It's no wonder the players on the Tampa Bay Lightning have respected and responded to Jon Cooper, now in his second full season as head coach. They can look behind their bench and know the guy standing there was a great player in his time, a four-year letterman at Hofstra University . . . in lacrosse.
And it's far from a shock that the Anaheim Ducks have gotten deep into the conference finals this season because they have a coach in Bruce Boudreau who played for 20 years, all but 141 games in the minors, then needed 15 years as a minor-league coach before getting his shot in the NHL. This is his eighth season in the NHL and the first time he has gotten a team beyond the second round of the playoffs.
If you plumb the resumés of the other two coaches whose teams are still alive in the Stanley Cup playoffs, you also find Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers, who was out of coaching for more than two full seasons not that long ago and had to claw his way back starting with the Prince Edward Island Rockets. And you find Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks, whose coaching career was mostly undistinguished until he happened to find himself with the best roster in the NHL. Quenneville was with St. Louis for all or part of eight seasons and with Colorado for three seasons. His teams there got out of the second round just once. In Chicago, he has won two Stanley Cups.
Did all of these guys get smarter or better at their jobs or become transcendent leaders in these most recent stops along the road? Probably not. More likely is that they got good players who were willing to accept the most basic tenet of the game: Winning hurts. Professionals can look around a locker room and decide on a given team whether that bargain is worth it. Coaches can lend a hand to that process, but the players decide.
Dave Hakstol, the Flyers' new coach, arrives with a great college record and not much else. It was considered by some a gutsy choice made by general manager Ron Hextall in getting a coach with no professional experience. In truth, that's not what will decide whether Hakstol is a success. He's probably a pretty good coach who knows his hockey, but so were Ken Hitchcock, John Stevens, Peter Laviolette and Craig Berube, the four coaches who immediately preceded him in this job.
Hakstol says he wants his team to play with more speed and he wants the defensemen to get more involved in transitioning the puck up the ice. But it isn't as if Berube didn't say the same thing for most of his two seasons as coach. The pace required to win in the current NHL is obvious, almost as obvious as the inability of the Flyers' recent rosters to approach that pace. With the same level of players, Hakstol will have the same results as Berube.
Choosing a college coach isn't what will define Hextall's courage. He could have chosen a Labradoodle and won the same number of Stanley Cups if he doesn't have the guts to defy owner Ed Snider (or at least fool him) with a plan that will require a patient rebuilding of the roster. Snider is still wed to the patch-and-fill philosophy that kept the franchise from becoming relevant on a long-term basis under general managers Bob Clarke and Paul Holmgren. If that doesn't change, then the coach will. Again.
From here, it looks like Hextall is savvy enough to pull off the most difficult part of the job, and it wasn't picking a coach. What we've learned over the years is that almost nothing matters less to the success and failure of a hockey team than the identity of the coach.
Take a look at the four coaches still standing. One guy (Cooper) finished law school and worked as a public defender before drifting into coaching. Another (Boudreau) had a fleeting on-screen part in Slap Shot as he grinded through yet another minor-league playing season. Then there's the guy (Vigneault) whose own modest career ended with the Montana Magic, which is a long way from anywhere. And, of course, the coach (Quenneville) who was probably getting his last shot in the NHL before hitting the lottery in Chicago.
Coaches don't change cultures in the NHL. It isn't about the coach. Players create the culture and they are the ones who decide whether it will rise or fall. The rest is just yelling from behind the bench and putting the cones on the ice at practice.