Teaching hockey players how to improve has been the only job Darryl Belfry has ever held. When he was 19 years old he started his own business, giving private lessons. Now, after working with the likes of Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, Matt Duchene, Max Pacioretty, and Patrick Kane, he's helping hockey's biggest organization, the Leafs, develop their players.
In November, Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas reached out to the performance coach about joining the club as a consultant as the team shifted philosophy and remastered their development process and philosophy.
On December 1, in the midst of the Leafs struggles, he officially got the ball rolling and began working with the organization's development team and six of its players, the majority with the Marlies.
"It was just a matter of trying to get started on some level, get some players moving inside of this particular philosophy and then see how that philosophy can be adapted into a much wider program going forward," Belfry said in a phone interview.
After getting the program in place, Belfry set his sights on working in conjunction with the rest of the staff with the Leafs and the Marlies.
By working in tandem with everyone in the organization, Belfry can evaluate what's really been effective by using everyone's ideas towards a bigger, better plan, he said.
"That's what you're seeing now," Belfry added, noting that the organization was nothing but receptive.
So receptive, they encouraged him to continue to work with other players from other organizations rather than prohibit him.
"One of the things that's important to my own personal development is I need to work with the best players in the world to get better," Belfry said. "The Leafs were smart enough to recognize that that's important to my growth so that that then allows me to be better for them."
Belfry admits he's fortunate enough to work with the best players and that it's in everyone's best interest it stays that way.
"It's important that I always have a handle on what is going on with the best players in the game," he said. "That's only going to help with my work and my observations with how I work with the Leafs."
And while Belfry wouldn't and can't discuss which six players he worked with, he believes all of them have made progress since December.
He began by creating what he refers to as a "habit profile," which he matches against what he knows translates to NHL success for young players.
"We were able to get a pretty good feel for what part of each player's game had NHL translatability and what parts of their game didn't," Belfry said. "And then in conjunction with the rest of our development staff and the Marlies staff we were able to creat a much longer path."
It was important, as Belfry got started with each player, that the staff carried it over. According to Belfry, they did an excellent job of it too.
"They didn't just drop it, they were able to keep it moving and I think that's a key going forward, especially with young players, is to maintain that consistency in the messaging," Belfry said. "I was really amazed with the diligence of our entire staff, especially the (Marlies) coaching staff."
What the staff managed to do was very difficult because it was mid-season, Belfry concluded, adding that it was much appreciated by him.
Each of the players took steps towards improving their unique tools, Belfry said, whether that be reshaping skating habits or working on patience in body position to establish plays down low or gain more poise with the puck.
"I felt like each one of them had made a significant amount of gain in their own personal area and that's the way it should be," he added.
Moving forward, Belfry believes the things he's teaching will become the norm for NHL teams and are already evident in today's top franchises.
One of the areas that are important in order to succeed in the NHL is in how teams enter the offensive zone. Belfry believes creating dynamic zone entries are more effective than the dump and chase style that some teams still play.
"Any time you put the puck in a 50/50 or you give the puck to the other team, the players in today’s NHL are so skilled with the puck that it’s very difficult to get the puck back in a good spot," Belfry said. "If you have the puck already on your stick, it’s much more advantageous, and I’m not going to say it’s easier, but it’s definitely better to create a play or to improve your position than it is to go get a puck back and start again."
By entering the offensive zone with the puck, teams are able to force the other teams into a reaction mode, according to Belfry.
The problem with dump and chase, he argues, is that the coordinated recovery of the defenders is so strong that it's hard to pin opposing players in and even if you can create a turnover, it's difficult to pinpoint where that turnover will occur.
By dumping, the forechecking team is forced to react.
"Offense is about dictating, it’s not about being in reaction," Belfry said, adding that one area where all players can be trained to improve is in changing speeds.
Belfry argues the NHL's number one skill is not max speed, but the ability to alter yours.
By working on a player's skating patterning, any player can quickly learn.
"They already have very high skating skill sets but oftentimes their patterning doesn't lend itself well to change speed that's going to be necessary in the NHL," he said.
Moving forward, Belfry is excited about what the future holds.
"There just wasn’t anything like this when I first started so it’s kind of evolved out of nothing into what it is now," he said.
For the Leafs, the change in philosophy isn't complete and some more changes in the approach to development will continue to take place this summer.
Beyond working with players who stay in Toronto, the Leafs will send players to where instructors are located because not all of the development staff is based in Toronto, Belfry said.
"Part of the message with the Leafs is that development started when the season finished and we have to provide development support to our players throughout the entire summer, whether we have a presence where they are or not."