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The Malik Report

Red Wings early overnight report: on building a strong coaching team, stats and prospects

I know that the hiring of assistant coaches doesn't strike most as "big news," but I was both very satisfied with and hugely relieved by the news that the Red Wings had indeed hired Jim Hiller as Babcock's second assistant coach and Andrew Brewer as the team's video coordinator.

Between a seasoned NHL hand with head coaching experience in Tony Granato, an "analytics-friendly" WHL coach looking to cut his teeth in the NHL in Hiller and a 28-year-old with significant international experience in Brewer, Mike Babcock's found himself a superb set of assistants who provide a good combination of "new voices" and strong resumes--as well as "bad cop" (the Penguins' "bad cop" at that, and a "bad cop" who's going to be coaching Dylan Larkin at the U.S. World Junior summer camp next month) a "players' coach" (who might rejuvenate the Tom Renney Power Play) and someone who's familiar with Babcock's methods and the Hockey Canada system of play (which isn't far removed from the Wings' style of play).

If Babcock and Holland could get down to talking contract extension turkey before training camp, I'd feel more comfortable with the situation as a whole, but especially given the later-in-the-summer timeline Babcock had to work with, he can go back to "the lake" in Saskatchewan knowing that he's built a strong coaching team.

Hiller spoke quite glowingly of the opportunity to work with Babcock during his mid-Wednesday conference call, and the Macomb Daily's Chuck Pleiness also took note of Hiller's remarks...

“Coming in Mike has built such a great program and has a style of play that works that no one is going to change,” Hiller said during a conference call Wednesday. “With guys coming in from the outside there’s going to be great conversations. That’s what Mike’s looking for. He’s looking for people to work and to add and that’s what’s so great about it. It’s going to be real interesting with a whole new group.”

Hiller fills the void left by Tom Renney, while Granato replaced Bill Peters, who is now the head coach in Carolina.

“I knew Andrew and Tony from the past so it’s not completely blind for me,” Hiller said. “Hockey people have a way of coming together quite quickly and getting things done.”

Brewer will take over video duties. He last worked for Hockey Canada and was part of Babcock’s staff at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Hiller, 45, doesn’t know his specific duties yet with the team other than he’ll be working with the forwards.

“I’ve seen (Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk) from afar and certainly seen what they do on the ice during games,” said Hiller, who played 21 regular season games and two playoff games with Detroit in 1992-93 season. “Through my discussions with various people in the organization, their work ethic and leadership in practice and the weight room is what a lot of people don’t see. Just to be around great people, not just great players, it’s really clear that they’re some of the best leaders and players in the game.”

Hiller doesn’t have any relationships with players on this year’s roster, but he has kept tabs on the team.

“As coaches we never really step away from the game, especially when you’re talking about the NHL,” Hiller said. “I’ve watched that team and saw the great job they did when they had all those injuries. The young players, specifically, have come up through the system and really contributed. That’s what I was most impressed with in the season. Those guys are solid players.”

As did DetroitRedWings.com's Alex DiFillipo:

“For my first experience in the NHL to be with Mike, there couldn’t be a better guy to start with,” Hiller said on Wednesday following the announcement. Mike has done a great job and he has a great network. He finds quality people and he mentors them as part of what he does. People can learn from him. For an opportunity to be around any coach with such experience and success, that’s only going to make you better.”

...

Hiller returns to Detroit after suiting up for the Red Wings in 21 games during the 1992-93 season – a span he describes as “much too brief.”

“The team when I played was just starting to have a lot of regular season success, not quite the playoff success yet,” he said. “The fans were passionate and everyone could feel that it wasn’t far away. When I left, they went a great run with Stanley Cups and championships. It’s just a great, great hockey city.”

Hiller brings to Hockeytown 11 years of coaching experience in the Western Hockey League and the British Columbia Hockey League, most recently serving as the head coach of the Tri-City Americans for the last five seasons. In that span, Hiller led the club to four 40-win seasons en route to an overall record of 210-124-11-5.

