Ken Hitchcock joined Leafs Lunch to talk about the coaching challenges brought on by the new 3-on-3 overtime rule, the impact he thinks Mike Babcock will have on the Leafs this season, and more.
Bryan Hayes: We were having a conversation with Matt Stajan actually, and we were talking about how Stajan [is] a really smart player — maybe not the fastest guy in the world, but he gets the job done because of his smarts. Noodles was throwing out that conversation: Would you rather a guy with blazing speed who isn’t the smartest player in the world, or a guy who maybe isn’t as fast but is loaded with hockey smarts? As a coach, what is your preference?
Ken Hitchcock: Well, it’s a league of speed now, but to me hockey sense is everything. If the game can slow down in a player’s head, he’s going to make good plays at the right time more often than not. I would say hockey sense, but hockey sense is a little bit different for its different aspects. Having hockey sense and not being very competitive doesn’t help you because you kind of need the game slowed down so you can compete. When you get those guys who see the ice well, and then have really good competitive instincts, that’s like gold. Those players can play a long time.
Jamie McLennan: I was watching last night, on your website, the behind-the-scenes look of the coaching staff meeting. One topic that came up, and you were quite adamant in discussing it with your staff, was the three-on-three overtime and how that’s obviously going to get you guys points and change the game a little bit. Can you elaborate on your thought process and how you guys will view that moving forward?
Ken Hitchcock: What happened was — we had the prospect stuff in July. We scrimmaged the kids the first day. It was 4 on 4, and there wasn’t a scoring chance in 20 minutes. It was, quite frankly, boring. So, the next day we said, “why don’t we try this thing three on three like it was going to happen in the NHL? Let’s change ends, let’s have it similar to the second period and what’s going to happen in overtime.” There were seven goals scored in the span of fifteen minutes. If you were looking at five-minute periods, the games were all over in a minute. What was really amazing – none of the goals were in-zone goals. They were all little mistakes on changes, little changes on trying to get off the ice, a guy literally stumbling coming out of the gate, and they were all made on odd-man rushes. Then, we started talking about strategies. The strategies are so deep on this because how you get your players on and off the ice is going to be critical. Then, we started talking to guys, and some of the guys in the American League; where they place their players on the bench and where they change from on the bench became really critical. We’re going to put it in training camp. We’re going to put it in kind of every day for a little bit just to get a really good read. If it’s anything like the prospect games were, and what I just saw a couple times in Traverse City, it doesn’t look like the game is going to go very long before there’s an unbelievable scoring chance.
Jeff O’Neill: So you’re guaranteeing me, Hitch, that you can’t come up with some kind of system to turn this into – because I said, “someone is going to come up with a way to make this boring and some kind of defensive system.” You’re going to guarantee me that can’t happen?
Ken Hitchcock: You’re going to have completely different systems in the D zone. Some guys are going to play man on man, some guys are going to play zone, some guys are going to play like they are on the PK. I’m not sure how much you’re going to get in zone. You can’t stop what’s going on on the ice. We’ve got a goalie in Jake Allen who can come out to the top of the circles and handle pucks. The inclusion of the goalie is going to give you odd man rushes. I just don’t see anyway that you can prevent 2-on-1s from happening. I think there’s going to be a lot of odd man rushes, which is going to be exciting for the fans. The long change is everything. The long change puts you in a really tough spot getting your players on and off the ice.
O’Neill: Are you automatically going to have a defenceman out there with every unit? Have you thought about that at all?
Ken Hitchcock: Yeah, we’ve got the three guys – Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk and Bouwmeester, all who are really smart, fluid-skating guys who can really move. I would almost guarantee you it’s going to be two forwards and one defenceman 90% of the time. The other thing we talked about was that this is going to force defencemen into taking faceoffs also. Depending on how a team sets up on a faceoff play, you might even have defencemen taking d-zone faceoffs here a little bit.
Hayes: Noodles mentioned this piece that’s up on the website stlouisblues.com called the Coaches’ Blueprint. It’s an all-access thing, you and the coaches kind of roundtabling it. That’s where this three on three discussion went public. I think this is a great idea. As a fan, I’m always seeking more access. I love the idea of getting behind the scenes and having players and coaches mic’d. Where do you stand on that, and how far are you willing to go with it?
Ken Hitchcock: Well, I think, first of all, what was on the cutting room floor – thank God it’s on the cutting room floor. I think you have to do this stuff. I think it is access that people want. I think it is knowledge that people want. If they’re going to invest their money with you, and invest with the team emotionally and financially, you need to give them the access. You don’t want to get into critiquing players around people; you know, the closed-door stuff that goes on between coaches and players and stuff like that. People want information; they want knowledge. Quite frankly, we owe it to them. Especially here in the United States – the game sells itself in Canada – you’ve got to sell the game and you’ve got to work hard to sell the game. Allowing people to have access is a great way of doing it. It was really fun doing it. [On] your first day, you’re a little bit apprehensive because there’s five-six cameras getting different angles and stuff like that, but after the first day I think we were comfortable with doing it. I think if it helps our fans and helps people understand how we think, it does nothing but good.
Hayes: How do you think Mike Babcock will handle it up here in Toronto?
Ken Hitchcock: I think he’s setting you guys all up. I think his team is going to do a lot better than people think. He’s got it set up for great work ethic. He has attention to detail [with] the way he’ll get players to focus on a system. He’s going to end up coaching a team and building a team that’s very much “sum of parts.” I really think that he’s going to surprise people with how competitive he can make this team immediately, just by the way he can organize things, the way he can just plough through areas to get a work ethic as part of the fabric of the team. I think he’s going to do a hell of a job there because he’s the type of guy that will not let anything slip and he won’t allow the players to let anything slip. When you’ve got at team that everybody’s talking about kind of in an underdog role, I think he’s going to do a great job with it.