Kenny McCudden’s work measurable with Thrashers prospects

By Holly Gunning

Kenny McCudden has made a lot of subtle tweaks in the games of many Thrashers prospects over the years.  But one was particularly dramatic.

Kurtis Foster, a 6’5 offensive defenseman, spent several years in the Thrashers system.  During the 2003-04 season, Foster made a big improvement in his skating and overall poise in just a few months.  Asked what had changed for him, one of the things he mentioned was that McCudden, as Skating and Skills Coach with the Chicago Wolves, had suggested putting longer blades on his skates. 

“We found it helped my balance a lot,” Foster said in March of 2004. “I’m not getting knocked off the puck as easily anymore.”

“That was an amazing story,” McCudden recalled recently.  “He’s a tall man, strong man.  I saw him teetering a lot.  He was always getting pitched forward.  He’s so tall that he’d get hit and he’d fall.  I said ‘I’m going to take a look at his skates.’  One day after practice I got his skates off the hook, looked at them and the blades were the same length of blade that I use, but his skates were three sizes bigger.  I said ‘Kurtis, let’s try an experiment here. Let’s try a longer blade and see where it goes.’  I said it might take him a long time to get used to them.  He put them on his spare skates the next morning just to see, and he said ‘They’re staying.’  He never looked back.  He got rid of that teetering.”

A longer blade meant more steel on the ice and more stability.  Foster’s booming slapshot, which used to be quite wild, became more accurate as he became more stable.  His improvement helped him find a permanent home in the NHL.  Foster was traded to Anaheim the following summer for Nic Havelid, and is now with the Minnesota Wild.

Years before, McCudden had read about NHL veteran Steve Smith wearing extra-long blades because he said it gave him more stability.  And McCudden himself wore a long blade compared to his size skate because he didn’t like the small casing they put on the blade.  He meshed the two stories together, his own and that of Smith, and has had about four or five guys in addition to Foster move to a longer blade.

“Some guys have said ‘no I don’t like it because my skates feel heavier,’” McCudden said.  “But the guys who feel the balance, that center of gravity is stronger – actually it does a lot of work for you.”

McCudden is a Wolves staple as Skating and Skills Coach. He has sessions once or twice a week with groups of just a few Wolves players before their regular practice, doing skill drills like catching and releasing, skating into a pass — little things tailored to what those players need to work on.

“My job, with the Wolves or when guys come to me in the summer, is to get their timing going,” McCudden described. “Throughout the year with the Wolves, it’s mandatory that every player must see me.  Their name gets put on a board by the coaching staff.  They only go a half an hour with me, we cut ice and then practice starts. What those three or four or five guys have on the rest of the team – they’re warmed up, their legs are feeling good, their hands are there, and they’ve got a good sweat going.  They’re ready for a good practice.”

Not every session is the same.  In fact, you can count on it being very different given McCudden’s large reportoire of drills and the fact that he tailors them for each player’s skill set.

“The three to five guys I’m getting, and I know who it is the day before, I know what I’m going to do with them the following day.  Every drill that I’m doing pertains to their position and pertains to their game.”

Players don’t mind the extra work, and have had nothing but good things to say about his coaching over the years.

Rookie of the Year Brett Sterling said of McCudden, “He just helps you hone your skills – puckhandling, skating, kind of putting it all together.  He’s worked with me on getting my shot up.  He really plays to your strengths.  When we were in Chicago, he worked with each individual guy in three-guy groups, so he’d work on the things he knows I’m good at, or Joe [Crabb]’s good at and try to get us better at them.  He works with me especially around the net trying to get different motions, being able to play the puck in front of the net.” 

Crabb, who along with Sterling had similar types of coaching at Colorado College, said he has been able to bring the things he worked on with McCudden into games, with good results.

“He’s a big help and he knows what he’s doing,” Crabb said last December. “If you don’t work on things, you’re not going to get any better. I see a big improvement in myself just from the start of practice to the end. I’d go out with him every day if I could.”

Background and approach

Having turned down an opportunity to play Division I NCAA hockey with University of Illinois at Chicago, McCudden started his career as an equipment manager with his hometown Chicago Blackhawks.  He left that position to try “the real world,” but didn’t enjoy it.  He then went into the hockey school business with an ex-Blackhawk by the name of Grant Mulvey in 1989.  They taught thousands of Chicago youth hockey players each year. In 1994, the Wolves began playing in the IHL, and McCudden was brought on staff from the beginning as a skating and skill instructor.  In 1997, he left to concentrate on youth-level hockey again. 

