While he had played hundreds of games in the American Hockey League, Greg Moore had never coached at that level before taking over behind the Toronto Marlies bench midway through this season.
"It's tough to come in, in the middle of the year, for anybody, especially in the American League," noted Don Granato, who gave Moore his first coaching job with the USA Hockey National Development Program. "None of those players want to be in the American League so it's automatically the hardest spot to coach."
The Marlies posted a 12-20-2 record with Moore in charge and sat outside a playoff spot when the season was paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The staff and organization was so welcoming and made my transition as easy as possible, but there was definitely a learning curve," Moore acknowledged, "learning the players, learning about our staff and how things operate at this level and learning other teams and systems and the style of play. There's been a lot [to process] and a lot has changed, but for the good and I'm excited for the future."
Moore first called Granato when he was playing in the top German league during the 2014-15 season. Moore was interested in coaching and wanted to pick the brain of the USNTP's head coach. The pair hit it off immediately and one year later when an assistant job opened up Granato hired Moore.
"He's always looked at the game from the micro and the macro, you know, a player, but also a team," Granato, now an assistant with the Buffalo Sabres, observed, "and I liked the way he thought and processed that."
After three seasons as an assistant with the USNTDP Juniors, Moore earned a head coaching job with the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League. Just like with the Marlies, Chicago struggled at first.
"I could just see so much potential and so much promise in him," said Steel general manager Ryan Hardy, "and there's a style that he wants to play and it's nuanced with a lot of granular details in it and it just takes some time."
Moore eventually guided Chicago to the Clark Cup final in 2019 and the team got off to a blistering 15-4-1 start this year before Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas came calling about the Marlies gig. Sheldon Keefe had just been promoted to replace Mike Babcock in the National Hockey League.
"Greg's very open to new ideas and wanting to challenge the status quo and push things in a certain way, which aligns with Kyle and what they're trying to do there," Hardy notes.
"I'm excited he got the job," said Granato. "It's a huge challenge and I think he'll do well. I really do."
Moore, a product of the University of Maine, spoke to TSN via Skype this week. The 36-year-old reflected on his first experience as an AHL coach, listed which players impressed him the most and explained how his playing career, including 10 NHL games, influenced his approach behind the bench.
The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
What changes did you implement with the Marlies this season?
"I wouldn't say there was too much. The style of play was pretty similar in terms of what we were doing in Chicago and what the Leafs have been doing. Some of my triggers and/or my phrasing of concepts might be a little bit different in certain areas. There's a few drills that I've implemented or concepts I implemented that were a bit out of the box for players. I recognized with this age of player it's a lot different than junior kids. The junior kids come in and they don't have a foundation of structured hockey or a sense of what to expect so when you throw new ideas or concepts at them they're open-minded to what is possible. I've noticed here that these players already have a foundation. They're really smart, brilliant athletes and have had years of playing a certain way or thinking a certain way or practising a certain way so when you throw things at them that are a bit different it takes them a little bit to get used to it. That's one of the biggest challenges that I noticed coming into this level is getting the player buy-in and getting them to be open to different things."
What is an example of a different type of drill that you introduced?
"To start practices I liked to do a lot of possession drills that may not be game realistic ... it's about trying to move pucks in and out of space using your teammates. How are you using that space? How are you supporting your teammates? How are you handling the puck? How is your brain identifying time and space or identifying your options before you get the puck? There's a lot of concepts within it that we try to work on that hopefully gives players tools to use within the game regardless of the situation."
In terms of phrasing, one of the players mentioned when you first took over that you prefer 'depositing the puck' rather than 'dumping the puck.' How did you come to that?
"I actually got the term from John Wroblewski who works at the National Development Program. He used the word 'deposit' and I thought it was a great way to get the players to buy-in to putting the puck to a place with purpose. So, just giving it more of a positive connotation and getting the players to think, 'Where am I placing this puck so that we can recover it and gain possession again.'"
How has your playing career shaped you as a coach?
