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On NHL Trade Rumors, and the GM-Coach Relationship

How much does an NHL coach know about how the GM is fiddling with his roster? It's complicated...

"Heh, in truth I tell both of these guys what to do. My team now."
"Heh, in truth I tell both of these guys what to do. My team now."
Andy Marlin

The most thankless position for a coach, other than trying to win with an unwinnable roster, is trying to win with a roster that has suddenly changed on him, forcing him to find new roles for newcomers, replacing those who his GM has cast away.

To overcome this, coaches typically follow the mantra "control what we can control."

Capuano Says You Go With What They Give You

Here's Jack Capuano, quoted in Newsday after the report that Thomas Vanek had turned down a contract offer from the Islanders (emphasis mine):

"If the decision's made, then that's his decision to make,'' Jack Capuano said of Vanek. "I know he's enjoyed his time here. I just try to coach and teach the players I have.''

But the Vanek situation is at least one where Capuano's GM is trying to keep the player on the team. Sometimes that's not the case.

We've discussed some this year how even general managers and coaches who have great relationships might disagree on the usefulness of a player -- be he veteran trade bait, or a prospect that one thinks should get more opportunity. (One imagines the role Garth Snow foresaw for Matt Donovan last summer is not the role he has received from the coaching staff thus far in 2013-14. Whether there are two separate pages there between GM and coaching staff is up to your interpretation.)

Hitchcock Says Leave Me Out of It

As suggested by Elliotte Friedman last fall ("GM ... really liked his head coach [but] was unhappy younger players were 'blocked' from getting a shot over veterans the coach was comfortable with, so he traded them"), one way a GM gets around this is by simply taking a player away.

So this from Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, is frankly great (emphasis mine):

"I don’t like to even know what’s being considered or talked about," Hitchcock said. "I feel like if I have any information, I might look at the player differently, might coach him differently, might react differently. … I don’t want to know. It’s been a really good working relationship with [GM] Doug [Armstrong] because he does not let us know, me in particular, until the very last minute.

"Even in free agency during the summer, it’s the same thing. I don’t like to get into those hope-for things and I don’t like to coach players who I’m not sure are going to be here. I’d rather just coach the guys who are here and (Armstrong) can come knock on our door and say, ‘You’ve got 30 minutes to look at this guy’ or ‘How do you think this fits.’"


There is more from Hitchcock in that article, thoughts on the job of coaches "coaching up" players on a daily basis.

"(The coaches) have no input on what’s leaving. The input is on what’s coming. So [the GM] will ask us, ‘How does this guy fit, where do you see him on our team.’ And the rest is up to them. That’s a good way to have it."

Sounds like a GM and coach who are comfortable with their relationship, and its at-times inherently contrasting views (short- vs long-term).

There's one other recent example -- a curious one with a few plausible explanations -- of a coach discussing the roster he is handed...

Tortorella Sounds in on the Campaign

When John Tortorella returned from his recent suspension, he found his Canucks team struggling, to the point that before his suspension ended there were reports that "every player" outside the Sedins was available for trade. Tortorella appeared to be aligned with management in a speaking campaign that ripped the team and threatened changes:

He butchered his team for its performance in his absence in the morning.

Then, after Weise was traded for Raphael Diaz, he first threatened there was more to come on the TEAM 1040 pre-game show.

"We have some thinking to do here as far as where we are as a hockey club here, as far as personnel and as far as what players think and how they have to play," Tortorella said then.

"Do players believe they can win? There’s a lot of questions that need to be asked here."

It sure doesn’t seem like this is Tortorella saying things management would rather him keep quiet.

It’s more like the team’s serious about finally trading a core piece, or it wants to convince its players it is...

The last two lines there are key to the interpretation that Tortorella speaking out was with his boss' tacit blessing.

When Tortorella ripped his team after their loss in his first game back ("We need to change the complexion of our hockey club. Either with our play or with different hockey people."), NHL Network head Craig Button passionately ripped into Tortorella on NHL Network, saying it wasn't a coach's place to say such things. (Button is a former NHL GM, albeit briefly and not-successfully.)

It made for good TV...

...however Button may have missed the point. (Full agreement that anything is better than the cavemen lizard arena cam though.)

While Button's reaction was understandable from the outside, it sounds like he was lacking some context for what might really be going on -- a scenario where, even if Tortorella won't be in on whatever makeover Gillis has planned, he's at minimum part of the message sending from management to the team.

And after all, if you're Mike Gillis and you have a coach who plausibly flies off the handle with public comments, why not let him do some of your dirty work for you?