It hasn’t just been the NHL playing in very weird circumstances this hockey season. The AHL, the league’s top affiliate, has been handed possibly an even harder assignment than their top-level counterparts. In a league that is almost exclusively dependent on gate revenues to try to even break even financially, it would probably make more sense not to have an AHL season for most teams. But as the primary development incubator for the next generation of NHL players, that’s not really an option.
So how do you approach this kind of season with COVID protocols and taxi squads, quarantines and the possibility of no playoffs? How do you define success within those parameters? And what does climbing a mountain have to do with any of it?
I sat down with Texas Stars head coach Neil Graham to get to the bottom of all of those questions. It’s kind of crazy to think that Graham has yet to have a full regular season under his belt at the AHL level as a head coach. He was promoted after Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill relieved Jim Montgomery of his head coaching duties in the NHL in December of 2019. With Derek Laxdal promoted to the coaching staff here, Graham took over as bench boss at the AHL level.
Then, COVID-19 hit in the spring of 2020. And we’ve been dealing with it ever since.
[Editor’s note: this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]
How did you prepare for such a weird season, especially with the unknowns of whether you guys were even going to play or with this whole introduction of the taxi squad and quarantine and all that stuff? What actually changed in terms of your process?
Well, I think starting way back in the middle of our extended stoppage – so obviously Dallas resumed, they got into their playoff run, their bubble – we were still off that whole time. I think we had a lot of discussions as a development team with Pär [Johansson], Rich Peverley, JJ [McQueen] – the whole development team in Dallas – we wanted to keep players engaged. Those three in particular did a fantastic job spearheading weekly Zoom calls with our prospects, our draft picks. They asked me to present half a dozen times, other times I sat in and listened or we had guest speakers. More than anything, it kept us engaged and reminded guys we’re still a team, we’re still a group as an organization, and we can still use this time to get better.
Guys had different obstacles than a normal year - finding ice time safely, finding workout spots safely and still trying to be a better professional and a better player. So they used us as sounding boards. We were being creative, finding different ways to still develop and still teach. You know, the funny thing is that that was for the benefit of our players, but it was also terrific for us as staff. It gave us sanity, it gave us purpose, and to see the players weekly was refreshing. I looked forward to those [Zoom calls] every week. I looked forward to seeing the players that I had already coached, whether it was my team in Texas or Traverse City, and you felt human and you had a sense of normalcy even if it was once a week. So I enjoyed it. I think that started our bond for the year. Some of those guys on those calls are in Dallas, some of those guys are on the taxi squad, and some of those guys are here with us, so I think it kind of unified the entire group.
Speaking of the taxi squad – I think under normal circumstances, Ty Dellandrea probably would be shuttling back and forth, depending on injuries; Jason Robertson might be spending more time in the A versus in the NHL, depending on performance. But how do you prepare to not potentially have some key players available to you, as you try to balance winning and player development, which is always the key down there?
Oh, it’s a fair question. Typically, you have a better idea of what your roster is going to look like, probably a little earlier than this year shaped up. Scott White and I have a very open communication and we talk, if not daily, every other day in the offseason and in season. We’ve had that relationship since my time in Idaho as the [ECHL] affiliate. To know we were on the same page, we knew it was going to be a different look. We knew there would be players to find. And once we knew what the taxi squad could potentially look like, there were going to be players available, and I think Whitey did a terrific job of bringing in some veteran AHL players for our group.
You look at the Cole Schneiders, the Baptistes [Nick Baptiste], the Moutreys [Nick Moutrey], the Scherbaks [Nikita Sherback], Anthony Louis again on an AHL deal, Derek Barach - and there’s a few others I’m probably missing - but those guys were signed relatively close to the start of the year. And those are quality players with high character, and they really helped fill the void once we realized there’s probably some guys we wouldn’t see. And if we did see them, not nearly as often. You have to be willing to adjust as a coach, and you have to be willing to be flexible at the best of times.
In a season like this, it’s even more important to be able to be flexible and then roll with the punches a little bit. I lean on my experience in the ECHL for that a lot where there’s so much roster fluctuation and volatility. You may lose three guys to your affiliate, but then you also may lose three other call ups to three different American League teams on any given week, as anyone can pull from you at that level. So, you have to be willing to adjust on short notice, and I like to lean on those experiences. You remain calm, and it gives the next man up opportunity.
You’ve seen several key players like Jason Robertson and Ty Dellandrea getting some pretty big minutes actually in Dallas so far with COVID at the beginning of the season and just how compact the schedule’s become. How closely do you keep tabs on those guys you know, and have any of them surprised you by their level of play?
I keep very close tabs on all those guys, for multiple reasons. One, I have a relationship with a lot of those guys, and I’m excited to watch their growth and development. You’re rooting for them every time they’re out there. The way the schedule has worked out so far, we’ve been fortunate to be able to watch a lot of the Dallas games. It’s important, too, for us as the American League affiliate that our games are in sync systematically, [so] when our guys go up, they can step in seamlessly. We were there in camp and we know exactly what’s going on, but you still want to see how they’re progressing and [making] adjustments.