"I wasn't a great thinker of the game. I'd probably put my head down and go north as fast as I can and it was rare that I'd be cognizant and think about where my teammates are and where am I creating this two-on-one or playing give-and-go hockey. Once you get into hockey and studying the game and you start learning it from the people around you and studying film you start to develop a thought process and things you wish you had as skills and/or assets when you played. So, your passion becomes wanting to transfer those things to the next generation of player and give them the tools that maybe you didn't have as an athlete. For me, that really is a strong element of why I want to teach a style of play that I was not [demonstrating] as a player, because I think it's extremely interesting and I'm passionate about studying it and wished I had that brain when I played."
Which players impressed you with the Marlies this season?
"Adam Brooks is a great player, very smart, can really make his teammates better with how he distributes the puck.
"I was really surprised with Egor Korshkov. He came back from injury and I hadn't seen him when I first got there, but as soon as he got into the lineup, his ability to create offence [stood out]. For a really big player you'd think he'd have more of a power game and go north, but he really has the brain for finding space, finding his teammates. He won't rush up the ice without his teammates, he'll wait for someone to come up and create a two-on-one, play give-and-go hockey and then when he does that he creates time and space and starts taking the puck to the net and using his strength and speed.
"[Timothy] Liljegren with his mobility and his skating. I know you interviewed him last week and he has so many tools. Really great kid, really good teammate, really smart. His ability to break pucks out, transition through the middle of the rink, join the line rush, he can separate himself from people and that makes him really dangerous.
"[Rasmus] Sandin, obviously, was up [with the Leafs] for most of the season. I saw him for a really short period of time, but really smart player and has a bright future.
"[Jesper] Lindgren, really smart, really consistent, really steady, you may not see him as flashy as Liljegren and separate himself but, man, he does a lot of good stuff. He's smart offensively and defensively.
"[Joseph] Duszak, [Mac] Hollowell are another couple young defencemen who had to fill in this year with call-ups and injuries and they did a great job. They belong at that level. Their skating was really good and they were able to get pucks away early up ice, create offence, distribute pucks, really good at the offensive blueline to get activated and find open space and create two-on-ones. They were a great addition to our back end.
"And then Kenny Agostino was probably our best player. At times when we were down maybe two or three goals he would go out and try and finish hits and try and bring energy, which isn't necessarily his game all the time and that's a tribute to the type of person and player he is. He wanted to be an impact guy and do anything he could do for the team to try and win hockey games. If it was an overtime situation or pulled-goalie situation, he just wanted to be the guy and he has the mentality that he wants to be the one to make it happen and he's not going on the ice scared to cause the goal against. He was a really good teammate, really good leader for us and contributed in a lot of ways."
Who are your coaching role models?
"When I was younger, I played for Mike Eaves at the US Program and World Juniors as well and he was the person that had motivated me to want to coach and that was when I was 18-years-old. His ability to organize a team, get everybody on the same page, communicate [was impressive and] at the time he was very progressive in his systems and his concepts and, obviously, we had success playing under him. He was just a great person. You could tell he genuinely cared about everyone in the room. And then working for Don Granato my first year in coaching really flipped my brain about how I think about the sport and how I process development. He has an outside-the-box way of thinking about the game. He's a great coach and someone who helped cultivate how I approach coaching and I've learned a lot from him."
What do you remember about winning gold at the 2004 World Juniors?
"Oh, the group of guys, the coaching staff. I've asked that same question to some players the last few years, you know, what their special moments in hockey were and they always say a championship. And I always ask, 'What about that championship?' And every time the response is, 'The quality of person in the locker room, the quality of the staff and really enjoying the people that you're surrounded with within the process that it took to get there.' The majority of the players that played on that team with me at that World Juniors, we all played together for the two years at the National Program when we were 16 and 17 years old and then we had other guys that were on the team that were either a year younger than us and had played at the Program and I already knew or players that had come in at other national events that we had prior relationships with so it was just a really close group and it was a special moment, because it was the USA's first gold medal in that event. We're all vey proud of that and relationships were built there that will last forever."