Friday, April 6, 2012

Coaching matchup is intriguing

The hockey gods work in mysterious ways. They really do.
How else to explain that two coaches who may well have been working together in the NHL are about to go head-to-head tonight in Portland? If only the roll of the dice had been different . . .
The Kamloops Blazers and Portland Winterhawks open a best-of-seven WHL second-round set-to tonight at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland.
And, yes, it’s true. Guy Charron, the Blazers’ head coach, and Mike Johnston, the general manager and head coach of the Winterhawks, may well have ended up on the coaching staff of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings.
Johnston was part of head coach Marc Crawford’s staff with the Vancouver Canucks from 1999 to 2006. When that run ended, Johnston followed Crawford to Los Angeles where they hooked up again as head coach and associate coach. That lasted for two seasons before the Kings decided to blow it up and start over.
Johnston promptly applied for the head-coaching position and there are those in the hockey business who feel he came close to getting it. The Kings, though, eventually settled on Terry Murray and we all know how that turned out.
In the meantime, Charron was working with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. First, he was an assistant coach, then the interim head coach, following the firing of Craig Hartsburg, and then as an assistant coach again, this time under Bryan Murray.
When Charron was in Anaheim and Johnston was in Vancouver, the two became familiar with each other, not on a social level, but on a coaching level.
They both had come through the Hockey Canada coaching mill and had attended coaching seminars together, so they certainly were aware of each other. But they had never worked together.
Had decisions been made differently in Los Angeles, though, who knows how things would have turned out?
Johnston says he “hadn’t looked that far ahead” in terms of putting together a coaching staff but it’s fair to say that Charron was on his radar. Johnston does admit that “I have always respected Guy as a top coach and would have explored that option.”
As for Charron, he allows that “we may have worked together.”
That same summer of 2009, Johnston signed on with the Winterhawks; in November, Charron took over as the Blazers’ head coach.
Tonight, they will be working the opposing benches in a series that continues Saturday and then comes to Kamloops for games on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Charron is looking forward to the challenge, if for no other reason than he hasn’t been able to figure out Johnston.
Asked after a practice this week if he gets excited over coaching matchups, Charron replied: “I think you do. As coaches you have to. Once you’ve done your work at practice and everything else, it’s basically the management of the bench, having the right people out there.”
With all of the video that is available these days, coaches spend more time in front of TV sets than One Tree Hill aficionados. Coaches are looking for anything that might give them an edge, no matter how small.
Charron, who has been the head coach here since Nov. 23, 2009, knows that when he faces Vancouver, Giants head coach Don Hay will keep going to his best players.
“I know (Hay) double-shifts guys a lot,” Charron says, recalling that in a first-round series two years ago, Hay had “(Brendan) Gallagher on the ice every second shift.”
Charron knows that when he’s up against Ryan Huska and the Kelowna Rockets there will be a lot of line-matching involved.
But when the opposition is provided by Johnston and the Winterhawks, well, Charron has watched and watched and . . .
“Obviously, a lot of coaches are going to play their best players,” Charron says with a shrug. “He’s got a crop of good players so I expect them to be used in a lot of key situations.”
As for line-matching, Charron says, “I don’t know. He’s never had to match too much. I haven’t seen him trying to match to what we have.”
Just last week, the Winterhawks swept Huska’s Rockets from the first round. In Game 4 in Kelowna, Johnston didn’t use his fourth line a whole lot. That, however, may have been more a case of wanting to make sure the series ended right then and there.
Charron says that in a lot of instances a coach “reads the game.” This likely was a case of a coach reading a series.
The Blazers’ coaching staff eschews line-matching in favour of matching defencemen. Which is why Austin Madaisky and Tyler Hansen will see a lot of Ty Rattie, Sven Baertschi and Marcel Noebels, Portland’s high-flying troika, starting tonight.
And what does Johnston expect to see over the next few days?
“When you look at it,” he told reporters earlier this week, “it was almost an even series over the course of the (season).”
Yes, it was. The Blazers and Winterhawks each won twice, with each team scoring 14 goals.
“You look at the depth of the teams, the players, the personnel, what happened in the games, and it’s very, very close between the two teams,” Johnston continued. “There’s not much of a difference between the two teams.”
Portland defenceman William Wrenn, the team captain, pretty much summed up things when he told Kris Anderson of the Portland Tribune: “Skill level in my opinion will be about the same. It’s just going to come down to will.”
Will . . . like, will one coach manage his bench better than the other?

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