Three Candidates to Replace the Anaheim Ducks Coaching Staff

Head Coach Rikard Gronborg of ZSC Lions (Photo by RvS.Media/Monika Majer/Getty Images)
Head Coach Rikard Gronborg of ZSC Lions (Photo by RvS.Media/Monika Majer/Getty Images) /

Former 2x Stanley Cup winning head coach, and NCAA championship assistant coach, Red Gendron, once said “Let’s be honest, the team that gets off the bus with the best players usually wins.” This concept has been backed up in part by research into a “champion team versus a team of champions” and that hockey itself is a strong link game that lends itself to better players being on the ice more often resulting in wins. What the Anaheim Ducks don’t have right now are those “best” players; at least in comparison to the rest of the league.

From next season onwards, the Ducks will be getting younger and younger. This despite them already icing eight players aged 23 or younger this season. The incoming coach will be tasked to shape these young Ducks into the champions who get off the bus as the best players at the rink. They should be given the means to execute that charter and a time frame of three years to build them up.

The Anaheim Ducks’ highest-profile prospect and the linchpin of their future plans, Trevor Zegras, is currently 19-years-old presently, turning 20 next season. A three-year time frame would place him at 23-years-of-age and entering into his statistical prime years.

This time frame would give the Anaheim Ducks the chance to revaluate the coach at the time and either keep them on if they’re successful or bring in a different coach for when the winning would begin. However, I digress.

I’m going to cheat a little bit. Ciara Durant, the editor, tasked us with finding a replacement for Dallas Eakins should he be let go at some point this season or at the end of his contract. However, I want to replace the entire coaching staff (the video coaches too, but that’s too much for this one little section) and mold it with one image in mind.

Anaheim Ducks Head Coach: Rikard Gronborg

For the head coaching role, I want to look outside of the NHL and towards, perhaps the highest-profile international coach available. Rikard Gronborg has a storied history of successfully coaching teams built with champion players. Team Sweden has had a lot of success over the past half-decade with Mr. Gronborg as the bench boss.

This has been one of the rationales behind him not receiving an NHL role prior to now, alongside him primarily coaching tournaments and not full seasons of hockey. However, Mr. Gronborg took that criticism on board and moved his family to Switzerland in order for him to coach in the “toughest job in Europe.” The Swiss version of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the ZSC Lions. In doing so, he took a team in 10th place, and very little roster turnover, to the top of the standings (16-6-3 record) and an improvement of 28-goals.

The style he presents is perhaps the meta for the current NHL. A self-described “hybrid” style that incorporates the free-flowing high-skill aspects of European hockey and the physical brashness of the older North American systems. With hooking and holding largely a thing of the past, teams are now preaching a high-puck possession game and the Anaheim Ducks can really lean into that style of play given so many of their younger players excel in neutral zone transitional play.

Perhaps most importantly, Gronborg has a reputation for being willing to communicate with his players, both inside and outside of a work-related environment. Andreas Johnsson, then with the Maple Leafs (currently a New Jersey Devil), noted after the 2014 world junior championships, that he garnered respect from the players instantly.

His office door was always open to talk and he implemented player lead meetings on a monthly basis. There are some parallels in this manner of communication to those of Dan Bylsma when the Pittsburgh Penguins were winning chips. Gronborg, like Bylsma, gives the players a voice.

For today’s youth, being heard is perhaps more important than ever, and such a manner of coaching is far more likely to pay dividends than perhaps the demeanor of someone like the current Columbus coach, John Tortorella. Though as someone with a Bachelors’s degree in Communication, a Master’s degree in Management, and strong links to the Lions youth development program, it’s very likely Mr. Gronborg has adapted his process with this in mind.

Alongside that adaptation in communication, which is the fundamentals of coaching, Gronborg appears to be an advocate of implementing a data-driven approach to coaching. This doesn’t necessarily mean that parroting ”advanced” stats is going to be a big part of his coaching repertoire, but that he’ll push coaching cues with evidence that goes beyond the “eye-test” and goals for and/or against.