We have regular communication with all members of the coaching staff up there so we watch those games for their development, we watch for structural things, and then we meet back on it as a staff as well. I think if you remove the coaching hats for a second - watching the Jake Oettingers, the Robertsons [Jason Robertson], the Tanner Keros, Rhett Gardner, Caamano, Kiviranta - it’s been special for us to feel a level of investment to those games. You always want your affiliate in Dallas to win, but you feel even more invested watching those players not only play but have an impact on the game. We’re proud of those guys, we want nothing but the best for those guys. So far, I think they’ve done a nice job when called upon.
Were you shocked when Kiviranta came into that first game of the playoffs and scored a hat trick?
I was shocked at the hat trick; I wasn’t shocked at his ability to contribute on that stage, or in the playoffs. His details were so good for us last year. His consistency was so good. I knew he could fit into their style well, and I knew he’d be a guy — his compete is so consistent, his wall play is so good. It makes sense that he would excel in a playoff intensity. I’d be lying if I expected a hat trick. But I gotta be honest, I was pretty excited watching that game with my wife. We were pretty excited for him.
Yes it earned him a pretty good nickname, too. I don’t know if you’ve heard the Swedish call — or I think it was the Finnish call — of that goal….
I believe it was a Finnish call and I won’t repeat it. [Editor’s note: For the record, I wasn’t actually trying to get him to say it....]
For yourself personally — you’ve been coaching for a while, and obviously you have things that you like to do. You just spoke a little bit about how you want your structure to align with Dallas so that guys can slot in pretty easily, but how do you kind of look at that and balance that need but also kind of innovate for yourself and put your own stamp on your team and what you want them to learn?
Great question. When you look at the game of hockey, at all levels of pro, there’s a lot of underlying themes that have a lot of consistency team to team. You’ll recognize a lot of the buzz words — you’re playing fast, pace. You’re not going to find a team that’s not saying these things. I think you can add your own personality, and you can add different things maybe you’ll talk about slightly more within the same structure and have a slightly different shape for what you see on the ice.
It’s not always by design, either. There’s maybe something you’re emphasizing more in a particular week, maybe you see come out in your game a little bit more on the weekend. And, you know, I think our overall theme aligns very well, and I’m sure there’s things that they emphasize on a daily basis, maybe more than I would, and then there’s things I might do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We’re still on the same page, we have the same overall vision for how the game should be played and details of the game, but your own personality can kind of come out on it a little bit, and I think that’s okay. I think you have different things or different creativity and I think that’s all within the same team identity.
What’s the biggest challenge for you guys playing in front of limited crowds or empty arenas? Especially, I think of that third game in a third night — it can be a little hard to get up for those.
So, I got to be honest, I’ll let you know when we have our first one. We’ve played seven games in front of fairly decent crowds. So, I can’t complain. I mean, we played three games in Iowa in front of crowds and then we played four games in Texas, all with good crowds - within the rules and all that good stuff. But our fans were loud, it didn’t sound that much different in terms of the energy that they brought. They were great. So, I’ll let you know. We’re going into Tucson here and there won’t be any fans.
That’s actually being addressed by us. It’s going to be the first time we’ve had to deal with it, so it might be a good question after this week. We’re going to be talking about it. We’re going to have to create our own energy, making sure we’re not quiet, and we can’t be sleepy. We have to find a way to create our own energy.
Have you talked to Jason Robertson or Jake Oettinger about their experience up in Edmonton in the bubble and playing not in front of a crowd, see if there’s anything you can learn that way?
No, I didn’t talk to them about that, in particular. I talked to them both at camp and they were on the zoom calls in the summer once they had off time. Talking to those guys, I talked to them more as two guys that played for me for a full season. We were excited for them, we talked a little about some of the stuff they did good, what are things they are looking to work on — just very casual.
When I saw them at [NHL training] camp, I tried and let them stay in the moment and stay out of their way. They’re in the NHL club. It was nice to be in Dallas and, when we had some downtime, if we ran into each other, probably we’re just talking life — how’s the family, stuff like that. You know, hockey is on your mind all the time. Sometimes it’s just good to get away from it a little bit too.
For this season, because they may not hand out the Calder Cup, and playoffs are not necessarily guaranteed, how are you defining success — both for the team and also for yourself personally as a coach?
Well, I think you nailed it on the head earlier in the interview when you said it’s about winning and development and it’s a fine line. I think first and foremost, we have to develop the next generation of Dallas Stars, but I’m a firm believer in developing through winning habits. Yes, we will play through mistakes, and the leash will probably be a little longer than you would see than at the next level, but it’s also important that we build those habits and we have a culture of winning details. I think that’s something we harp on every day.
We have more practice time this season, especially since we’ve had a couple games canceled with the weather we all were hit with. We have more time to practice. And I think every day that we’re on the ice practicing, it’s critical that we’re improving. We don’t have to take 10 steps up the mountain, but we have to take a step every day.
I think our young kids have done a terrific job embracing that, and I think our veterans, some of the guys I talked about earlier, they’ve done a terrific job at echoing the message, leading by example. I’m having a lot of fun working with the young team. I think as long as we’re developing, and we’re getting better each day, the wins will take care of themselves and follow suit.