Predators coach Andrew Brunette on Pep Guardiola, gegenpress, and trying to find hockey's version of Total Football
A conversation with the Nashville coach on how pro soccer has helped shaped his hockey philosophy.
By conventional hockey thinking, the Nashville Predators season could have been deemed over on Nov. 23.
On American Thanksgiving, the Predators were closer to last place in the Central Division than being in a playoff position. If Thanksgiving sets the field, the Predators were out.
On Dec. 29, heading into Friday’s game with the Detroit Red Wings, the Predators are in a wild card spot. Nashville has gone 11-6-0 in it’s last 17 games, during that time the Predators have averaged 3.11 goals per game.
While Barry Trotz is the cardinal figure in Nashville, and the GM tasked with saving the franchise he once led as a head coach, Andrew Brunette has been entrusted with changing the way Nashville plays hockey in his first full-time head coaching gig.
Trotz has given up on defensive lockdown hockey, and given Brunette a chance to play a more free-wheeling, fun style that has taken off for the Predators since Thanksgiving.
“Obviously we have different styles and I bet sometimes he watches our team play and thinks, ‘ooh this is a little bit risky,’” Brunette said. “I like to play more of an uptempo game, while his teams were always strong defense first. But I think he’s embraced this is the way the game is going. He’s a Hall of Fame coach, but he doesn’t come down and second guess me.”
Brunette was the interim coach for the Florida Panthers during the 2021-22 season, taking over when Joel Quenneville was essentially forced to re-sign because of his involvement in the Chicago Blackhawks cover-up with Kyle Beach.
In that one season Brunette had a 51-18-6 record and was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award. But he never got the full-time job, mainly because the Panthers behind closed doors still gave Quenneville most of the credit for Brunette’s success.
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Despite not getting the Panthers full-time job, Brunette embraced an opportunity to help run the offense as an associate coach with the New Jersey Devils, working closely with Lindy Ruff for a season before Trotz called this spring.
Brunette has learned from his NHL playing and coaching experience, take nothing from that, but part of his growth and influence as a coach comes from his study of professional soccer.
“I read and watch a lot of soccer and study the spacing, and I see the transition of the game (in soccer) and the different little loopholes and adjustments coaches make to attack and create space,” Brunette said. “I watch basketball for that too, but really spend a lot of time reading about and watching soccer, and it makes me better hockey nerd. Where do we find the space? How do we attack it? That’s where my philosophy on the game has gone.”
Brunette has particularly studied and learned from Pep Guardiola, the current manager at Manchester City. He’s also learned from Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp.
“It started with Barcelona and Pep, and I watched him from when he went to Bayern and now at Manchester City,” Brunette said. “I look at Liverpool and how they gegenpress, how they get the ball back right away and try to capitalize right away in that moment. It’s a little chaotic with Liverpool, but there is something there that we can put into hockey. So I try and mix and match those different things, find how it adapts to hockey.”
Brunette looks at hockey as currently entering its “Total Football stage,” which the Dutch national team and Ajax initially started for soccer in the 1970s. The concept where any player can take any other player’s role, positions didn’t matter, it was more about execution.
Hockey isn’t there, yet. But the fact that almost every NHL team now effectively has four players deep in the zone and defenders joining the rush is just evidence to Brunette’s point.
“It’s become how do we develop a system where it’s basically four forwards and one D man, a hybrid almost,” Brunette said. “So we are always talking about that. I think about it from soccer and last year I read a great book on this called Zonal Marking how through time soccer has evolved, and as I read it I kept thinking about how we can parlay this to hockey. It’s different (sports), but it can be similar.”
I’ve talked to many hockey coaches who steal coaching philosophies and approaches from other sports — typically motivation based — but Brunette is one of the most publicly open I’ve spoken to about stealing tactics.
For example, he’s recently been studying more of the spacing related to basketball, how that sport has evolved and creating open 3-pointers turned the Golden State Warriors into a modern dynasty.
Soccer and basketball have also borrowed from each other, basketball in-bound plays and picks have become common on free kicks in soccer. Those elements, Brunette says, can also be implemented into hockey with how players run semi-legal interference on faceoffs.
“To bring this back to how things connect, I think about how rushes and pressing in soccer, how it creates holes in coverage and manipulates space, even if a player might not score,” Brunette said. “And that’s where hockey is going, you get four and even five in on the rush, like go watch Vancouver. You need to create off the rush, you need to control that space, and it’s how we really have to look at the future.”