The Port Alberni, British Columbia, native also guided Tri-City to four playoff berths, two U.S. Division titles and an appearance in the 2010 WHL Finals. Following the 2011-12 campaign, Hiller was named the WHL’s Coach of the Year and won the Brian Kilrea Coach of the Year Award as the top coach in the Canadian Hockey League after leading Tri-City to a 50-18-2-2 record.

I liked what Hiller said about "fancy stats," too, because it's the truth:

“I think all the information out there is good,” Hiller said. “It’s just a matter of where it’s practical or where you can implement it. But I think you always have to keep an eye on it. There always seems to be a way to get better, you just have to find it. If that’s an angle, then you use that. The fact that it’s part of the conversation these days is probably a good thing.”

Again, as noted last night, the Vancouver Province's Steve Ewen reported that Hiller planned on taking the year off from coaching to pitch a statistical analytics program...

Scratch Jim Hiller from the list of prospective Vancouver Giants head coaches.

Scratch him for the time being, at the very least. This episode is tending to be fluid.

Hiller, the former Tri-City Americans and Chilliwack Bruins bench boss, has apparently told the Giants that he’s looking at other options, according to WHL sources. Possibilities for Hiller? He and former NHL rearguard Brad Werenka, who was his teammate at Northern Michigan University, have apparently put together an analytics program that draws rave reviews from everyone they show it to. I talked to someone who figured he might take the year off from coaching to get the program in the hands of NHL teams.

And again, via my pal Brittany on Twitter, Hiller was apparently pitching the system to Babcock and Team Sweden GM Tommy Boustedt at the draft:

Babcock likes to say that the R&D process in hockey stands for "Rob and Do," so if he was as intrigued by the "mycket interessant" (very interesting) work that Hiller was doing, why not spend a little money and make it proprietary software?

Babcock, Blashill, whoever's coaching the Wings during the 2015-16 season should--assuming that the revolving door slows down a bit--have a strong team around them.

Granato's coached the Avs and was an assistant coach in Colorado and Pittsburgh, Hiller's experienced the ups and downs of dealing with very young players for the last decade, and Brewer comes from both a very well-traveled track in Hockey Canada and he brings his youth to the mix, which is something Babcock hasn't had on his coaching staff as of yet.

My experiences watching the Red Wings' summer development camps and fall prospect tournaments have hammered home the fact that even if you're Mike Babcock, finding the right assistant coaches shapes how you are able or unable to truly "speak" to your players and how you're able or unable to "sell" your system of play, and your expectations upon your players, to both your current roster players and your prospects.

You and I have learned the hard way that, for better or worse, the Red Wings' free agency strikeouts this past summer have forced the team to double down on "the kids" as solving the team's deficiencies, particularly on defense, and the better that Granato, Hiller and Baker can prepare them for the tasks at hand and empower them with information and feedback designed to help them learn from their mistakes at an accelerated rate, the better.

These changes are "all to the good," and if we start seeing some roster continuity behind the bench, this team should start sailing in a more consistent winning direction, which is something we all hope for.

 

 

 

Otherwise...Regarding the advanced stats debate, Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill's been very open with the Dallas media regarding teams' attempts to "get on top of the numbers," and this evening, he told the Dallas News's Michael Florek a telling tale about a "sales pitch" made to the Wings several seasons ago...

Five or six years ago, a group approached the Detroit Red Wings with a promise to provide a whole new set of statistics. Its plan: Hire 100 college students to compile every sort of data possible, then give it to the Red Wings to analyze.

Jim Nill, Detroit’s assistant general manager at the time, heard the pitch and questioned its feasibility.

“It always came down to, ‘How reliable is the information?’ ” Nill said. “That’s always the question mark.”

Now the Dallas Stars general manager, Nill hasn’t fallen behind as “advanced” statistics like Corsi (the amount of total shot attempts per team) and Fenwick (total shot attempts minus blocked shots) have become more prevalent in evaluating players and teams.

