They were looking for a coach whose resume fulfilled certain criteria, with experience at the top of that list. That’s where the conversations with Jacques Martin began a few months ago.
It’s easy to see why – just look at what Martin has done in this league. He is a former NHL head coach with St. Louis, Ottawa, Florida and Montreal (last coaching with the Canadiens in the 2011-12 season) and had stints as an assistant with Chicago, Quebec and Colorado. He won gold as an associate coach with Team Canada at the 2002 Olympics and returned in the same capacity for the 2006 Olympics. Martin even filled a dual role as general manager and head coach with the Panthers for two seasons.
Overall, Martin ranks seventh all-time among NHL coaches in games coached (1,294) and 10th all-time in wins (613). Experience may as well be his middle name. Adding someone like Martin to Pittsburgh’s relatively young staff would be a tremendous coup, and fortunately the team was able to do so as Bylsma and Penguins general manager Ray Shero announced his hire on Friday.
“(Adding a third assistant coach is) something we’ve talked about over the last couple years, and we hadn’t found the right name until this particular thing with Jacques came about in terms of the criteria we were looking for to add to our staff,” Shero said. “Luckily for us, Jacques decided to join us. From Dan and Todd and Tony’s standpoint, I know they’re excited for the opportunity to work with Jacques.”
Though Shero has known Martin for many years as they worked together in Ottawa while Shero was assistant GM and Martin was head coach, Bylsma was the one who initially brought his name to Shero as a candidate to join the staff.
“The expertise of Jacques, his experience in the game at many different levels, is really what we want to add to our team and to our club,” Bylsma said. “Jacques is going to be adding to our team with that experience, not just on the offensive side of the puck but on the defensive side of the puck and really being a support role for our group – bringing his experience and his vast years in the game in different situations.”
Martin is looking forward to adding onto his wealth of knowledge with a new club.
“To have an opportunity to work with a great organization, great people and a great coaching staff, a team that’s won a Stanley Cup before and a great nucleus of core players – I think for me, that’s exciting,” he said. “I think there’s many challenges in coaching, but just to be part of an excellent organization and to be part of an excellent coaching staff and have an opportunity to contribute with some of my experiences in the past and also for me to learn from people like Dan and Tony and Todd, to be in a new environment, and have an opportunity to coach some great players. I had that pleasure in Ottawa with Daniel Alfredsson and also representing Canada on several occasions to coach some great athletes. It’s always challenging and rewarding to be associated with players of that stature.”
FIRST OF ALL, WHY A THIRD ASSISTANT COACH?
About half of the teams in this league have three assistants on their staff. With so much to do in a full season, depth isn’t just important to have on the ice – it’s crucial to have off the ice as well, especially with the salary cap limiting what can be done in certain areas.
As Shero explained, “I think when you’re looking at the league, we’ve been in a salary cap league for eight years or so. There’s other areas in which you try to improve your team off the ice and this is just another avenue of trying to do that, add to our coaching staff, to make us a better team. That’s simply what we’re trying to do.”
A hire like this, said Shero, is also a message to the players that the organization is always looking for ways to improve where they can. With Martin now in Pittsburgh, two of the Penguins’ three assistant coaches have NHL head coaching experience while Reirden has AHL head coaching experience. That’s the epitome of depth right there.
“Trying to make us as good as we can possibly be, I think that’s important to do,” he said. “It’s a message also to the players that, again, we’re trying to make this team as good as it can be. This is another step of trying to do that.”
Bylsma elaborated, saying “We’ve always looked at situations where we need to get better at and improve upon. We certainly did that after this year. We had an outstanding year. We won a lot of hockey games, won our division and got into the playoffs and advanced to the third round. We didn’t end up being able to penetrate and beat and score against the Boston Bruins. They did a very good job both in net and with their team defense and winning that series, keeping us off the board when we were at a strength in that regard. Two years ago, we didn’t like what happened with our team and how we played defense, what happened to us in the playoffs against Philadelphia, so we’ve always looked to get better in certain areas.
“We’ve been looking and wanted to add another assistant coach to our team for a number of years. We’ve had this conversation with our coaching staff, Todd and Tony and Ray Shero, but it wasn’t just any person, it wasn’t just any coach. Certainly with the experience and the type of coach that Jacques is and what his experiences are both during games with his teams, the players that he’s coached and some of the experiences that he’s had is what we feel like we can add to our team with Jacques and bring that to our team and help make us a better team.”
In addition to that experience, Bylsma is looking for Martin to provide a different perspective.
“We want someone with maybe a little bit different look at things from a different perspective and certainly Jacques had them from various points of his career. He’s going to be bringing that to our team and adding in those areas. Whether that’s the support of Todd and Tony in their roles or whether that’s on the defensive side of the puck, Jacques is going to be able to bring that expertise to our team and add in those areas.”
WHAT WILL BE THE ASSISTANTS’ ROLES?
Bylsma said the staff is getting together at the end of August to go through their respective responsibilities and roles, and they will flesh them out in training camp.
“I certainly think in training camp we’re going to be seeing exactly how that plays out in terms of what those responsibilities are, what suits our staff the best and what’s best for our team,” Bylsma said. “Really, that’s the important aspect of adding a coach like Jacques Martin to our coaching staff. His expertise, his experience, what he brings to the game and to our team is certainly going to be something we have when we come to training camp and that we’ll be experimenting with in terms of where that suits us the best.”
Bylsma did say Reirden (power play) and Granato (penalty kill) will retain their special teams roles, but that doesn’t mean Martin won’t help out in those areas.
“We talk about the vast experience that Jacques has had in several different teams as a head coach, as an assistant coach,” Bylsma said. “He’s going to be in a support role for those situations, but there are other avenues of our team, both sides of the puck, offensively and defensively, that we all share as a coaching staff and we’re looking to benefit from that by bringing Jacques on.”
Martin said he is just fine with being in a supporting role, even though through much of his career he had been cast as the lead. To illustrate his point, he spoke about his relationship with mentor and Hall of Fame coach Roger Neilsen.
“Roger happened to be one of my assistant coaches at the end of his career and he was tremendous,” Martin said. “I learned a great deal from Roger. I don’t see that as any issue. I think I’ve always looked at coaching, whether I’m the head coach or the assistant coach, as teamwork, working together. Yes, we have different responsibilities, but I always felt that I wanted my assistant coaches to be strong-minded, strong people that expressed themselves. For me, I think I can relate to what Roger brought to my coaching style and to our team in Ottawa when he worked as an assistant. Hopefully I can bring some of those same contributions, same knowledge and commitment to them and the rest of our staff and the Pens organization.”
Shero said that team-first mentality is another valuable asset Martin will be bringing to the Penguins.
“What’s important to me is Jacques is always about the team,” Shero said. “It’s about teamwork, and that’s what he’s bringing to Pittsburgh.”