There may not be a tougher coaching job out there like being the head coach of an American Hockey League team.
With much roster turnover throughout the season with call-ups to the NHL team or from the ECHL affiliate, it can be hard to keep lines consistent and gameplans in order all while trying to delicately balance winning games and developing winning NHL talent.
The question becomes, how do you evaluate success in the AHL, particularly the team’s head coach, and given the fact that he is in a contract year.
Is success winning games and lifting Calder Cups? Or is the value of a coach more contingent upon the number of NHL prospects they’re able to develop under their guide? Or a healthy combination of both, right?
For Colorado Eagles second-year head coach Greg Cronin, it may be a little too early to tell. With only a season and a half of coaching Colorado under his belt, the fruits of his labor haven’t had quite enough time to fructify yet.
One of Cronin’s first big projects has been Colorado Avalanche 2018 first-round selection Martin Kaut. The Czech-born Kaut made the jump to the American League at just 18 years old and has been the clay that Cronin has been tasked to mold, and is likely the Avs’ biggest-name prospect currently with the Eagles right now. That’s another big part of evaluating an AHL coach, is taking those franchise top draft picks and successfully making them future NHL products.
“He’s a really great teacher,” said Kaut of his coach. “Last year, at the end of the season, I had everyday meeting with him like two hours everyday after practice. (Now) this year is so much different. I appreciate it because I’m a young guy and I need this.”
But stats, numbers, player’s opinions, what-have-you aside — how does coach Cronin feel he and his staff have done?
“I think, honestly, I’m probably my own worst critic,” said Cronin. “I take a lot of pride in our staff, our detail, our preparation, our relationship with the players — that’s big for me...I think our staff has done a really good job within that framework in the last year and a half. There’s a lot of consistency, a lot of transparency in what we’re doing.”
On the ice, the team has been doing pretty well. In the first year under Cronin’s guide, the Eagles earned a playoff berth. Now in his second year, he’s maintained a winning way for Colorado, which is currently in a playoff position with over half the season under wraps, while also sending close to a dozen players to the Avalanche over the course of the season, most of it in aid while the Avs were ailing in late October and November.
For Eagles general manager and Avs assistant GM Craig Billington, he admits it is a tough balancing act to coach and manage an AHL team. For Billington, a positive evaluation is based on a number of factors.
“You come to the minor league and understanding what we’ve been managing from an injury standpoint and where we are within our division. We’re really competitive, and I think a really good situation,” said Billington. “Watching our games, we’re in a position to do well most nights you watch us play and we want to win. At the same time, you look at our prospects getting ice time and how are the evolving. It’s a combination of all that...it’s a holistic approach.”
Culture is a word that is often tossed around a locker room and is used to describe a team’s attitude and style of play. It’s the coach’s job to establish the team’s culture, and for Billington and Co., a big part of evaluating their minor league coach and the success of the team is how well the organization’s culture is faciliated.
“I think Joe (Sakic), Chris (MacFarland, Avs assistant GM), myself have a plan of developing players in a winning culture. Most teams want to do that. I think it’s definitely a mandate from Joe that that’s a culture we want to create,” said Billington. “We think it’s a real positive to have a winning environment, and at the same time having that balance of exposing young players to situations. It’s a balancing act on any given day.”
As for evaluating the coaching of the team, Billington says it’s about facilitating that winning culture.
“With regards to coaching, managing that balancing act, understanding that developing and winning and organizationally getting direction of the vision that comes from Joe and then implementing that, I think is a big part of it,” he said.
When evaluating himself, coach Cronin admitted that he was a bit distracted last season with some unfortunate things that happened in his personal life, and he admits this season has been much better and clear-viewed for him.
While navigating a new team, city and organization after spending much of his professional coaching career within the New York Islanders organization — save a three-year stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs — Cronin had to endure the pain of losing both of his parents within an eight-week period during the Eagles’ inaugural season in the AHL.
“I think last year I had a lot of stuff that people would not want to go through in a lifetime that happened in a short period of time,” Cronin said. “...I had a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress — that’s human stress, you know, everybody deals with that. I think too often it bubbled into my coaching...It’s just part of life and it sucks.
“I lost my parents but I don’t want to use it as an excuse. I learned from last year and I think I’m more comfortable this year. There’s less chaos in my life.”
Although he doesn’t want to use that as an “excuse,” Cronin has every right to. That’s an unimaginable pain that would cripple even the hardest of souls. Doesn’t matter what you do, your work takes a backseat to family.
Even despite all that, again, Cronin was still able to show up to the rink everyday and coach his team to an inaugural-season playoff berth. This year, he says he’s in a better spot and things are looking up.
“I didn’t feel comfortable (last year) and that may have spilled into the way that I was coaching...This year, I’m way more relaxed, I’m calm and I’m enjoying it more too.”
This year the Eagles are soaring high. Through Feb. 1 of last season, the Eagles owned 50 points in the standings with a record of 23-17-4. This year, Colorado has 52 points through the first of February, all while playing two fewer games than last year. And while that may not seem like much, every point — every inch of improvement — is of the utmost importance. Take for example last season, the Eagles clinched a playoff spot in the final night of the regular season. This year’s two-point improvement could be the difference between postseason or not in what is a very tight AHL Pacific Division.
By all accounts, things have been going well in the Avs’ first year-and-a-half affiliation with AHL Colorado, and part of that success — maybe most of that — is a credit to its head coach.
“As an organization, I think we’re off to a good start these first couple months...we want to build on that and certainly continue to focus on winning hockey games and developing players,” added Billington. “I think organizationally we’re pleased with where we’re at.”