Nill and his staff now use a computer program that does the work of at least 100 college students: it measures Corsi, giveaways/takeaways, scoring chances and a host of other stats. After each game, the coaching staff reviews the numbers then goes back to the film and tracks its own stats to look for any discrepancies. The numbers flag certain elements the Stars staff might miss. From there, the staff examines the aspects further and comes to a decision that could determine a player’s future.

“If it’s a number you get out of right field, I think it’s great for analyzing that,” Nill said. “Why such a difference? If the numbers are closer, now you’ve got more of a comfort level to say, ‘OK, yes. There’s something here. We made this decision as a staff and the numbers back it up.’ It’s a lot easier to make a decision then.”

And Nill points out the same thing that  I've heard from every dang coach: the NHL's statistical crew's "numbers" rarely match those taken by and equally subjectively-judged by teams' stat-keepers:

The NHL has four people dedicated to recording statistics at every game. Each receives video from the league and clear definitions for what actions make up each type of stat. Benny Ercolani, the NHL’s Statistician and Information Officer, says these stat takers are “more consistent than people give them credit for,” but Nill still prefers that the Stars accumulate their own stats because of differences in stat taking among different buildings.

Nill doesn’t blame the NHL’s stat recorders. He said the same problem happened at GM meetings when reviewing video replay procedures. General managers split into groups of 10 and none could come to an overwhelming conclusion on whether a controversial play was a goal, or whether a penalty took away a scoring chance.

Florek continues and talks to someone insisting that they've found the "holy grail" of stats programs, but of course you're going to say that when you've got something to sell.

I have no problem with the concept of combining observations and interpretations of statistics to create a fuller and more contextually-based assessment of what takes place on the ice, and for whatever reason, I think that the debate about the moral high ground in this debate is...A little much ado about people who are trying to find out the same dang thing.

I do feel that there are statistical inaccuracies from rink-to-rink and staff-to-staff, however, and I don't know if the NHL or its member teams is ever going to find a way to "watch a game objectively," be it by statistics or the eyeball test. Hockey is such a dynamic, fast-paced and inherently unpredictable sport (see: frozen, vulcanized rubber disc slowly unfreezing on ice of variable quality) that we and the statisticians alike tend to follow our gut and hedge our bets as to what we've just seen, so I don't think this debate as to the best assessment of player performance is going to end any time soon, even when the NHL implements its "SporVU" technology in a year or two.

FYI: According to SI's Allan Muir's crunching of BehindTheNet.ca numbers, Gustav Nyquist was the NHL's most efficient even-strength scorer this past season, but you probably already knew that.

 

In number-crunching of a different kind, the Detroit Free Press is attempting to determine who Detroit's Favorite Red Wing is via a 4-bracket slate of players to choose from;

 

In charitable news:

 

In prospect news, via RedWingsFeed, Dominic Turgeon gets a quick mention in Hockey's Future's assessment of the WHL's 2014 draft crop, but only a few Finns were drafted, so Julius Vahatalo (who, along with Sweden's Axel Holmstrom, will be facing off against Larkin and Team USA in Lake Placid from August 2nd to 9th) got a full write-up from HF's Tony Piscotta:

Julius Vahatalo, LW, TPS Turku A Junior

6’5”, 190 lbs., 3/23/1995

Vahto, Finland

Sixth round (166th overall), Detroit Red Wings

More than a few eyes were raised when the Red Wings selected the 19-year-old Vahatalo in the sixth round. Anytime Detroit nabs a European skater with a late-round pick many personnel types immediately see flashes of players like defenseman Jonathan Ericsson or forwards Gustav Nyquist, Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk, who slipped through the draft and became outstanding NHL players.

In recent years Detroit has not had that same type of success late in the draft — and Vahatalo has yet to show that he is on the same level as any of those players at this point — but there are elements of his game to like.

A skilled player who skates well and has ideal size, the knock on Vahatalo is that he does not play the bang-and-crash style that would be expected of a player his size. He skated in 18 games with the TPS Turku men’s team this past season — scoring three goals — but the upcoming season will give a lot clearer view of his long-term potential.