"“The thing about the numbers is that they have to be easily explainable, easy for us to understand, and easy for the players when they explain it. It’s always good to have evidence-based things when talking to players, it makes it easy to this is what we want from you.” –Rikard Gronborg"

There should be no doubt that hockey itself is a long way behind other sports in terms of data collection and analysis. One only has to listen to the Ducks broadcast continually talking about faceoff wins and how player X really put the effort in and “wanted” that goal, instead of maybe discussing the finer points of a 2-1-2 system and how it is the best fit for certain personnel.

The Anaheim Ducks themselves do not have a dedicated analytics department, despite many other teams around the league creating one. What they do have, is a director of high performance (Dr. Jeremy Bettle) who does have a history in analytics-driven sports. Hiring a coach such as Mr. Gronborg would go a long way towards forcing organizational change and bringing the Ducks into a brighter future.

Assistant Coach: Mike Schafer

For one of the assistant coaching roles, I’d like to look at Mike Schafer of Cornell University fame. Regularly credited as one of college hockey’s premier defensive coaches, Mr. Schafer’s teams routinely sit amongst the league leaders for goals against averages, which I personally find more interesting than his 11 championship games (ECAC tournament).

Following the Dallas Eakins tenure, the Anaheim Ducks have come off of a period of very spotty defensive hockey. There may be a cerebral system that has been implemented, however, no one, including the players, seems to know what it is. Bringing in a defensive coach would seem to be a strong idea for a young team that would still be searching for an identity.

That Mr. Schafer has a long history of working with young adults and achieving significant success, suggests that he has a knack for communicating with his charges and getting across his ideas. The Ducks will be getting younger over the next few years, and while many of the blueliners are established veterans, playing sound defense is a team effort.

The Anaheim Ducks forward group is likely to become very young over the next three seasons and developing their ability to play a strong defensive game will both help them transition into the offense during the regular season and to adapt to the lower scoring that typically is associated with playoff hockey.

Assistant Coach: Natalie Spooner

For the second assistant role, I’d like the Ducks to discuss bringing on board Canadian hockey star, Natalie Spooner. Yes, she’s still young and playing the game, but she’d bring a fresh approach that should resonate with the Anaheim Ducks youth movement.

In a lot of ways, teams often take on the demeanor of their coach. Coaches who rant and rave at the officials tend to have players who rant and rave at the officials. Coaches who are sarcastic and cutting, tend to develop players who are sarcastic and cutting. How this relates to Mrs. Spooner is that she is simply a charismatic ball of fun.

Back in 2011, the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association canvased 2000 players, asking them to rate six categories of coaching from important to least important. These were: Development, Enthusiasm, Fun, Winning, Fairness, and Knowledge. For these players, winning was the least important variable.

While it’s an important caveat to note that this was in junior hockey, it does bring to mind players who want to enjoy their experience. It’s a natural state of being that people who are having fun learn more efficiently and perform at a higher level. A state of being that Spooner certainly understands given her work with her own high-performance academy.

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It is important to note here that Natalie Spooner knows exactly what she is talking about. Anyone who’s listened to her break down and analyze play during any Sportsnet broadcast she’s been a part of understands that. There is a distinct difference here, however, between herself and many elite athletes.

Athletes who play at that high level know the game. What many struggle to do is explain the game. Many cannot differentiate between themselves and players of lesser talent. Mrs. Spooner is able to articulate her analysis of a situation that goes beyond the typical broadcast response of “player X efforted real hard.”

This ability to communicate is a boon for developing athletes. A somewhat hidden boon, however, is that the Anaheim Ducks are pretty much irrelevant on the national stage. They create no buzz about themselves, don’t really recruit big-name players, and don’t really go out and do anything out of the ordinary.

We can count on one hand the number of times GM Bob Murray has addressed the media. Spooner is a big name in women’s hockey and a charismatic ball of fun who could inject some real hype for the Ducks. They desperately need a face of the franchise and, while Gronborg would be the head coach and an excellent communicator in his own right, regular interviews with someone who exudes energy (and already has a solid social media following) would further help grow the Anaheim Ducks fan base.

A former assistant GM and executive in the NHL, Les Jackson, was once reported as saying “the NHL is as responsible for failing players as they are failing on their own.” It’s a cutting condemnation of the pro-development system after players are drafted and one the Ducks would be well aware of over recent years. I believe the coaching staff I’ve proposed can change that within the NHL system to some degree and set the Ducks on the path to the Stanley Cup.

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