MLHS’s Michael Stephens conducted an in-person interview with Steve Spott, head coach of the Toronto Marlies, at the Mastercard Centre earlier this week. Spott touched on a wide variety of Marlies-centric stuff, including the biggest challenges facing the team headed into the new season and the opportunities the Leafs prospects will be embarking on in the 2013-14 campaign.
Here’s a handy list of links to all the other Summer Interviews:
Michael Stephens: As a Toronto boy you must be excited to be back here coaching for the Marlies. What’s the experience been like so far?
Steve Spott: It’s been great. I feel that the people here in the organization have been first class. Just being back in the city, feeling the vibe of the Leaf Nation is exciting. Being a boy from Toronto, being in this building and being around it now is humbling and I’m really excited for it.
MS: They say the Toronto Marlies is the 31st best coaching job in hockey. What are you going to do to make the most of this opportunity? What are you looking forward to?
SS: Making the jump to pro hockey is something I think every coach aspires to do. And to leave the situation that I left, Kitchener was very unique. The way they treat their staff and their players is first class. Coming to Toronto it’s much the same but at the pro level. But ultimately for me it’s about winning and it’s about developing players. I think we’ve done a good job in Kitchener developing our players and here it’s no different. We’re going to be graded not only on winning but on the amount of players Randy Carlyle gets to work with. So, that’s a great challenge.
MS: Speaking of development, you’ve coached Joshua Leivo in Kitchener, who’ll be making the jump to the Marlies this year. Have you talked with him about what it’s going to take to make the leap to the next level of development?
SS: Yeah, we have talked. Coming out of junior hockey it’s about learning to be a pro every day. Josh has to work on little things: shift length; training every day; eating right every day is something he has to develop. But being around good character people is going to make him better. We are going to have to make sure our veteran players are going to be like surrogate coaches for all of our young guys.
MS: Speaking of veteran players, there really aren’t that many on the roster. You’re seeing a lot of guys who are recent grads from the OHL ranks. Was that a big reason why MLSE wanted you to be coach of the Marlies? You’ve seen about a dozen of these guys for 3-4 years.
SS: I think that it was a staple of the interview, where we talked about the familiarity. Not only with players I’ve coached in junior, but being a guy who played in the NCAA and now have coached in the Ontario Hockey League. I will be able to relate to college players as well. Then, through Hockey Canada I’ve dealt with international players. So I like to think that my war chest is where it needs to be to help develop the players and give them the comfort to come in and talk to me when times are tough.
MS: What’s the biggest challenge for you going from Junior to the AHL?
SS: Grinding the players. And I think that’s where Gord [Dineen] and Derek [King] will be important. You grind your guys pretty hard in Junior every day. Here, there’ll be days where you’ll have to lay off and give days off. So I think trusting your staff, and giving the boys a day off so they’re rested for the right time will be the biggest challenge.
MS: You’ve coached Jerry D’Amigo before in Kitchener, and he’ll be fighting for a spot with the Leafs in camp. Where do you see him fitting with the Marlies versus the Leafs?
SS: It’s finding your role and playing it as well you can. For Jerry, he’ll probably find himself getting a lot more power play time this year with me than maybe he’s had in the past. But if he’s going to play for the Leafs, he’ll probably be used as a penalty killer. So he’ll have to choose what skills he wants to focus on. If he wants to play for Randy he’ll need to learn his role.
MS: You mentioned earlier that you wanted to ice a fast team. Do you think you have the personnel to do it?
SS: Our backend is going to be pretty mobile. But (generally) I don’t want our players sitting back. If they are going to be viewed by the Maple Leafs management on a daily basis, I want those people to see what these players can do, and they’re gonna do it with speed.
MS: How often are you speaking with Dave Poulin?
SS: Every day.
MS: What about? Roster decisions? Strategy heading into the season?
SS: Right now it’s about our players, primarily. Obviously that’ll grow once we have our team fully together. And then it will turn to player progress. We’re going to do player evaluation after every game and he’ll be a big part of it.
MS: I just saw Colton Orr walk by, and Nazem Kadri is on the ice. How important is it to have everyday NHLers at the early stages of camp around the prospects?
SS: Hugely important. It’s great for the prospects to see how they train, how they work, how they eat. So that’s a part of it. But now, for a player like Tyler Biggs, having access to video of David Clarkson is going to be great for him. We can show him Clarkson clips and he can say what David’s doing to be the player that he is today. And hopefully Tyler can replicate that.
MS: How often do you guys use video in this way?
SS: A lot.
MS: And do you pick a player as an archetype, break down the video, and say, ‘play like him?’
