A slight smell of sweat permeated the nearby offices of Yost Ice Arena.
A group of defensive players had been ushered into a room straight from practice. But no one cared about the discomfort of their noses. Their eyes and ears laid focused on a single person, breaking down a clip from the day’s practice.
Newly hired assistant coach Kris Mayotte was giving a lesson.
It did not take a discerning eye to tell where the Michigan hockey team needed help last year.
Out of the 60 teams in the nation, the Wolverines ranked 46th in penalty kills. As for goaltending save percentage, they ranked second-to-last in the nation. It was very clear what they needed to change to fix their struggles.
The original intent was to keep everything similar, amid concerns that overreacting would be detrimental to the team’s progress in buying into the current system. But former assistant coach Brian Wiseman’s abrupt move to the Edmonton Oilers forced Michigan coach Mel Pearson’s hand, and he made the necessary adjustments.
“Goaltending, save percentage 59th out of 60 teams in the country. That’s not gonna cut it. Penalty killing. We have to get better,” Pearson said. “So we've added Kris Mayotte from Providence who’s brought in some new ideas and given us a different perspective.”
Mayotte left the Friars, where he helped the team tie for sixth in the nation in penalty kill percentage and 14th in goaltender save percentage. His expertise lies in the two areas Michigan struggled with most, and when the Wolverines narrowed the search, his name headlined the shortlist.
“A tremendous amount of people interested in the job,” Pearson said. “We just broke it down and looked at strengths and weaknesses of the program, on the ice, the coaching end of it, also the recruiting part of it. He just sort of came at the top of the list as far as adding a defensive guy and a goalie guy and a guy to run the PK and some areas where we really needed some help.”
A phone call later, and Mayotte let it sink in. He would be coaching for Michigan, where he was the de facto penalty kill coach, as well as assisting with goaltending coaching duties with volunteer coach Steve Shields. Upon accepting the job, he picked up the phone again in the proceeding days, this time to make calls to introduce himself and his new system to the players.
Mayotte’s belief about penalty killing systems is that they are, for the most part, all the same.
To him, what differentiates systems are the things people choose to emphasize.
“If you talk to 10 different coaches, what they emphasize when they teach this specific system is the subtle difference,” Mayotte said. “Some talk about pressure, first and foremost, some talk about stick positioning, first and foremost, some talk about, reading.
“There’s a couple different systems, there’s high opt pressure, there’s a little bit more passive, where you can block low, a few more shots, and just sit and shot lanes and try and be inside. And then what you see in the NHL is what they call, a track down or triangle and one.”
The system Mayotte likes to teach, however, is none of those. What he prefers is a straight line, go-press style. He believes the aggressive attitude on the penalty kill forces the opponents to make the plays and subsequently, the errors.
Evaluating his roster, he found the Wolverine players had two strengths: they were quick, and they were smart. And so his emphasis was on those two things. Make the read. Call the press. Be aggressive.
“One-go-all-go type things so that the pressure isn’t for naught,” Mayotte said. “(The team’s) taken advantage of (the speed and smartness), and hopefully forcing the power play to play a little faster than they're comfortable playing. And then force mistakes that way.”
As for goaltenders, Mayotte believes in the exact opposite. There is no forcing anything with the netminder. Mayotte simply waits and listens.
“Even just from practices, I'll start clipping video for them,” Mayotte said. “So that we can sit down and watch and kind of go over a couple of things, and have conversations and the big thing with the goalies, is you know, I’m not going to ask them to play my game, or they have to be comfortable.”
His focus with goaltenders is to hear them out. In his eyes, there are things to do, but overall, Hayden Lavigne and Strauss Mann are not bad goalies.
“Hayden backs up this team — they’re Frozen Four the year before,” Mayotte said. “And Strauss, you know, won a championship, and he really had a good junior career.”
Despite their earlier successes, Lavigne and Mann struggled with consistency last year, recording a .884 and .895 save percentage, respectively.
So Mayotte’s approach with them was simply to let them hit the reset button and talk them through the bad times. Stop a puck and shut out a game, and they get a lot of confidence. Let in a breakaway or a backdoor goal, and suddenly that affects them and the game slips away.
“You go out and you have a bad game and you give up five, it’s how do you respond,” Mayotte said. “And I think that’s our goal is just, be consistent.”
And one of the methods to consistency is talk through the tough streaks.
“You talk only all the time,” Mayotte said. “And sometimes that’s just what goalies like to do is talk goalie. They just want someone that they can talk to about their situation and have an understanding because it is ultimately better or worse, it is a different position.
“The other five guys are doing something playing a completely different game than the goalie is playing. And sometimes they just need to vent and sometimes they just need someone to understand what the heck they're talking about.”
Waving the players in to talk, Mayotte opens the door to his office, ushering in a new approach with his tenure.