’m real interest in life in having challenges that are this exciting and this promising. It’s a great opportunity, a great team, great players in there. It’s well within our abilities, well within our reach to turn this around right now. To me that’s exciting. It’s something that I can get energized about. It’s something that makes me look forward to coming to the rink tomorrow.
Is it harder to send a message to Crosby or Malkin than with the rest of the team?
I think it’s the challenge of coaching. I think that’s why there are good coaches and bad coaches and OK coaches. That’s the key of dealing with players and personalities, different people in different positions and different roles on the team. I believe that 10 years from now I’ll be a better coach than I am today. I also believe that the experiences that I’ve had in the past I’ll draw upon. I’ve played with good players. I’ve played with Paul Kariya, Luc Robitaille, Rob Blake. I can’t really say I played with Wayne Gretzky. It was a few games, I can’t really say that. But there were situations were I’ve talked to Paul Kariya and saw other players talk to each other and coaches talk to players. I’m going to draw upon all that. I can expect Crosby to get better as a player. I can expect him to be a part of what we’re doing here. I think he does expect that from himself as well. So we have the same expectations and it’s our job together to keep going forward and make this team as best as we can as quick as we can.
What kind of relationship do you have with the star players from your time at training camp?
I do feel fortunate that I’ve met pretty much everyone, with the exception of one or two guys. I’ve had conversations and had been on the ice. Michel, fortunately, allowed me to be on the bench on two different occasions at training camp. He was generous in allowing the coaches in Wilkes-Barre participate in training camp, do drills and run practices. I’ve had some experience which I’m thankful for. I’ve had practice with these guys and I’ve done practice with these guys and I think that’s fortunate for me. I don’t have to figure out where Hal Gill played and who he is, what he looks like. We’ve talked. I’ve already coached him a little bit, a tiny bit but that gave me some comfort walking into the room yesterday. When I shook hands and looked the guys in the eye for the first time yesterday, I knew them and they knew me. I think that is going to make this easier going forward. How do you run your practices?
If we were starting from the beginning of the year, my practices would be a lot like the games. We’re talking about fast paced, north-south, executing at a high tempo, at a high pace so that you can expect that when we step on the ice, you’ll know exactly how we’re going to play. I don’t believe you go through the motions or go at half speed or execute at half mast and then expect to draw upon that in the game. You’re going to draw upon it but it’s what you’re going to get. That’s how I view practices. Implementation of systems are done in practice and through your drills, not necessarily on the board. Your drills are designed so that when the players are going through them throughout the year, they’ll know going into the game that this is what we’re going to do systematically. Warm-up drills and different things are how we make adjustments on a game-to-game basis. You build habits about how you’re going to play with the drills that you do. So that’s how I approach practice. I know having watched Michel Therrien at practice, I learned something from the way they ran practices. It’s not against anything that’s happened here in the past but that’s how I view practice. Tomorrow when we warm up and tomorrow when we get going in practice, those won’t just be flow drills or shooting drills. They will be drills that have a definite purpose on what we’re trying to do going forward as a game plan and how we want to play as a team.