Within two years, and some Wolves coaching regime changes, current Wolves coach John Anderson pounded on McCudden’s door asking if he would come back.  Anderson had never seen McCudden on the ice, but only heard from players what he had done for them.  McCudden finally decided to come back on board in 2002, where he’s been ever since.  Through this connection, McCudden has been an instructor at Thrashers Prospects Development Camp for the past three years.

McCudden does some work for the Colorado Avalanche as well.  The team has him look at their players during Blackhawk games to diagnose issues.  He’ll make visits to Denver to work with players in the summer. “I’m very fortunate because they gave me a big break and my big break with them was Alex Tanguay,” McCudden said.  He diagnosed a skating issue in him in 2000 that no one on the team could solve.

Certainly McCudden’s personality is part of his success with players.  He has an enthusiasm and energy that’s infectious. 

Defenseman Grant Lewis, in his second year with McCudden at Thrashers prospects camp this month, said “Kenny’s had all the players buy in and that’s the most important thing.”

His emphasis on what a player is doing right, rather than wrong, may be a bit counter-intuitive, but it seems to gives players confidence.

“What I think pro players, even at the highest level, need to know is what got them there,” McCudden said.  “They have to be reminded of what got them there – work on the good things, work on the positives.  How many times do coaches work on nothing but negatives?  I think when you start the bond and relationship, working on the positives, once that player is in that position during a game they think ‘I’ve been here before. I’ve shot 50 or 60 pucks from here before.’ Now this once chance comes, and it’s my one chance in the National League, I’m going to let it go and hopefully execute.” 

Jordan LaVallee, another rookie who worked with McCudden extensively this season, agreed that his approach was a positive one.

“Definitely, he plays on a player’s strengths more than weaknesses.  He’ll come up to you and talk to you about what you do really well, and then he’ll very nicely give you things that he thinks you should work on.  But he never gets on a guy for making a mistake, he always looks at the positive in the situation.“

Skating and instruction in the new era

Observers agree that in the post-lockout NHL, now that obstruction has been cut down, skating is more important. You won’t hear McCudden arguing with that.

“There’s no doubt,” he said.  “That’s why you’re seeing more and more smaller players on every team.  The clutching and grabbing which you can’t do is allowing that player to free wheel.  The slower bigger guy, or slower smaller guy, is having a tough time.  No doubt you have to be able to wheel to be able to play.”

The new rules may weed out the bad skaters, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no work to do for instructors like him. 

“There are guys who will reach the highest level but who still need to work on their stride.  They could be an all-around tough guy and be a good solid skater, but they still need to work on it because if we ignore it, that might be a year or two off their career.  If we get at it and educate that player on what he needs to work on, guess what, he gains an extra year to two.”

Despite the increased importance of skating, those in Canadian junior leagues aren’t getting instruction in it. 

“The younger players who are coming out of junior where coaching staffs don’t have a chance to work on a lot of things I’m working on with players — the thing that I hear from the ones who come and see me, is ‘we’ve never seen these drills before,’” McCudden said.

Case in point Spencer Machacek, the Thrashers top pick in the 2007 draft out of the WHL, was asked about the sessions with McCudden at camp, and the first thing out of his mouth was  “He’s really good.  We don’t have a guy like that in junior.” 

“Division I it does seem like it’s being done,” McCudden said. “[NCAA teams] have a little bit of a bigger coaching staff.”

As the game has changed, bodies have changed too.  It’s now conventional wisdom that too much muscle slows a skater down. 

“When I first started in this game, you saw a lot of bulk – thicker players,” McCudden said.  “Quads were huge, big barrel chests.  Today I almost define them as looking like greyhounds.  Guys are slimmer, the quads are not as defined.  Their thinner from the torso down and the reason why I think is just because the game has changed that much with speed.  With this make-up of the body today, a greyhound, that’s where you see the agility and the mobility of north, south, east and west skating that much stronger.”

McCudden works with prospects in the winters and youth hockey in the summers, but what he teaches is not just for the up and comers.  Even the old dog can learn a new trick or two.

“Look at Tiger Woods, the greatest player in the world and he still sees a swing coach,” McCudden pointed out.  “Even take a guy like Joe Sakic. He’s getting up in age, he may be looking for things to do with his skating stride as he gets older to maybe even play an extra year.”

