Darryl Sydor, one of the Wild’s old assistant coaches, said something last year that stuck with me; “We don’t have a lot of physical D, but we have a lot of smart D.” In context, Russo quoted him when Mike Reilly was initially called up and Sydor was coaching him while they sat in the press box during one of the games. Quite often over the years, I’ve heard from various kinds of fans that the Wild’s defender’s were weak or gutless and should be traded for pucks and picks. We didn’t have a Dustin Byfuglien or a Zdeno Chara, and thus our defense was inadequate, or something. Then along came Sydor, who pointed out to Reilly that both Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin were very successful defensively without throwing around their bodies. You and I may have already known that, but between all the #Grit starved fans and coaches out there, it was quite refreshing to hear a coach recognize the best aspects of the players available and use them accordingly.
Then Scott Stevens was hired. Besides hope that the Hall of Fame Defenseman can help improve the Wild’s ailing Penalty Kill, a lot of the discussion surrounding Stevens was that he was going to make the Wild’s defense “tougher,” which made me wonder if the Wild’s defense would lose something in the process. However, Dane Mizutani of the Pioneer Press quoted him over the weekend and put my thoughts at ease.
“We want to use our speed and our puck-moving ability to our advantage,” he said. “You play to strengths … and our strengths, I believe, is we’ve got smart guys, quick guys, guys that are committed to working. … I know a lot of teams would like to have that because it’s so important to have the D get involved and jump in the play. It helps us stay in the offense and break pucks out clean to the forwards.”
Again, we see a coach recognize the individual and group strengths of his players and how best to utilize it. Maybe I’m conditioned to think otherwise, but I really appreciate seeing that. Further, this isn’t to say that Stevens won’t have the Wild’s defensemen be more physical, that is still very much on his mind. Throughout the weekend, Stevens made several other comments about the kind of physicality he wants to see, such as in board battles and clearing the net, and how it can specifically help the Wild improve what they already do well - getting the puck out of their own zone.
While everyone seems to have nice things to say about the new coaches, the two Top 5 defensemen with possibly the most to gain from Stevens, Scandella and Dumba, were especially receptive of Stevens advice this weekend. Dumba and Coyle competitively pushed each other to be better as Dumba practiced the new defensive mindset. Meanwhile, Scandella mentioned how much he respects and really takes in everything Stevens has had to say so far.
Friday saw the team work and learn in the defensive zone where the coaches made more minute changes to player positioning, and on Saturday, the team worked in the neutral zone, which will likely be the largest area of difference between Boudreau’s system and Yeo’s/Torch’s. Spurgeon said that everyone involved is asking questions about the new system and that the coaches are making it easy with their helpful explanations.
Ultimately, the more we hear about the new coaches, the more there seems to be excited about. Stevens' plan isn’t just grit for grit’s sake, each action he advises so far seems to have a specific purpose and goal to improve the Wild’s historically solid defense. Coaches don’t always adapt to their players strengths, but the Wild’s new coaches seem to be doing just that in order to get the best results overall. This means that any grit starved fan can see their team’s defense be harder on the puck without losing any moments like these: