By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com
“It’s important to always be evolving, especially as a coach. The game of hockey’s always evolving. So you have to be on your toes. You’ve gotta switch it up from time to time.” – Nick Luukko, Jacksonville Icemen Head Coach/Director of Hockey Operations.
If you pay close attention to most any hockey game, at some point, you’re going to hear somebody talk about the types of systems the two teams are known for using. You’ll hear keywords like “North-South Hockey,” or “Too Much East-West Passing.” You’ll hear how one of the teams likes to drive to the net while the other prefers to cycle the puck around the offensive zone, looking for an opportunity to score. The various phrases are endless. So, in this edition of our “Hockey Feature Series” we chatted with a hockey Head Coach about how these systems of play are put into place.
Nick Luukko, 30, is a rising star in the Head Coaching ranks. He currently man’s the bench for the Jacksonville Icemen in The ECHL. (Jacksonville is the NY Rangers’ ECHL affiliate). And he’s been part of the Hockey World his entire life. His Dad, Peter, was the Philadelphia Flyers’ Team President for close to two-decades; so Nick grew up around the game.
The younger Luukko played the game, but never reached the NHL. However, if his current trajectory as a coach holds, he’ll get to the Big Leagues one day soon. So, now that we know a little bit about Nick Luukko, let’s sit back and let him teach us about coaching hockey.
“I played in Reading, (Pennsylvania), for four-years and coached there for a year,” said Luukko. “So a lot of our system (in Jacksonville) comes from Reading. It’s a system which I played in. I was a defenseman and it’s a lot of defensive structure. That’s something I believe in. For us, we were Number One in the ECHL in goals-against and shots-against per game. So, I believe it worked.”
“For us, offensively, I let the guys be creative,” Luukko continued. “I don’t want to hem them down and force them to do something I want them to do. I want them to be creative and create off the rush, use their speed and skill.”
Creativity mixed with some structure is important in hockey. As Luukko alluded to, the league (really all organized hockey) is a copycat league. Once one team finds something that works, others are quick to try and replicate it. By letting his team use its imagination in the offensive zone, Luukko lets his players figure out what works best for them, rather than try to copy other teams; although, he admits there’s still a certain amount of mimicry that takes place.
We’ll get back to offense in a moment, but because Luukko was a defenseman and that’s what he specializes in, let’s dig down deeper in that area of the ice.
“(The way we want to play defense) We call it, ‘The Swarm,’” Luukko explained. “(It’s) a lot of man-on-man, below the dots. We want to create pins and outnumber the puck carrier – force them to make a tough decision. At the end of the day we’re trying to protect the house. We’ll give up shots from the outside because the goaltenders, these days, should be able to stop pucks from outside the house. It’s our defensemen and low forward’s job to box out and let the goalie see those shots from the outside.”
It’s also the defense who Luukko wants to be the starting point of the team’s offense. “We want our defensemen getting into the play,” he explained. “We like to call it ‘Fourth Man’s Ice.’ It’s imperative for every team to have a defenseman who can move now. You have to have that two-way skating defenseman now if you want to give yourself a chance to win.”
Now that we have an idea of what Luukko wants his steam’s structure to be, let’s let him explain some of those keywords we mentioned earlier.
“In terms of North-South, it’s getting the puck up ice,” Luukko said. “You want to get the puck outta your zone and into their zone, make them defend, make the other team wear down and get fatigued from chasing you. In terms of East-West, that’s moving the puck side-to-side, where all it takes is one bad bounce off the stick, even off the ice and the puck’s going the other way. Then you’re stuck defending in your own end.
“I want my guys to be creative, but I also want them to be smart. I want them to know when they gotta get the puck in deep and go to work, or, if they have a chance, to make a play at the blue line. My belief in my players grows over time.
“The big thing with our defensemen is, like we said, with the North-South game, it’s D-to-D and climb. When I say ‘climb,’ I mean, get the puck moving North in the O-zone. There’s a saying I’ve heard throughout my career that I like to use with our guys. ‘D-to-D-to-D-to-D-to out of the playoffs.’ If you’re playing slow, if you’re playing East-West, you’re not going North and chances are you’re gonna be defending a lot; meaning you’re gonna give up a lot of chances, ending up in goals against and you’re not gonna make the playoffs. You gotta keep the game simple at the next level. You’ve gotta move pucks North, get the puck to the forwards, let them make the plays and hopefully it all works out.”
All this talk of North-South Hockey and East-West Passing is making me wonder if this whole mantra is an organizational philosophy. What do I mean by that? Well, Rangers’ Head Coach Gerard Gallant, as well as his predecessor David Quinn, extensively talked to the media about the Big League team’s ability to play a North-South style of hockey. So, did Jacksonville, as the Rangers’ ECHL team, receive a mandate from above to play this way?
“They never told us what we had to do,” Luukko said. “But I do believe some of the same things Gerard Gallant and Kris Knoblauch believe in. We want to play with pace. We wanna create turnovers and look to transition right away, let our speed and skill take over off the rush. In the O-zone, we want to get pucks and people to the net. A pretty simple game. If you look at the way the playoffs go, it gets harder and harder to score. At the end of the day, you just gotta keep it simple and get to the net front.”
With Jacksonville’s preference being a straight-line type of game, I wonder, did Luukko come to town wanting his team to play that way? Or, when he arrived, were the players already well suited for that style of play?
“It’s a little bit of both,” Luukko explained. “You like to implement what you have. I think you have to make adjustments throughout the year. We made a couple tweaks in our systems throughout the year, just based on player preference. That’s something where, if you have a good line of communication with your players, it’s easy, because you wanna make their lives easier on the ice. You don’t want them to be robots out there. You want them to just read, react and at the end of the day, just play the game of hockey.”
Okay, I believe we’ve learned a fair amount about how coaches design their team’s style of play. But one thing still bugs me. How does Luukko deal with the constant call-ups that so often change his lineup and take away his best players?
To that Luukko said, “somebody once told me, ‘if you don’t wanna worry about call-ups, then work in the NHL.’”
Fair enough. And maybe one day soon he will be.