In any other year, a hockey conversation with Darryl Moxam would almost have to, by necessity, steer its way towards the topic of the Sudbury Wolves.
It’s hard to get around that reality when you are chatting with the associate coach of the local OHL team.
Like most passionate and successful coaches, Moxam can chat about the game for hours on end. But in March of 2021, with the possibility of a junior season hanging by a thread in Ontario, much of that conversation can happen at a much more general level - and with no strings attached.
Of course, the view of the game for the 44 year-old Lively native is significantly different than it was for that same 19 year-old who played for his hometown team in 1995-1996 – even if that might have been the time when his tendency to think the game as a coach first evolved.
“I vividly remember being in my last year in the OHL, playing for Glen Merkosky and the Sudbury Wolves,” said Moxam. “That’s when it really started to click in that the game was not all individual skills, that there were systems, and that implementing the things on the ice that coaches were telling you definitely helped you have individual and team success.”
That said, much has changed in the environment from which young prospects make their way from the U18 ranks (even the name has been altered from the former midget division) to junior hockey. “Unfortunately, for today’s players, I think they are expected to understand all of that at an even earlier age.”
“Yes, they’re coming out of some great midget programs with quite a bit of structure - but we still see a gap. I think by that third year in the league, it starts to become a lot more automatic for them.”
The OHL player of 2021 is different than that of one generation ago. It’s no longer enough just to transfer information from coach to athlete in what amounts to one-way dialogue. While the need for more and more cross-communication might prove challenging (and time consuming) for those trying to lead them to victory, Moxam suggested that there are inherent benefits to the approach.
“I honestly find that I notice this in both aspects of my life, whether it be in the classroom or on the ice,” said the introspective coach who has taught at both Lasalle Secondary School, as well as within the Sports Administration program at Laurentian University.
"The players or students who tend to find the most success usually understand the overall objective, the reasons why it is important to find success in the individual aspects, whether that is small structured play, D zone play, or understanding why not to turn pucks over at the blue lines.”
If change in hockey has remained the constant, then the speed of change is perhaps the differentiator. “I would say that there is more of a willingness for coaches to adapt to change now that there was when I first started back in the NOJHL,” said Moxam, who first worked alongside former Wolves’ coach Ken MacKenzie in the local feeder system to the OHL ranks.
“Coaches would often tend to rely heavily on their own past experiences. But with the digital age and access to the amount of information, even the amount of hockey that we can watch from around the world, it allows us to tap into whatever success coaches may be finding at any time.”
“It seems that the game is changing, almost on a yearly basis. I’ll be honest, if you’re not willing to adapt and change, you won’t survive - but I’m not talking about just changing for the sake of changing.”
And therein lies, to many, the heart of the matter. How exactly does one take everything that he or she sees before them and marry that knowledge with what they believe to be core beliefs on how successful hockey teams operate?
Moxam offers the following example: “You’re hearing a lot of talk these days about the re-load and playing on top of the puck. In a sense, it’s the basic idea that when you don’t have the puck, at that immediate second, you get back on top of the puck, on the D (defensive) side and create speed from the D side.”
“But when you think about it, that really hasn’t changed in a hundred years. Good team defense always involved playing on the defensive side of the puck. Only the reasons why you are doing it have potentially changed.”
Expanding further, consider just for a moment, the overarching approach to the notion of play in the defensive zone. “At one time, the idea was that if you’re in the D zone, it’s because you’ve done something wrong and you simply need to get it out of there as quick as you can,” suggested Moxam.
“But it’s amazing how many set plays and offensive plays are now run out of your D zone, creating offense 150 feet away. There is no way in the world that 25 years ago, you would find many coaches telling you to throw the puck into the slot and break out from there - but 70% of breakouts now in the NHL are finding ways to bump the puck to the middle of your own zone and breaking out from there.”
“That’s just coaches adapting and having resources and watching game tapes over and over and over again, and then finding the soft spots on the ice.”
The truth is that change is happening all over the ice. The long-time traditional power-play set-up morphed to an umbrella approach which has now been adjusted for the inclusion of the middle of the slot “bumper” position - but not necessarily for the reasons that most would expect.
“People think that this player is in place for the one-time shot, but actually, we had them in place to mirror the puck all over the offensive zone, just because teams became so aggressive on the PK (penalty kill) that we needed an outlet to keep the puck alive, to create two on ones all over the zone,” said Moxam.
“We also found that it’s easier for their defensemen to find our sticks when a guy is down right in front of the net than it is to have a high tip option. To have that opportunity to tip a puck from 10 or 15 feet away creates just as many problems for a goaltender as having that guy two feet from them.”
There is a recurring theme with Moxam, one which revolves around his disdain for a stationary approach. He doesn’t like the stationary bumper, and he’s not a whole lot more enamoured of an immobile net front presence on the power play - which is not to say that he doesn’t understand the importance of creating traffic in front of opposing netminders.
“If I put a stationary object in front of Vladimir Guerrero or George Springer before a pitch is made, they will find a way to have an idea where the pitch is and where it’s coming from,” said Moxam, tapping into a baseball analogy. “But if when a pitch is thrown I have someone come through that zone, directly in their line of sight, it’s going to distract them that much more.” “It just throws everything off.”
He points to both Matthew and Brady Tkachuk as being prime examples of players who understand the importance of jumping in and out of that area directly in front of the goalie. “It doesn’t have to be someone who is 6’5”, it just has to be someone who is good at it, has great hands and can create havoc.”
The idea is not merely to be a net-front presence - the idea is to actually do something useful, beyond just being a screen. Corralling rebounds are often a function of creating a slightly greater gap between the screen and the goalie.
Hockey is shifting, it’s morphing, it’s adjusting. It truly is a never ending game of chess, of moves and counter moves. It’s perpetual motion, much the same as a very successful current Toronto Maple Leafs power play. “You are seeing more and more teams get away from that stationary power-play,” said Moxam.
“You have five guys on the ice who really don’t have defined positions. They are constantly moving, they’re almost on what amounts to a full zone cycle. It makes it really hard on the defending teams to cut down lanes for passes because the opponents are moving in and out. I haven’t had a chance to talk with others about this, but I think the end goal is to create a two on one in as high a grade A scoring position as you can.”
Truth is there is no chance Darryl Moxam will ever turn down an opportunity to talk hockey, strings attached or not.