[This article originally appeared in the Jan. 14 print issue of St. Louis Game Time.]
You, good sir, are definitely in the catbird seat these days. With firing of Andy Murray and giving you the title of ‘interim' in front of head coach, the Blues have put you (and themselves) in a classic win-win situation. From the Blues' perspective, they have set themselves up to look like geniuses. If you pull a Dan Bylsma and turn this group of whiny, underperforming millionaires into a hard-working, fighting, scoring cohesive unit, then they are the smartest men in hockey for seeing your potential and giving you the job.
If, on the other hand, you become just another droning voice that the athletes decide to tune out while they use their high-speed phones to check their swelling bank accounts online, then the team has an easy out as well. You are, after all, just the interim guy. They only expected you to hold down the job in the interim while they took the rest of the season to see what other notable coaches become available to be hired. As the interim guy, your interim period expires and you go back to the AHL to continue to grow the next generation of too-highly paid, spoiled entertainers who will grace us all with their presence soon enough.
It's win-win for the management and it's win-win for you too. You're either the next big thing as an NHL coach or you got some great NHL experience before heading back to the AHL to await your next big league opportunity. My advice to you is to take advantage of it. Pull out all the stops and make this team look better than it is for the next three months. Even if the Blues send you back to Peoria, some other NHL team will likely give you a shot. And trust me, coaches seem to do a lot better coaching teams after they leave St. Louis. Just ask Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Jacques Demers and Joel Quenneville. Don't cry too long if it doesn't work out here; you'll be just fine.
As for a bit of the day-to-day advice, I don't have much, Coach. I like to think I have a handle on how this game should be played, but I'm having a hard enough time helping to coach a Mite team to wins this year, so I'm gonna leave the X and O business to you. But I do have one bit of advice for you regarding your team. I'm pretty big into the motivational side of the game and a big believer in the idea that strong leadership and team cohesiveness can push a team to overachieve.
That said, you're in charge of that room and those players now. Your current captain was elected by a vote of his peers. I have never heard of any organization that has had success when leadership is determined by a popularity contest. If Eric Brewer is not taking charge of that locker room and carrying out your plan, then I would argue that it's time to take away that captaincy. You need someone strong in that locker room who will make sure that your plans and guidance are being followed by the players. Judging by the fact that everyone is openly admitting that the players ‘tuned out' Andy Murray over the last few months suggests that the Brewerbot 9000 might not be the strongest leader in that locker room.
In the military, if a leader isn't following the orders of his superiors, no matter how unpopular they might be, that is considered insubordination at the least and mutiny at the worst. If a captain in the military had done what this captain did to his coach, the military guy would be stripped of his rank and his command. It might be time to consider a move like that and install a guy that will be a leader for you, even if it means he's not always the most popular guy in the room.
Along those same lines, you might want to watch your back, Coach. That room of smiling players are a group of coach killers and you'd be wise to never forget that. Everyone in there short of Derek Armstrong had a hand in getting Andy Murray fired. And more than a few of them quit on Mike Kitchen and helped him get fired, too. In fact, there are two guys in that room who were around when Joel Quenneville got the same treatment that Murray did and wound up with the short haircut.
I'm not saying don't trust anyone, Coach. I'm just saying don't trust anyone too much.
If you're going to make this a permanent position, Coach, you're going to have to evolve. It's the hardest trick in the book and the reason that most coaches have a certain shelf-life in this league. But you're going to have constantly be changing and adapting. We like to say around here that we'll find time for sleep when we're dead. It's not the healthiest choice in the world, but it definitely keeps us from stagnating. I'm sure this is nothing new for you, but the added element in the NHL is that you're not just trying to out-think and evolve quicker than your opponents, but you also have to out-think and evolve quicker than your own players. In the AHL those guys will do whatever you say because they know they have to go through you to get to the NHL. In the NHL, all these guys have to do is out-last you.
Evolve, out-think, motivate, win. Do these things and we'll gladly rename this place from the DrinkScotch to the House of Payne. If you can succeed it'll be more than a cute turn of phrase, it'll be a message to your players and a warning to your visitors. We hope it happens.
Good luck, Coach. We're pulling for you.
-Sean "like people still write letters" Gallagher