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Lightning players have bought into the 1-3-1 forechecking system employed by intense rookie head coach Guy Boucher, who has a degree in sports psychology. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))

Guy Boucher is not your typical National Hockey League head coach, let alone first-year bench boss.

He has a degree in sports psychology. He runs regular practices on game days. And he has drawn the respect, not ire, of Tampa Bay Lightning players whom Boucher has singled out during on-ice workouts for missteps and forced them to do push-ups.

Lightning goalie Dan Ellis doesn't see the push-ups as a form of punishment but rather a chance for the players to get an extra level of conditioning and mentally prepare themselves to develop better practice habits.

"He's got reasoning and purpose for everything," Ellis said of Boucher in a phone interview with CBCSports.ca. "He knows what he wants and how he wants us to play and he doesn't accept any shortcuts. He's a very intense coach and very demanding."

Boucher has also been a very successful coach through the first six weeks of the season. His Lightning have spent time atop the Eastern Conference, but a three-game skid dropped them to eighth spot with a 8-7-2 record through Nov. 15.

Fellow rookie coach Scott Arniel has led the Columbus Blue Jackets to a 9-6-0 start after taking over from Claude Noel, who was given the interim tag following the firing of Ken Hitchcock in February.

Craig Ramsay is off to a decent start in Atlanta (7-8-3), but things haven't been rosy for Edmonton's Tom Renney (4-9-3) and New Jersey's John MacLean (5-11-2).

What separates Boucher from the rest of the rookie class, according to Ellis, is his knowledge of the game.

New style of play

He looked like a genius in the first few weeks of the season when he employed a 1-3-1 forechecking style from his days with Drummondville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and last season with the American Hockey League's Hamilton Bulldogs, with whom he won league coach of the year honours.

'He's definitely the best coach I've ever had. ... He understands us [players] as people.'— Lightning goalie Dan Ellis on head coach Guy Boucher

Over the last 15 years, most NHL teams have played a form of the neutral zone trap, a 1-2-2 or 2-2-1 alignment that has players standing in the middle of the ice trying to "trap" the opposition into committing a turnover.

"He's an innovator. I think he firmly believes if we play strong defensively," Ellis said, "we'll score enough goals with the firepower we have.

"He's definitely the best coach I've ever had, in terms of his organization and understanding of the game. He understands us [players] as people."

In return, the players — most notably leaders such as captain Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and youngster Steven Stamkos — have bought into Boucher's system.

Ditto for defenceman Ron Hainsey and his Thrashers teammates in Atlanta, where Ramsay's straightforward, direct approach has been welcomed by many players.

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Head coach John MacLean's message might not be getting across to the players in New Jersey, where the Devils are off to a 5-11-2 start. ((Rich Schultz/Associated Press))

Like Boucher, Ramsay — who played 14 seasons in the NHL — has a reputation as an excellent teacher with a keen understanding of the game.

His aggressive system encourages defencemen to get involved in the offensive rush. Head coach Joel Quenneville used the same approach last season and watched his Chicago Blackhawks win their first Stanley Cup title in 49 years.

Learning from mistakes

"The other thing is, when we're in the [offensive] zone, he wants us shooting the puck every time we can," said Hainsey of Ramsay. "That's going to give us the opportunity to … generate some offence [from the back end].

"We go over as much video as I ever have, good and bad," added Hainsey, who's in his eighth NHL season with his third team. "If you go out and show improvement he puts you right back on the ice. We're learning from our mistakes as we go and getting better."

That hasn't been the case in New Jersey, where MacLean undoubtedly is wondering how much longer he can keep his job.

Only the New York Islanders, who fired coach Scott Gordon on Monday, have a worse record in the East. And there are rumblings of a disconnect with the coach and $100-million US forward Ilya Kovalchuk, who was benched on Oct. 23 for reportedly being late for more than one team meeting.

Hitchcock believes each NHL team needs a group of leaders to dissect the message from the messenger because players sometimes get overwhelmed and lose the message.

"That's what made it so successful in Dallas and in Philadelphia," said Hitchcock, who joined the Flyers as an assistant coach in 1990 and left for the Stars organization in 1993. "I had unbelievable people in the locker room who could dissect the message.

"Generation Y is one of the most observant, well-rounded individuals you're ever going to work with. They just don't want to know what they're doing. They want to know why they're doing it. I think that's the big adjustment for a lot of coaches."

After coaching the Stars' International Hockey League affiliate in Kalamazoo, Mich., for two-plus seasons, Hitchcock replaced general manager/head coach Bob Gainey behind the bench in Dallas, where he tried unsuccessfully to implement an aggressive system that mirrored that of the high-flying Oilers teams of the '80s and '90s.

"As soon as you see it's not working, it's lessons-learned time," Hitchcock, who has won 534 NHL regular season games and a Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999, said over the phone.

"I was lucky. I had two veteran assistant coaches [in Doug Jarvis and Rick Wilson] and a veteran general manager [Gainey] who had been a coach, and they really helped me adjust.

"You can't force the system if you don't have the players to play that style. You have to be able to adjust to the type of players you have."

Sounds like your typical NHL head coach.