The issues he sees run the gambit.  “It could be turning, opening up towards the puck, it could be a backwards stride,” he said. “It could be mechanics of their forward stride, where the top half is working differently than the bottom half.”

Ongoing work with Thrashers prospects

In addition to prospects camp and work during the Wolves season, many Thrashers prospects elect for extra time with McCudden in the summer.  Players who have committed to him this year for August, whether it’s a few days or two weeks, are Sterling, LaVallee, Boris Valabik and Nathan OystrickGuillaume Desbiens is probable, with Crabb a possibility.  Players from other teams who will be coming are Chris Drury (New York Rangers) and Karl Stewart (former Wolf now with Tampa).  McCudden works with only 15 players maximum in these sessions.

Desbiens had serious skating problems when he was drafted in 2003, but has improved greatly over time. At 6’2, 210 lbs, Desbiens is a player with hands both for fighting and scoring.  He played in the ECHL in 2005-06 as a rookie, and 2006-07 was his first year in the AHL.  McCudden works with him particularly on his skating.

“I think he’s much stronger than where he was.  I still think he needs certain work,” McCudden said.  “I usually don’t ask players to come and see me in the summer, I let them step up and ask for it.  But I went to him this year and I said ‘I think you should see me for at least three or four days.’  His skating is stronger, he does need work in certain areas where he gets positioned in a game.  I would like to see a little more stops and starts instead of him just gliding.  I’d like to see more puck protection.  More agility work.  He’s a big man and his skating is stronger due to a lot of skill work in the morning and being with better and stronger players.  If we could apply a smoother stride, more balance, it’s just going to make him that much stronger.  Taking the puck to the net when players are draped on him. Right now it’s a balance thing with quick change of direction.”

Rookie defenseman Boris Valabik was another frequent pupil of McCudden’s this year in Chicago.  At 6’7, Valabik suffers from the mobility issues that players that size normally do, and some unique ones as well.

“Boris was probably with me 25 to 30 times this year,” McCudden said.  “He had some serious ankle injuries that set him back and five or six of the 25 sessions were just rehab, getting him back.  And that’s always tough because there’s only so much you can do with rehab.  With Boris, with his all-around skating, I felt when I first met him in prospects camp a year ago, he raised his skates very high, he was choppy, chomping at the ice, so you heard a very heavy thud of his skating stride.  I wanted to get a quieter stride and you get that by keeping your skates lower to the ice.  He’s starting to do that.  The thing we have to now work on with Boris is a little more mobility, because he’s a big man with long legs.  It seems like the top half wants to go but the bottom half stays. 

“But Boris is an incredible student of the game, always has questions off the ice, and just wants to get better.  Boris asked me at prospects camp last year what he needed to do to get better.  I shared some things with him.  He worked on those things in the summer and got better.  When he came to Chicago, we had a whole new outline for him and I think we nailed everyone of those things down, but we’re far from done.”

At this month’s prospects camp, 2005 draftee Myles Stoesz was another who asked McCudden what he could work on in the summer.  McCudden told him explosiveness, and demonstrated a few ways to get a full extension, land on the ball of the foot, get full power.  McCudden said afterwards that it was “a good conversation.”

The closest of the three to ready, LaVallee believes his all-around game has improved by all the work he’s done with McCudden.  “All the drills that he does are concentrated on very game-like situations so when you get on the ice, there’s so much repetition in those situations that when it comes, you’re just ready for it.”

In particular, LaVallee said, “He’s helped me a lot with my release. It’s gotten a lot quicker.”  They’ve been working on a lot of skills in front of the net.  “Quick movement in front of the net, quick decision-making,” he said.

McCudden praises LaVallee’s work down low and hunger for the puck. But, as LaVallee described, he nicely points out what he needs to work on. 

“One thing he’s talked about a lot is he says I go into the corners and I come out with the puck maybe 90 percent of the time, very well, but when I do come out I have kind of tunnel vision to the net,” LaVallee said. “[Kenny] says in order to get to that next level, add something to my game that a lot of guys don’t have, I need to be able to see the ice a little bit better coming out of the corners like that.”

All of this will be on the agenda during in their time together in the August sessions.

“Last summer I spent seven or eight days where I actually stayed at his house, skating with him and probably five or six other guys from the Wolves and a couple guys from the NHL twice a day.  And I’d say [I worked with him] probably 15-20 times during the season before practice,” LaVallee said.

“I’m probably going to do about the same with him this summer, try and keep the formula the same since it worked so well last year.”

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