Sunday, January 24, 2010

Paging Dr.Boucher

Guy Boucher doesn't see himself as a hockey coach as much as he does a teacher. He thinks his role as head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs is to help young players learn to be better while teaching them how to win at the same time. Turns out, it's not just the young guys who think Boucher knows his stuff.

After last night's game, I listened to Mathieu Darche talk about Boucher and I was so impressed with what he had to say, I can't wait for Boucher to be the Canadiens coach some day. When asked how the Hamilton system compares with Montreal's, Darche said the two are completely different. He describes how Boucher emphasizes hard work from every player above Xs and Os.

"It's very new-age and I think it works. It's five men everywhere. It's not one or two guys here and there," says Darche.

Darche has a history with Boucher. Back in the days when the coach was a player, Boucher came down with a bizarre virus that blurred his vision, weakened his right side and gave him vertigo. Boucher says he went from thinking about nothing but hockey to wondering whether he'd even live. During the five years it took him to recover fully, it became clear he wouldn't play hockey again. Boucher thought about what he wanted to do in life, and he decided he wanted to teach other guys to be better hockey players. He joined the McGill Redmen as an assistant coach, and that's where he first crossed paths with Darche.

"He was there my sophomore year (in 1997) and I went from zero goals to 21 goals in 26 games," said Darche. "Guy was one of the big reasons why. He would stay after practice and work on my shot."

Darche isn't the only guy singing Boucher's praises. Philippe Lefebvre, who played for Boucher with the junior Drummondville Voltigeurs says Boucher helped him improve enough to land a rookie-camp invite from the Habs.

“Guy is the best coach I’ve ever had," says Lefebvre. "On one hand, he brings that psychology that can really help motivate you to be your best. He’s also a great strategist; he’s got a great system, which is sometimes a little complex, but it works,”

Sidney Crosby, who had Boucher as an assistant coach in Rimouski, loves him. (Boucher returns the feeling, using Crosby video to underline the importance of going to the net for goals to his current troops.) Ryan White and Tom Pyatt both gave props to the Bulldogs coach for preparing them for what they'd face in Montreal. Mathieu Carle said he'd learned more in a month under Boucher than he had in two previous years in Hamilton. PK Subban is having an outstanding rookie campaign with the 'Dogs, crediting the coach and his assistants for a lot of it. One of those assistants, Daniel Lacroix, says Boucher's secret to success is that he treats the players like people, not like parts of a machine.

“His philosophy is pretty clear, that we have to coach to get to know the players first,” says Lacroix. “As a philosophy from a head coach, not only does he say it, but he lives it on a day-to-day basis.”

Boucher confirms that approach. He says it's important to see each player as an individual and develop a relationship with him on a personal level. He believes a player will only respect and listen to a coach if he feels the coach is doing the same for him. At the same time, he rewards hard work above anything else. He insists players never take the easy way out and lets them know it if they try to do that.

So far, nobody can deny the success of Boucher's methods. The coach has a master's degree in sports psychology, as well as undergrad degrees in history, which he says teaches lessons about learning from the past, and engineering, which he thinks gives him an adavantage in analysing players' on-ice performances.

“All the movements that hockey players do — the torques that they do with shooting and their transfer of weight — basically, they are vectors,” Boucher said. “It has really helped me segment and break down movements of players.”

It all translates into a winning record that has pundits and analysts calling Boucher a coaching phenom. Last season he took Drummondville to first place and a Memorial Cup berth, with a remarkable 400% improvement in the team's record over the previous year. This year, he's got the Bulldogs, not the AHL's most talented team, sitting in first place in their conference and second in the league.

Boucher is getting lots of credit for saving Sergei Kostitsyn. He turned what looked to be a sure ticket out of Montreal into a renewed start for the kid, complete with improved attitude and better work habits. Now the coach will have to save Max Pacioretty.

Pacioretty is raw potential in a big frame. He can skate well, he's not afraid to be hit and he's willing to do what he's told. He just needs someone who can guide him and show him how to put his skills to their best use. He needs to be taught. That wasn't happening for him in Montreal.

After a promising start to the year, Pacioretty has looked more lost every month. He seems unsure about his role and where he should be on the ice. Red Berenson, his college coach at Michigan, said he wasn't sure Pacioretty was ready for professional hockey when he left school early last year. Berenson, another great teaching coach, knows what he's talking about. Pacioretty has the potential to be a really good NHL player and redeem the Habs' dismal first-round drafting record somewhat. But he needs someone to teach him how.

Lucky for him, and for the Habs, he couldn't have a better teacher than Guy Boucher. If the Habs win a Cup in the next decade, I think this guy could be behind the bench for it. And hopefully, Max Pacioretty will be one of the key contributors if that glorious day ever comes. With Boucher helping him, at least he's got a chance, which is something a lot of Habs prospects haven't had. Until now.


DB said...

One other item that I like about Boucher is that he will identify a successful NHL player that each of his players should study. The message to the players is here's a guy with a similar skill set to yours, and if you want to be as good as him you better learn what he does and how he practices.

I read somewhere he took this approach with Sergei and had him watch video of how Datsyuk plays and practices. This might explain why Sergei now kills penalties.

