Co-Coaches for Devils: Madness or Genius?

After firing Peter DeBoer on Friday, the Devils remained very hush-hush about who would succeed him on the bench. In today’s day of social media and instant news, it’s a small miracle that the Devils were able to keep it all under wraps considering what they were conjuring up. This morning, the Devils dropped this bombshell:

Not only will the Devils have co-coaches, but Lamoriello will be on the bench at the same time at first. Despite this being seen as a very unconventional method of coaching in the NHL, it has actually been done before with great success in hockey.

Anatoli Tarasov & Arkady Chernyshev: Co-Coaches of the Legendary Red Army

After World War II, Anatoli Tarasov was tasked with creating the Russian hockey school, and building the National Team as the coach of CSKA Moscow. Tarasov went to work, and created the style of hockey that we associate with Russia today. He emphasized speed, skating, passing, and offensive skill.

USSR national team coach Anatoli Tarasov
USSR national team coach Anatoli Tarasov

As a coach, Tarasov was extremely demanding in training his players. When a visiting Swedish player came to a Tarasov practice, he couldn’t finish the skate, saying “We Swedes don’t’ grow up to practice like this. I don’t want to die.”

Arkady Chernyshev, on the other hand, was the very pragmatic and reserved head coach of Dynamo Moscow. He did not use the same brash tactics that Tarasov used, instead communicating quietly one-on-one with players and educating them instead of screaming.

From 1958 to 1972, the Soviet hockey brass had the brilliant idea to unite the two as co-coaches of the Soviet national team. At face value, it seemed to be a clash of two completely personalities. However, the two ended up complementing each other remarkably well, as Arthur Chidlovski notes:

Being two completely different personalities, Chernyshev and Tarasov created one of the most successful and well-balanced coaching combinations in the history of hockey. Tarasov was emotional and explosive, prone to lose his temper in many situations. On the contrary, Chernyshev impressed people with his diplomatic skills, superb communications and rationalism.

Tarasov was at his best on the ice rink, working face-to-face with the players, guiding the team directly from the bench during the game. Chernyshev very seldom spent time with the national team players on the ice, mostly overseeing the practice or game in the stands. Due to Chernyshev’s obvious educational and motivational talent, the Soviet players preferred to have one-on-one conversations with Chernyshev than with Tarasov.

The two were remarkably successful, leading the Soviets to nine consecutive World Championship titles from 1963 to 1971. Tarasov in particular played a big part in Vladislav Tretiak becoming one of the best goalies of all time by relentlessly demanding perfection in practice, and making him do hundreds of somersaults and lunges when he messed up.

By any measure, the co-coaches with the yin and yang personalities were incredibly successful.

Will Scott Stevens & Adam Oates Work for the Devils?

Before getting into whether the system will work in New Jersey, I’ll admit there are some important differences. The Soviets had complete and total control over player development, selection and retention, and had an entire country of players to pick from. The Devils do not have any of these. Despite that, there is reason to believe that Lamoriello’s experiment may be a smashing success.

(Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE) adam oates
Adam Oates (Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE)

In the Oates-Stevens relationship, Stevens will likely take the Tarasov role, and Oates the Chernyshev role. Stevens is a coach that will command the utmost respect from his players, and will not stand for less than 100% effort. Oates, on the other hand, is more reserved on the bench.

Adam Oates’ specialty is offense and the power play, and New Jersey’s offense needs a lot of fixing. In his time as Washington’s head coach, their offense ranked 5th and 13th in total scoring, and 1st and 2nd in PP efficiency. While their power play has been solid, the Devils have scored the third fewest goals in the NHL this year.

The talent difference between Washington and New Jersey is obvious, but I have little doubt that the Devils will score more under Oates compared to DeBoer.

Last year, with Stevens as the defensive assistant coach, the Devils let up the 6th fewest goals in the league. He then resigned from his position before this season started, and the Devils have been 19th in goal against thus far. Their penalty kill was also the best in the NHL in 2013-14, and has been a paltry 23rd this season.

The only significant change to the defense was the departure of Mark Fayne via free agency. However, he’s been replaced by Damon Severson, who has been the second best rookie defenseman in the league behind Aaron Ekblad. He’s produced 12 points in 32 games, and is playing over 23 minutes a night. Fayne is a solid defenseman, but Severson has been a very strong replacement.

Cory Schneider is still a very good goalie, and the quality of the personnel is mostly unchanged. The only variable that changed is Stevens, and now he’s back. Expect the New Jersey defense to return to its previous stinginess.

The change won’t propel the Devils to being a contender, but it’s not the ridiculous notion that most others believe it is. It would not surprise me if they played winning hockey (above .500) the rest of the way.

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