He's 6'5" but his 191-pound-listed weight is optimistic, and he loves jamming rebounds home, but he's more of a playmaker. Wings Finnish scout Ari Vouri works for TPS Turku, so Vahatalo, like Christoffer Ehn (Hakan Andersson's on the Frolunda Indians' board of directors), will have someone rom the Wings watching his progress closely.

[edit/update: More Hockey's Future: Alessandro Seren Rosso examined the Russian draft class, including a player the Wings hope is a Mattias Janmark-style "late bloomer":

Alexander Kadeykin, C – Atlant Mytischi

Drafted 179th overall by the Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings traditionally are not scared to draft in Europe and they may have gotten yet another European steal in Alexander Kadeykin. He had an excellent season in the KHL for Atlant Mytischi with 23 points in 45 games, finishing the regular season as his team’s top scorer, quite a feat for a 20-year-old player. It should be added that he finished the season with a +17 rating playing on a team that was never a threat to make the playoffs. Kadeykin has excellent size at 6’4” and 215 pounds, but needs to use it more often, even if he can protect the puck effectively and deliver excellent passes all over the offensive zone. A pass-first player like many Russian centers, Kadeykin will turn 21 next October, making it likely that he’ll decide to cross the Atlantic once his contract with Atlant runs out in April of 2015. It will be interesting to see if he’ll manage to repeat the success he had last season in the KHL.

Kadeykin is very big and led a struggling team in scoring, so he's an intriguing prospect, and he wants to come over to North America, or so Wings European scout Nikolai Vakourov told RedWingsCentral. He's a big man who's grown into his body and he's playing in a strong league. He's a very, very intriguing pick. [/end edit]

On Twitter...

(7/30 was my dad's birthday, too. Miss the old fart)

I did not watch this. I hope you spared yourself the agony as well:

And finally, again, I'm heading on vacation from Saturday, August 2nd to Saturday, August 9th, and I will be a little unavailable today and tomorrow as the Great Pre-Vacation Shopping Trip precedes the Great Pre-Vacation Goatee Trim and Pre-Vacation Vacation Packing Incursion of Friday, August 1st. Paul will cover as necessary, and I'm still not sure whether I'm going to check in every other day or...less often.

 

Update: DetroitRedWings.com's Bill Roose continues his survey of Eastern Conference teams' offseasons by looking at the New York Islanders. He'll continue his series with Toronto on August 5th and Carolina on August 7th:

ARRIVALS:  Forwards Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, Cory Conacher, Jack Skille, Harry Zolniercyk and Kael Mouillerat, defenseman T.J. Brennan, and goalies Chad Johnson, David Leggio and Kevin Poulin.

DEPARTURES:  Defensemen Dan Boyle and Radek Martinek; and goalie Evgeni Nabokov.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Finally, the Islanders think they have stability between the pipes with goalie Jaroslav Halak, who signed a four-year, $18 million contract in May. The Isles have won 30-34 games in the past three full seasons. Meanwhile, the veteran netminder posted 29 wins with a 2.25 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage in 52 games with St. Louis and Washington last season. Halak is a reliable commodity, who has enjoyed 25-wins or better in each of the past four full seasons, which is a definite upgrade on Long Island.

SEASON SCOPE: The Islanders, who are getting ready for their farewell season at Nassau Coliseum, bolstered their offense by adding a pair of speedy and highly-skilled wingers when they signed UFAs Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. The two veteran forwards know each other very well. They’ve been friends for years and were teammates in Toronto. Grabovski likely fits in the No. 2 center hole behind John Tavares, while Kulemin will probably play left wing on the second forward line.

GM Garth Snow has said that he likes the team’s depth and points to the signings of AHL veterans Cory Conacher and T.J. Brennan. The Isles are expected to give Brennan, who produced 25 goals for the Toronto Marlies last season, an opportunity to help the power play while becoming an NHL regular.

Update #2: According to the Main Line Media News, there's a team from Michigan taking part in the annual Brick Invitational Hockey Tournament in Edmonton, and the tournament's website indicates that 10-year-olds from the Little Caesars AAA program are taking part as Detroit Red Wings.

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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.