MS: So, would Jay McClement be a guy for D’Amigo to model his game after?
SS: McClement is definitely a guy we want D’Amigo to model his game around. Crescenzi also. For David Broll, Lucic in Boston. It’s about teaching. I was a teacher by trade for five years and it’s about trying to give these players every resource to be successful. And I think a lot of these guys are visual learners now; they need to see. It’s a big part of what I do.
MS: You’ve coached Morgan Rielly internationally a few times now, and you’ll probably get a chance to coach him again next spring. What are your thoughts on him?
SS: Well… his offensive play, his skating ability and passing ability; I think they’re well renowned. I think it’s responsibility. That’s the biggest change in his game. Now you feel safe when he’s out on the ice. He’s been eliminating risk out of his game. [He understands that] One point can mean a playoff spot or home ice, and he’s taking the steps to round out the game.
MS: What do you think is going to be the Marlies biggest chall–
SS: Scoring. Definitely scoring. Our biggest challenge is going to be up front. We’ve lost some players to Toronto who were world class players. So now we’re giving a lot of new guys who haven’t had that opportunity – like the D’Amigo’s of the world – to have that opportunity in an offensive role. Saying that, we also understand that we don’t have Nazem Kadri anymore, a player with things you just can’t teach. So I think it’s going to fall on guys like Greg McKegg and Sam Carrick. These are guys that are going to get a lot more offensive chances, I think, than maybe they have in years past.
MS: How does this affect the defensive make up?
SS: Well, I think the D are going to be a big part of our attack. They’re going to be pretty active from the points.
MS: Who do you think will take over as Captain?
SS: Through team building, that will sort itself out. I can’t say there’s a clear cut Ryan Hamilton in that dressing room yet. So that’ll work itself out in the future.
MS: Are you motivating certain players to fight for a letter? Possibly someone like McKegg needs to take a step forward.
SS: Absolutely, I agree. Yeah, all of the guys that are coming to their third or fourth camps, those are the guys that have to take not only on-ice leadership, but off-ice leadership. Before games, saying the right things, becoming surrogate coaches to the other players in the room. He’s [McKegg] a guy who really comes to mind that’ll have to step up in that area.
MS: The Marlies have won the North Division two seasons in row. Are you excited, or nervous to be stepping into that? Seems like a tough act to follow.
SS: Well, everyone’s telling me it’s going to be a struggle, but the expectation for coaches doesn’t change. We want to make sure that we’re in contention. We’re going to give an opportunity to our young players early, but then it’s going to be up to them to take advantage of that.
MS: Have Derek King and Gord Dineen helped in getting you prepared for the season? What’s the next step?
SS: They have been. We’ll see [Leafs video coach] Chris Dennis tomorrow. We hired a new video coach, Mark Phalon, from Northeastern. So we’ll meet now as a staff and get our technical plan in place.
MS: You also hired a new goalie coach
SS: Piero Greco, yeah.
MS: What can you tell me about him?
SS: Passionate, hard working. He’s very demanding of his goaltenders: he expects perfection. He takes a lot of pride in his work and expects the same of those around him.
MS: What do you think his impact will be on a guy like Garret Sparks?
SS: He knows Garret from junior, we saw him a lot when he was in Guelph. I’m sure they’ll get off on the right foot. I try to give people as much autonomy as possible and I think Piero will be a great mentor for Sparksy.
MS: Have you been able to figure out a roster in your head, or are you waiting till the end of September when you’ll know about Holzer or Brennan.
SS: Well, I’ve got a wish list, yeah, and Smitty’s [Trevor Smith] on it too. Sure, we’ve got depth charts, but ultimately it’s about if they’re able to play for Randy. So, for me it’s wait and see.
MS: How often do you speak with Randy?
SS: Not often. Maybe when he gets into town we’ll have a little bit more of a chance to dialogue. Right now it’s mostly been Chris Dennis from the Leafs and Gord and Derek. My guys.
MS: So you’ve been given a lot of autonomy to do your job?
SS: Dave Poulin said from day one that I’d have full autonomy to make those decisions. And that there’d be no secrets. If there’s going to be a player transaction, or maybe a player is going to be kept out of a certain game, that everybody is kept in the loop. I can tell you, more autonomy than I expected coming in. Having been a general manager and coach, I appreciate that.
MS: Who’s a guy that might be flying under the radar now, but you think could be poised for a breakout season? A lot of people have Petter Granberg penciled in there.
SS: Granberg’s a guy who just came off of the World Championships. I think he might have a hard time flying under the radar here. But I’m more excited in the Leivos and Crescenzis and McKeggs, seeing those kids develop into their own.