Jim Playfair was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round, 20th overall, in 1982. He is one of only 14 players to average a point-per-game in their time with the Oilers. Playfair only played two NHL games with the Oilers, but he produced one goal and an assist. “I scored in the 13-4 game against New Jersey where Gretz got into trouble, (called the Devils a Mickey-Mouse organization). I think it was the 11th goal and Wayne brought the puck over to the bench and said ‘big goal,’’ chuckled Playfair.
Wayne Gretzky averaged 2.4 points-per-game in Edmonton scoring 1669 points in 696 games. While their games, and positions, were different Playfair can claim he is the rare group of point-per-game Oilers. Playfair was a rugged defensive defender as a pro. He played three years on the Oilers farm team in Nova Scotia, and then signed as a free agent with the Chicago Blackhawks. He played 19 NHL games with the Hawks, but spent much of his time in the now-defunct International Hockey League.
After eight seasons of pro hockey he retired, was off for a year before being named the head coach of the Dayton Bombers in the ECHL. He coached there for three seasons, then moved up as an assistant coach with Michigan in the IHL for three seasons. Then he got a head coaching job in the AHL for two and a half seasons with the Saint Johns Flames. He won an AHL title in his first season, and in the middle of his third year he was promoted to Calgary as an assistant coach.
In 2006/2007 he was the Flames head coach for one season, then was associate coach for the next two. He went back to being a head coach in the AHL for two years, and then Dave Tippett hired him to be his assistant in Phoenix (now Arizona) in 2011/2012. They were together for six years, before being let go at the end of the 2017 season. He had two years off, before Tippett hired him in Edmonton last month.
Playfair has 22 years of coaching experience and he is looking forward to helping the Oilers become a better defensive team.
There has been a lot of focus on the Oilers lack of scoring depth, and rightfully so, but I’d argue the biggest area they need to improve is limiting their goals against. Over the past two seasons Edmonton has allowed 533 goals, 4th most in the NHL. Their offence is only 21st, so it needs help also, but reducing goals against will be at the top of head coach Dave Tippett’s to-do list.
Playfair will have a big role in that area as he oversees the defence.
Jason Strudwick and I spoke with Playfair recently about defensive play, his approach to coaching and he outlined his views on how he plans to help the Oilers defenders maximize their potential.
Jason Gregor: Now that you have the job, how quickly do you dive in? Are you calling each one of the defencmen individually to get a sense of who they are? Do you build that rapport with the players now or do you wait until camp?
Jim Playfair: I think we will reach out to the guys and speak to them right away. More importantly, I think my responsibility is to create an identity with them that I can put some fresh eyes on their game and give them the ability to start with kind of a clear identity.
I actually started back with Robyn Regehr in Calgary years ago by just watching a bunch of shifts, putting it together, and then sitting down and created an identity of a player that he could become at the top end of his game. So as we started that process we had a whole bunch of other guys come along and do the same. Whether they are older players, or younger players, I think all believe they can get better.
They want clear direction, they want accountability, and they want a common shared vision of how they can improve. And I think that is my responsibility for the rest of the summer. To go through their style of play, where we see them at now, and then meet them in training camp and have meetings with them, and then have group meetings with them and get them all on the same page and build the rapport. I think when an individual player has an identity and has a role, and he believes he can be successful in that role, then that is a great starting point.
Jason Strudwick: Do you set up posts, or markers that say when you’ve had a good game, and this is how you’ve done? Not so much goals and points or plus or minus but you angled here, or pushed guys off there, just so that when they do it right, they feel good about that shift-by-shift rather than being measured by games?
Playfair: What I started doing in the last four or five years was give them a four-point base to their game. If you’re doing these four things well consistently then you are going to be a good player. If one of them is off, you’re still going to be a good player. If one of them is on and the other three are off, what do we have to do to get these three back on?
They all want to play good, they all want to play well. They’re all under pressure, they’re all under the intensity of trying to win that game so you have to give them an internal visual that if I’m doing this right over and over again then this is going to give us a chance to win and me a chance to be a really solid player.
And I think developing that rapport with the players is; they’re going to play, they’re going to have bad shifts, they’re going to have bad periods, they’re going to have bad games.
