Mo's Formula for "Success"

After watching the Hurricanes beat the Pens 5-3, an exciting and in the end gratifying game, I’ve finally figured out coach Mo’s formula, why it sometimes exceeds, why it can work in the playoffs, and why it rarely gets a team to the playoffs.

There are three elements to the formula:
1) the players must give 100% effort in a grinding, battling, “be a man” style for 60 minutes; skill is not valued
2) our goalie must outplay the other team’ s goalie
3) our offensive star or stars must make a difference

In the recent run of games we’ve seen this fail and succeed. It succeeded last night. Our guys gave a great effort and somehow managed to get a three goal lead despite being out-chanced by Pittsburgh: our goalie was brilliant. We were outshot 23-13 in the first two periods. When Pittsburgh finally was getting through (perhaps our goalie flagged a little bit) then the home crowd helped revive the team and the goalie, and our offensive star scored the game-winning goal (though he was minus 1 for the game, he made the difference). In other games during that run we did not have a big lead and when the lull came we ended up a couple goals behind instead of tied. There was no home crowd to lift us in some of those games, and Staal though working hard could not make a difference. Our other offensive star, Skinner, did his best to make a difference but this was not enough. And we were crushed.

As much as the Staal haters have come out lately, there’s no denying that he can carry the team offensively. In the 2009 playoffs when Staal scored we usually won, when he didn’t score we usually lost. He scored the winning goal in the seventh game against New Jersey. In 2006 Brind’Amour could have won the Conn Smythe instead of Ward, but wasn’t Staal the leading scorer?

As it happens this is a formula that works well in playoffs, where point number 1 is almost always taken care of by the fact that it’s the playoffs: if you can’t play hard for 60 minutes in a playoff game when are you ever going to play hard? But that incentive doesn’t work over an 82 game season.

When Mo took a team to the Stanley Cup Finals he had outstanding goaltending albeit from two goalies and he had Ron Francis (and to a lesser extent Rod Brind’Amour). In 2009 during the regular season he had the legacy of offensive orientation left by Lavi. He had Cam Ward (a Conn Smythe winner) and Eric Staal (and to a lesser extent Ray Whitney/Jussi Jokinen). But when the team got tired and Cam wore out and Whitney had a hand injury it all fell apart and we were swept by the Penguins. As it was it took last-minute heroics in both series to get through to the Conference finals. They could just as well have gone the other way.

What happened in the year after we were at the conference finals and had a veteran team? Veterans can be relied on to play the grinding game that Mo favors. But some of the veterans got old, and the goalie situation fell apart through injury, and we ended up with a guy from the minor leagues (Manny Legacy) as our lead goalie, and so we couldn’t rely on our goalie to outplay the other team’s goalie. Toward the end of the year we got some veterans out of the way and succeeded on youthful enthusiasm, something that’s only a last resort for Coach Mo and his system. It’s veterans that you rely on to the grind night after night, not inexperienced players, and that more than anything explains why our young players tend to be on the fourth line and the fourth line isn’t used very much. (Dalpe and Boychuk played less than five minutes each last night, Tlusty just over five.)

What about 2006? Then we had the goalies and the offensive stars (Staal and Brind’Amour), but we didn’t rely on grinding (and it wasn’t Coach Mo, was it?). We overwhelmed teams with speed and skill, coming at them in waves, rolling four lines, aided by the changes in how games were refereed. We owned the third period. Speed and skill made the difference, and we had the speed and some skill that year. We didn’t just sneak into the playoffs, we were second in the conference if I recall correctly.

Now referees are slowly getting back, during the regular season, to allowing the wrestling that already characterizes the playoffs (in contrast to 2006). This stifles skill and speed and emphasizes strength, hence the frequently-heard call from AbramsDoug and others for bigger players.

Mo’s formula has made him a very rich man, compared with most of us who read these blogs, at a relatively young age. He’s not the type to change how he does things, and what he does has worked well enough so far, in terms of retaining a very lucrative job. Evidently he’s a good (and amusing) guy, and gets along well with the players. Why would he change? And if he were coach of a talented veteran team with clutch offensive leaders and an outstanding goalie (there are a few teams like that), he might finish near the top of the conference standings. But a small market team can rarely do that because offensive leaders leave for more money than the budget team can risk (Whitney, Cole). We’re lucky we have as much as we have.

Now contrast Mo’s formula with another coach. Before the Canes game last night I watched the love-in as Coach K from Duke tied for the largest number of wins in major college basketball history. I was a graduate student at Duke when he was hired coach from obscurity at Army, though recommended by Bob Knight. And it took him several years to really get going. The point made repeatedly by commentators and even by his wife is that Coach K is willing to change. He molds this team around his players rather than forcing them to play a particular way. (Yes, when he was younger he was completely wedded to man-to-man defense but more recently he’s even been known to play zone!) He decides what is best for the players he has and has the team play that way. And he *builds a team*. In contrast coach Mo tries to play the same way all the time. And I don’t think he’s particularly good at building a team, that’s why you can see the Canes collapse sometimes when things go badly, or just not show up at all.

We’re terribly unlikely to get a new coach equivalent to Coach K, but we might be able to get a coach who molds his system to his players in order to get the best out of his players. In any industry the supervisor’s job is to put his workers in situations where they can best succeed. Coach K does that, Coach Mo does not. Coach K is especially good with young players, of course all of his players are young. But he has also been very successful coaching older NBA players internationally. Coach Mo is especially *not* good with young players.

Trades will not help. New personnel won’t change how Mo coaches, and won’t change the team significantly for the better. Based on results so far, we aren’t making the playoffs, but we won’t be near the first pick in the draft. We can continue to forget about ever having a really good team, and grind it out with Mo, or we can risk a new coach and young players and at least find the games more entertaining.

Mo Must Go. Or we are Doomed.

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