After seven regular-season games, what have you liked the most from your team?
I’m pretty happy with the consistency so far. The guys have competed in every game and, for the most part, we’ve played our system pretty well. Our penalty-killing has been good and our defensive play has been good. Everyone’s talking about how well Matěj Machovský has played in goal and he’s done a great job, but you also have to give credit to the guys who play in front of him.
What is the biggest thing you need to improve?
I feel that in a couple of games, we started strong but somewhere along the way, especially when the score was close, we backed off and tried to protect the lead a little bit – even a one-goal lead. That allowed the other team to get back into the game and get some momentum. I think we dropped some points against Hradec Králové and Mladá Boleslav because of that. That was last weekend and we talked about that, and the guys did a good job in the last home game against Chomutov.
Those two games you mentioned, you dominated early and had lots of chances, but only led 1-0 halfway through…
In those games, we had a lot of chances to score the second goal and didn’t do so – either because their goalie made a great save or we just didn’t bury it. That’s hockey sometimes, but when that happens we want to keep the pressure on, stay out of the penalty box, and not let the momentum shift.
Do you think taking penalties at bad times was a factor as well?
I’ve noticed a pattern there, where we were pushing and pushing, and then we take a penalty and even if the team doesn’t score, they get momentum from two minutes of being on the power play, and it changes the flow of the game. That’s something we’ve addressed and it’s a pattern we want to change, for sure.
In the second game against Hradec Králové, you sat the entire top line of Lukáš Pech, Petr Kumstát and Petr Vrána. Is that something you plan to do often?
It depends how healthy we are. When we’re healthy, I think we should give our young players a chance. They were all in training camp with us, so I think it’s important to get them into games early in the season as well. We’ve got a good crop of young players and they deserve a chance, and I think everybody on the team understands that. This was also a stretch where we played five games in 10 days, so nobody was upset.
Machovský has started every game so far. Your backup goalie, David Honzík, is also playing for Slavia Prague in the second division. Do you plan to start him at some point?
Yeah, David deserves some starts. He played for Slavia yesterday and he got a shutout. He works hard in practice and he played well for us in the pre-season, so we’re going to try to get him in there. It’s tough to take out a guy who’s had a good stretch of games like “Macho” has right now, but we’re going to get David in there for sure.
After seven games, what do you think of the Czech Extraliga?
I think the speed has been really good, the games have had good pace, the skill level is high and it’s good hockey. It’s also very close. I used to think the German league was close, but if you look at the goals scored and goals against of the teams in our league, there’s not much of a difference, so that means every game is big and there aren’t any teams you can look past.
Anything else that’s surprised you?
I thought it would be more open. I thought there would be more space for guys to skate, but there’s less room on the ice than I was expecting. Most of the teams are very well organized and play well defensively, and the toughest games we’ve played, there’s been virtually no room on the ice. I like that because it’s a big challenge as a coach.
You have a few players who are new to the league as well. How have the three Canadians adjusted?
Very well, I think. Jeremie Blain has been great for us on the blue line and plays a lot of minutes. Steven Delisle is a stay-at-home defender, he’s good on our penalty killing and he’s a character guy – he’s good in the room and both of them have fit well into the team. Zach Sill was an addition we made because we were specifically looking for a defensive-minded centre, and I would say he’s been outstanding – he’s a key guy on our PK and has a faceoff percentage of 62% or something like that. All three of them have fit into the team very well. They’re very grounded, not prima donnas.
It’s interesting you say they’re good in the room when they don’t speak Czech. How has the communication been, not only for them but for yourself as well?
Early on, I thought that was going to be difficult because, for a coach, communication is maybe the most important thing. After the first week of training camp, though, I could see it wasn’t going to be a big deal. Some of the guys speak perfect English, and most understand at least enough to understand what I want to say. And for the guys who don’t speak a lot of English, because of repetition, they’ve caught on to the terms I use. As a coach, you repeat a lot of what you say each practice – you’re not coming out with entirely new things.
Do you depend on help from assistant coach Jaroslav Nedvěd to communicate with those players?
I do less and less, really. At the beginning, I made him translate quite a bit because I wanted to make sure the guys understood what was going on. Now, I’ll look to a player to see if he understands and he’ll give me a nod to let me know he does. Terms like “high forward”, “net front”, “screen”, “traffic in front” or “box out”, they know from repetition.
As you and Jaroslav Nedvěd are both former defencemen, do you put more emphasis on the defencemen?
I want to score as many goals as possible and give up as few as possible. Simple. (smiling) No, of course I pay attention to the defencemen and I want them to play their positions. I believe that when the defencemen start running around the ice, that means a forward has to take his position, and you end up with guys out of position. In a well-structured game, the defence move the puck quickly to the forwards. Every once in a while you’ll see a defenceman join the attack, but I don’t like my d-men leading the rush.
But your leading scorer right now is a defenceman, Jan Košťálek…
Yeah, because he’s been good on the power play. That’s where he’s done most of his damage. He’s been good, but in the pre-season, he was running around and giving up odd-man rushes against, and we calmed him down a bit and because of that, he’s been good defensively and he still gets his offensive opportunities. He’s a talented guy.
You mention how well the team has played defensively, but Sparta has allowed more shots on goal (241) than any team in the league.
I saw that stat too, so it’s a question of where those shots are coming from. Machovský can see those long shots if there’s no traffic in front. Of course, any shot on net still has the potential to go in, so maybe we need to tighten up a bit there, but overall I think the amount of quality scoring chances we’ve allowed is pretty low.
Your next game is against Olomouc, who actually have the most shots on goal per game in the league (32.22).
Yep, it’s going to be a challenge. We just did some scouting on them, and Olomouc is a fast team with lots of energy and they’ve been in every game. You know how every team is always ready to play against Sparta, so we have to be sharp, stay out of the box and get our game going. Olomouc is going to be really tough and then Zlín on Sunday is going to be tough too. From what I hear, when they come to Prague they play well defensively and wait for their chances, so both games we have to be smart. We have two tough games ahead of us this weekend.