My job is to make sure that they don’t have two or three in a row and just give them the accountability and the responsibility.
When players are playing well, they don’t want to talk to coaches, they’re good to go. But when they start to struggle a little bit and they start to feel like they’re getting disconnected to their own game you (coach) can jump and give them some clear direction.
I know from playing the game, playing defense has changed. The pressure on the players; they have to defend the rush, they have to accept the forecheck, they have to create the rush, now they’ve got to join the rush. To build all of that into an individual shift consistently, I think they need to feel good about themselves and they need to have clarity on what their game should feel like when they’re playing well.
MOVE THE PUCK…
Gregor: Jim, moving the puck up the middle of the ice today has become a necessity in the game. How do you help defenders to be able to move the puck more efficiently through the middle of the ice?
Playfair: I think the big thing is when they go back (for the puck) you have a structured system that you work with your centre down low, or your wingers down low in the corners. Those little pop passes, those little short little plays down low, they’re not always going to work and when they don’t work, the opposition is going to get a great scoring chance. But you stick with it.
I think that when those things break down, and the opposition has a scoring chance and the guy comes back to the bench you have to tell him that pass was right, we want to keep doing that. That’s not something you have to get scared and come away from. That’s our structure, that’s our system, it’s not going to work 100% of the time.
I didn’t really understand the value of that until we had a year end meeting with a group a couple of years ago in Phoenix and we were going through the defensemen and Ekman-Larsson said, ‘You know when you tell us it’s okay when those things happen, it gives our whole bench confidence to try it again’. Naturally, you want to shy away from it because it’s a turnover, it’s a dangerous play, and my theory is that you have a goaltender, so you have to be able to trust that down low play and I think that offense is created going side to side, low to high.
Defense is a defender containing them (opposition) in a certain area of the rink. So I’ve watched a bunch of the Oilers previous games and a bunch of games all across the NHL as a matter of fact, so I’ve got a bunch of clips prepared. Look at the Stanley Cup playoffs when Boston goes back, or St Louis goes back they make a four-foot pass to a centre iceman and they’re out of trouble. That’s what bringing pucks up to the centre of the ice is about and that’s a dangerous area to play in.
We’ve been brought up in minor hockey to never pass to the middle of the ice and now were seeing the change in the game, that’s a really viable option in the game to get them out. So you have to support them, you have to encourage them to do it and then when they’re having a bad game, they don’t want to do it. They want to shy away from that. So it’s a process, but it’s a trust process.
Strudwick: Oliver Ekman-Larsson said it’s a positive reinforcement, and you keep going at it. Is your approach like that all over the ice? To reinforce the good, rather than hammer on the bad?
Playfair: Yeah I think the players are under enough pressure today to be top performers and they get it from every different angle. When they come in with the assistant coaches and you’re sitting down and showing them some structure in their gameplay, I try to teach from the offensive blue line and back. The offensive zone is where the players have the most fun and that’s where many feel the best about your game, because they can get up there and play in the offensive zone for a while.
From there when you start to defend the rush, whether you’re reading through the rush or you’ve got your gaps and your dots and your sticks is good…When you’re in those positions it’s such a confidence thing for a player to feel like I’m good, I managed my ice and my job is to put you in bad ice, but I have good ice to start with.
So I think that becomes the issue and then what happens is they’ll start watching videotape with you, and if they start with bad ice then they’ll recognize right away that ‘okay the reason that happened is I was outside of the dots on the start of the rush as opposed to inside.’ And then they manage it themselves, and I think that comes with the evolution of your foundation of teaching at the start of the season, training camp and developing it.
Going back to Robyn Regehr. When you go back quite a few years like in 2004 I think I said, ‘You’re a million dollar defenseman. In your next contract you want to make three million dollars a year. What do those defensemen look like, what do they do, what are the consistencies of that player?’ And that’s how we built his game up to that. And that was a neat way to do it because everybody wins. He becomes a better player, we win more games, he gets what he needs and I think that’s still true today with these guys.
Gregor: I like that strategy of asking a player what he wants to become. Let’s switch from an individual to the team concept. The Oilers have struggled on the penalty kill for three consecutive years. They’ve had numerous different coaches, different defense coaches so I can’t sit here and say it’s just the system. When I look here at the minutes played, just on the defensive guys it’s Nurse, Klefbom, and Larsson, and Russell, your top guys. So how do you improve a penalty kill? Obviously, I know the goaltender has to play well of course, but what’s your strategy and theory on how to improve a penalty kill from the defense perspective and then adding in the forwards?