Patrick said...

I think that after PK Subban, Boucher is the guy that I'm the most looking forward to in Hamilton. Can't wait to have him up with the Habs, but I'm really satisfied now to have him actually make something with our future players too. Darche's comments make me interested in his 'System' too! Because I'm not all that trilled about The System right now.

If he can save MaxPac (who showed that he has the tools to be a good player, just doesn't know how to use them), I'll be all the more happy to have him there!

Anonymous said...

Boucher is certanly the best pickup Gainey has done for the Habs. One day, Gainey will probably be siting in is living room, watchin Boucher and the club win there 25 stanley cup ! He will smile and say to himself. At least i didn't do all things badly =)

Number31 said...

I love Boucher's system. It's basically "attack, attack, attack, and when you got nothing left attack some more". Also he's constantly coaching on the bench. During the ad break, the team gathers around him. He never backs down, he's always animated. Hell, he hates losing to a simple card game with his kids.

pfhabs said...

from one of his detractors I have to say it's one of Gainey's good moves in getting Boucher along with (cross-fingers that he continues) Pouliot

RS said...

Not everyone agrees that Red Berenson is a great coach. Kings' GM Lombardi was ripping Berenson and the U of Michigan program the other day for not doing much to prepare Jack Johnson. Basically he said that there wasn't any coaching at all at Michigan.

Raphaƫl P. said...

interesting post. would like to read more about Boucher.

Still I'm always worried that we (fans, commentators, journalists, bloggers) will over-hype him and once at an other level he hit's a wall. For his sake I hope he delivers....

J.T. said...

@RS: I suspect the problem with Jack Johnson, if there is one, may have actually been Jack Johnson. I think Mike Cammalleri, Andrew Cogliano, Marty Turco, Brendan Morrison, John Madden and lots of others would say they received good coaching at Michigan. And Johnson himself was quite upset with the Lombardi remarks, which the GM is now backtracking on.

RS said...

Well, Lombardi should be backpedalling, you shouldn't attack your own players or repected college coaches (even if what you say might be true)!

No doubt some good players have come through Michigan, I'm just pointing to the similarity between Johnson and MaxPac. Both talented, but very raw. Of course, Berenson himself pointed out that MaxPac wasn't ready for the NHL!

Most of these guys you mention (but not Cogliano) did stay in Michigan for four years, unlike Max . And most (again not Cogs) also worked their way (and learned and developed) through the minor leagues after college. Madden and Morrison also had the benefit of joining the Devils organization, a pretty good organization at developing their young players.

Maybe the bottom line is that MaxPac (like Gui) was rushed a bit.

DB said...

Boucher straightened-out Pouliot in only 3 games, so it will be interesting to see what he can do with Dags in 2 weeks and MaxPac for the rest of the season.

Okay, I really have no idea what influence, if any, Boucher had on Pouliot, but why shouldn't a Habs' fan build up a coaching prospect the way we build up other prospects. It's not like we'll jump all over him if he doesn't live up to our lofty expectations - just ask Lats or Price.

Anonymous said...

If Mr. Boucher has NHL ambitions, it would be hard to hold him back when the opportunity arrives but I don't think we should be in a big hurry to get him with the big club. If he is so good at developing young players, why not leave him with the farm team and compensate him accordingly? Dealing with seasoned, accomplished veterans with big egos is a different dynamic than dealing with young and hungry learning sponges who want to soak up instruction, so his skills may not necessarily transfer well to the next level without some adjustment.

The value of a having a guy like Boucher on the farm team seems important. In fact, I would argue that developing prospects is more important than drafting good raw material. This is certainly how Detroit keeps fielding strong teams without top five draft picks.

J.T. said...

@anon: Ironically, the person with least stated ambition for Boucher to coach at the NHL level is Boucher himself. I agree it's good for him and the players to learn the pro game together, and for him to have some time away from the pressure of the big league to try some things and develop his own strategies further. Ideally, you'd like to have him arrive in Montreal in the company of young players he's already helped mold and who respect him from their AHL or junior days.

As for Detroit, I disagree with the idea that they've done such a great job developing prospects. They lucked into drafting incredible talent in Datsyuk and Zetterberg in the later rounds of the draft. They brought in some good supporting players from Sweden, many of whom actually developed in the Swedish leagues, and they traded their draft picks for playoff help at the deadline for years. Now, when they have a couple of key injuries and they need help from the farm, it isn't there for them. Their young players aren't looking a whole lot better than Montreal's these days. Detroit is actually a bubble team this year and has as much chance of missing the playoffs as the Habs do.

Anonymous said...

@JT: Having Boucher arrive with a team of players he developed, as you suggest, would definitely work as they would be very loyal to him and he would certainly know their strengths and weaknesses. In 4-5 years he will probably be ready for a new challenge.
The Detroit debate: development or drafting? Drafting Datsyuk and Zetterberg was probably some luck, but also good European scouting. They also left Datsyuk and Zetterberg in their respective development leagues until they were 22. The Habs have already thrown Latendresse on the trash heap by 22, and they just might do the same with Carey Price. If they do, let's hope it works out as well as the Pouliot deal.