by Colin Peterson | AHL On The Beat
The AHL is a developmental league that has a proven history of not only churning out star NHL players, but also molding the coaches who lead NHL teams.
If you break down the NHL’s 31 current head coaches, 22 of them were also bench bosses in the AHL and eight of them are Calder Cup champions. It’s clear that if you want to coach in the best league on the planet, the best path is through the American Hockey League.
Manitoba Moose head coach Pascal Vincent was the 2017-18 Louis A. R. Pieri Memorial Award winner as the AHL’s outstanding coach, an award that 10 of the NHL’s current head coaching stable have also won. Vincent is quick to point out winning the award was a team effort, and a big part of that team are assistant coaches Eric Dubois and Marty Johnston.
To better understand the challenges of an AHL coach, the tandem of Dubois and Johnston bring a balanced perspective and a wealth of experience.
Dubois coaches the Moose defencemen and works with the penalty kill. He is in his third season with the Moose, and joined the club out of the QMJHL where he coached for 11 seasons and was a head coach for both the Baie-Comeau Drakkar and Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
His experience in major junior prepared him for helping young hockey players in the AHL.
“Trying to teach them was really important,” said Dubois. “Yes, at that age, they have a lot of skill, but they don’t necessarily know how to play the game, know how to read the game. To be at the junior level, gave me the experience and the ability to teach those young kids day after day. It helps me for the American Hockey League because it’s pretty much the same thing except they’re older, they’re more mature. They want to learn so much, so they can play in the NHL at one point.”
Johnston joined Vincent’s staff at the outset of the 2017-18 campaign to guide the forward unit and power play. He signed on with the team after serving first as an assistant coach at Carleton University for three seasons, before becoming the team’s head coach from 2010-2017.
CIS hockey operates under a different schedule than other leagues, but Johnston has already seen benefits in his day-to-day with the Moose.
“I think the volume of practices really helped me,” Johnston said. “In the college setting, you have four practices a week and two games. You get a real opportunity to get your reps in, in terms of executing and doing different drills and working with players on the ice. The biggest difference at the American League level is the volume of games. I feel like I got my reps in with practices and now it’s getting more bench time at the American League level.”
Roster movement is a constant in the AHL, providing added stress to the coaches who often have to incorporate new players onto the teams with very little time or warning.
For Johnston, the lineup shuffling is the biggest difference from his time at Carleton.
“It’s not easy when players are going up and down, and coaching with that dynamic is certainly challenging. It’s fun, but it’s something different than I’ve experienced in the past where you have your team, and that doesn’t change drastically as the year goes on. Here, at times you’re losing your best players and forcing yourself to adjust, day of the game, even, with the callups. That’s the biggest challenge at this level”
Johnston’s playing career involved 17 games with the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters in 2002-03. The native of Gloucester, Ont., also played 115 ECHL games and was a multi-season captain for both the QMJHL’s Hull Olympiques and at Dalhousie University.
Nearing the close of Johnston’s second regular season in the AHL, he has seen roster movement from multiple angles. He explained what the organization’s coaching staff can do at all levels to make call-ups easier on the players.
“It starts at the top with training camp with the Jets, and the fact that we play the same system. The program is in place for us to treat those players called up to the Moose just like the Moose players getting called up to the Jets. Because that system is so clean and translates well, we’re putting the players in a position to succeed. We have to give credit to Pascal [Vincent] and Paul [Maurice], for having such a strong program and putting the structure in place so that there isn’t a lot of adjustment for players to make.”
Dubois actually played for the Moose in 1996-97 when the team was part of the IHL. The product of Montreal, Que., played 15 AHL games in 1991-92 with the Halifax Citadels and New Haven Nighthawks. Most of his professional career was spent playing 324 games in the IHL, the bulk of them with the Atlanta Knights.
With experience in the U.K. and Germany as well, Dubois has a lot to share with young hockey players. When asked what has surprised him about coaching in the AHL, Dubois pointed to the willingness the skaters have shown in accepting the coaching.
“I’m surprised how much they want to learn, how much they’re receptive. They all want to play in the NHL, but I thought because they were older they’d be more like, ‘Okay, we know the game, we know what to do.’ But, no, the last three years that’s the main thing that surprised me is how much they’re willing to learn, how receptive they are. They don’t take anything personally, I think that’s the main difference with the junior… They know you’re there for their best interests and you’re there to help them.”
Good coaching involves finding lines and pairings that work well together. In the AHL this is critical to helping promote growth and development for the NHL prospects.
Sami Niku, last season’s Eddie Shore Award winner as the league’s top defenseman, was one such prospect. For Dubois, pairing his rookie defender with a veteran like current Springfield Thunderbirds defender Julian Melchiori was an ideal example in 2017-18.
“I could see last year, when I put Sami and Mel together, how good Mel was for Sami. Then we lost Mel for a couple months. You should have seen the smile on Sami’s face when Mel came back and I told him I’m going to put you guys back together. For some young kids, it’s a level of trust, but it’s a level of knowing somebody’s there for them, another vet or another presence next to them. I think on defence, maybe more than as a forward, because they’re only two guys compared to three guys as a line. I think it helps, tremendously, those young guys.”
NEVER STOP LEARNING
Vincent and his staff have the Moose fighting to make the Calder Cup Playoffs for the second straight season. Dubois and Johnston admire their head coach and credit him for helping them grow alongside the players.
“I’ve worked with different coaches in my life, but with Pascal, it’s easy,” said Dubois. “He knows what he wants, we know what he wants from us, but he won’t stress us about anything. Just do your job. Do your job the best way you can do it. What I like about Pascal is, whether we’re in a tough stretch or we’re doing well, there’s always a solution. Let’s find a solution. We lost yesterday, today is today, tomorrow’s tomorrow, he doesn’t dwell on the past.”
Johnston sees Vincent as mentor, saying his combination of work ethic, clarity, and specificity has been a winning combination.
“Pascal’s preparation is exceptional. Our players are well prepared going into games. He puts his time in in the preparation process so that, during the game, the players can play. He’s not an emotional guy behind the bench. He’s very consistent with his message and I think, over the course of a season, that proves to be successful. You’re not going to win games by yelling and screaming 76 nights of the year. You’re going to win them by being prepared, putting players in positions to succeed. He does that on a daily basis and with that, there is some consistency in our play. There’s also a real solid sense of team with the group, because everybody knows their roles and they know the expectations Pascal puts on them. He’s been a really good role model for me and I’m continually learning from him.”