Playfair: I think you look at it like it’s the rhythm of the group, it’s the trust, it’s the consistency and you have to have your fundamentals. You’re going to give up something, the PP has good players, so try to limit them to give up something that everybody recognizes that if the puck goes there, they’re probably going to get a shot from there.
This is what we’ll try to eliminate: Shots from the middle, across ice passes, rebound scoring chances. So if those are your fundamental core values, you build off of that what you want to do. My big thing is in the defensive zone it really is five-on-five. Our goaltender counts right? So how do you get that mentality built into their mind; ‘Yeah I have ice on the entry, you’re disadvantaged but obviously in the zone, it’s five-on-five. That’s what it is.
So again there are fundamentals we have got to play on. But you’re right, everyone is trying to do the same thing and how do you eliminate the components that you think are important? I think shots through the middle are dangerous, I think cross seam passes are dangerous and I think those second chances around the net are hard to defend. So in saying that it’s not just the two defensemen, it is also the two forwards. I think it’s the group of the five guys on the ice and what is your rhythm and where are you going to push them into ice that allows you to pressure them.
Look at Arizona, one of the top penalty killers, San Jose, one of the top penalty killers, they put a lot of pressure on the wall. They come down a lot of the time and then the defenseman jumps and then it’s just a collapse in pressure. Boston in the playoffs held, they were just a little more controlled, but under one bad pass they all jumped and attacked. I think that’s going to become a hot topic and such a talked about issue and Edmonton I think we just have to say here is what we’re looking to get done. Some nights the bad guys are going to score. We just have to carry on from what we believe in and build it.
I don’t think there is one thing you can look at with the Edmonton Oilers penalty killing and say, ‘Okay if we can just change this one component we’re good to go.’ I think it’s a belief and the players have to feel good about going over the boards to kill a penalty and not go out there and go ‘I hope they don’t score.’
Gregor: What have you been doing the last few years?
Playfair: What have I been doing? I have three boys and they’re all a little bit older now so I’ve been lucky to spend some time with them. One is in school in Vancouver, one is playing hockey in Dalhousie pand one is an actor.
I rebuilt our house in Arizona, I fixed the cottage up, and I watched a lot of hockey. It was interesting watching hockey because it wasn’t about preparation for the next day, it was just to observe maybe what my friends were doing in the game, how the players were doing that I had coached and then just observing the changes in the game. What was new in the game, what players were trying in the game, what teams are trying in the game. I bought a Harley (laughs) and rode that for a while. And I acted in a movie, my son was in a movie in New York. I went down to referee in a movie if you can believe that after my history.
Gregor: You weren’t throwing any benches or anything?
Playfair: No, no, (laughs) I was a Swedish referee in the movie. The movie shot for two nights, it was the most boring two nights of my life. Standing on the ice for twelve hours and working for twelve minutes is like… painful but it was what it was (laughs).
Playfair’s enthusiasm was noticeable throughout our conversation. He had Strudwick all fired up, because of how he talked about defence. Struds really liked Playfair’s approach to encouraging defenders to keep making the quick passes, even when it doesn’t work. That is coaching. Mistakes are part of the game. You just want to limit them, but if you freak out every time a bad pass occurs the players won’t have any confidence and you can’t succeed in the NHL without it. It is impossible.
The Oilers won’t be the best defensive team in the NHL next season, but if they can be 16th (middle of the pack), then they should compete for a playoff spot. They were 26th in GA last year at 271. Colorado was 16th at 244. If Edmonton can cut down 27 goals they will be middle of the pack. I don’t think that is unrealistic.
They were 20th in goals scored at 229. The Carolina Hurricanes were 16th with 243. So an improvement of 14 goals puts them middle of the pack.
To me, those are realistic goals. Of course, you’d want them higher than 16th in both categories, but I don’t expect massive improvements.
They just need to become more attentive and work in unison defensively. I think their defence is capable of being middle of the pack, and we’ll see how Playfair’s approach helps get them there.