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Foundation builder: Coyotes skating coach Lars Hepso plays critical role in player development

Craig Morgan Avatar
April 10, 2023

When 26-year-old Lars Hepso stepped on the ice for his first practice as the Coyotes’ new skating coach in 2018, he was greeted by a veteran staff of strong personalities that included Rick Tocchet and John MacLean.

MacLean indoctrinated Hepso in a manner that only Mac can master.

“I was told, ‘You have five minutes. You have this small space. Don’t wreck the ice,'” Hepso said, laughing. “He said it with a bit of a smile, but he was also dead serious.”

Despite changes at the ownership, general manager and head coach positions, Hepso is still here five seasons later. Everyone you ask — from the players whose stride he has shaped to the development and management staff whose confidence he has won — will tell you that Hepso’s longevity is a testament to his ability.

Skating coaches don’t get much external attention but what Hepso has done in his five seasons with the Coyotes is literally lay or tweak varying pieces of the foundation on which every player’s game is built.

“What I like about him is he really takes a game approach and doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel or think everyone needs to fit in the same box,” Coyotes director of player development Lee Stempniak said. “When we talk about a player, it’s very much about how it applies to that player’s game. He takes your strengths as a skater and then he works around those to help you fill in the gaps or help you with things that may be limiting you.

“How can a guy skate better to defend a rush? How can he get on his edges better to do certain things in game situations? It’s not, ‘My way or the highway.’ He’s really good at his job and he’s really bright. He very much finds ways to draw out the best in each player and maximize what they already are as a skater.”

Body composition plays a major role in Hepso’s tutelage.

“You’re going to treat a Clayton Keller or Matias Maccelli differently than you’re going to treat a Lawson Crouse,” he said. “A lot of it’s going to be flipped positioning and weight distribution is a huge one. With a bigger body, they’re going to be typically using that to protect the puck, and they’re taking pressure and spinning off of it. Not many tall guys in the league are beating guys off of speed alone.

“With the smaller guys, it’s a different animal. They’re doing a quick cut back and the guy doesn’t even touch them. It’s a little bit of deception, faking a pass and then making that turn. From a scheming standpoint, it starts with their base; making sure their weight is in the right spot. That’s one thing that people forget a lot is if your weight is in the wrong spot to begin with, you’re going to be off balance during your turn and you’re not going to be as strong.”

Evolution of Lars Hepso  

Hepso and his younger brother Jeremy were decent players growing up in British Columbia (first Langley then Penticton). Lars played three seasons in the BCHL for the Alberni Valley Bulldogs.

While he figured out pretty early that a pro career was not in the cards, another potential vocation began to crystallize with each passing year and camp that he attended.

“For whatever reason, skating just came naturally to me,” he said. “When I went to all the skating camps, the coaches would always use me as the demo kid and I would get a pat on the back from them saying, ‘Wow, you’re so good at this.’ 

“I became the odd kid that actually liked to go to skating camps and do power skating, and I think a lot of it was [because of] that reward I got because it was what I was good at. It just kind of snowballed from there and kind of fueled me. I didn’t know it at the time, but my love is now for teaching.”

Hepso spent multiple summers as an instructor at the Okanagan Hockey Academy under Rob McLaughlin, who is best known for having worked with former Chicago Blackhawks star Duncan Keith. But as Hepso aged, he began to experiment with his own ideas and challenge the concepts that he had been taught. He also began to build his own clientele.

The first pro player with whom he worked was former Tucson Roadrunner Craig Cunningham. His stable of pro names increased from there, drawing in the likes of Danton Heinen, Mathew Barzal and Shea Theodore.

After collapsing on the ice due to acute cardiac arrest caused by ventricular fibrillation — an event that forced the amputation of his left leg below the knee — Cunningham was working as a pro scout in the Coyotes organization. He knew that the Coyotes skating coach position was about to open because Dawn Braid was departing, so Cunningham introduced Hepso to then-GM John Chayka.

“I ended up sending them some stuff just so they could review some of my work and then I went through the interview process and found myself in the NHL,” Hepso said.

Coyotes skating coach Lars Hepso
Coyotes skating coach Lars Hepso uses an iPad to teach players at development camp at the Ice Den Scottsdale on July 12, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Kelsey Grant/Arizona Coyotes)

Impact of Lars Hepso

The same year that Hepso arrived, the Coyotes selected Soo Greyhounds center Barrett Hayton with the No. 5 overall pick in the NHL Draft. One knock on Hayton was his stride, so both player and instructor dove into the task of refining it.

Hayton’s recent breakout (he has 12 goals and 26 points in 30 games since the All-Star break) can be attributed as much to his work with Hepso as it can be attributed to skilled linemates Clayton Keller and Nick Schmaltz.  

“We put a lot of hours in together,” Hayton said. “When I went back to the Soo, he was there with me. In the summer, I stayed with him in Kelowna or he came to Toronto to see me at my family’s home. He came to Tucson. I’ve been really fortunate to have him because he goes above and beyond what his job title is.”

Like Stempniak, Hayton noted Hepso’s personalized approach to teaching.

“There’s skating coaches who will show you clips of [Connor] McDavid or [Nathan] MacKinnon or Barzal — these absolute freaks they want you to be like,” Hayton said. “Lars does a really good job of knowing the skater you are, but he also finds guys in the league who play like you with a body type like you so you’re able to build off that in your stride while also taking things that are kind of universal.

“A lot of the work we did was focused on efficiency. I would work really hard skating and use a lot of energy because I always want to go, go, go so it was about being able to stretch it out so you can have that burst five or six times in a shift where you can generate separation or close on guys. He taught me cross-overs to be able to build speed. Routes were a big thing, too. There’s a skating aspect but there’s also a positioning aspect to them. Getting good at those routes and building speed in the right positions is huge and it was something I worked on nonstop.”

Hepso takes pride in every player that he helps, but the ones with whom he spends more time are the ones who provide a greater sense of accomplishment. As an example, he compared Schmaltz to Hayton.

“One thing Schmaltzy is extremely good at is getting the most out of every push he makes; he’s very efficient and very smooth on the ice,” Hepso said. “If you watch him, he’ll beat a guy with five strides and the other guy is taking seven or eight strides in that same period of time. It’s almost frustrating to watch for a lot of players because he’s going so fast and he looks like he’s not even trying.  

“A lot of that is technique based. He’s very good at generating as much power as possible with each push, with his turns, and he’s very good at carrying speed. As a result, he’s really good at not getting himself pinned on the wall. He creates a little bit of space with some type of deception and then stays on top of the ice through his turn so he’s able to carry speed out of that.”

Hepso’s work with Schmaltz has been minimal; just refining or tweaking things here and there and maybe working with him when he is on a rehabilitation stint. On the flip side, his work with Hayton has been constant.

“For him, it was a whole different path,” Hepso said. “It was a lot of work and he still puts in the work, and he probably will never stop until he’s done playing. He’s just gonna have to work on it his whole career and he has never shied away from that.

“Especially at the start, his weight distribution was a lot more back in his stance so he was more of a heavy skater. He doesn’t have that effortlessness like Schmaltzy does. Not many guys do. With him, it was a lot of edge work and understanding how to carry speed out of turns which he has done a really good job with.

“We wanted to build that base so that when someone does push on your hip or give you physical pressure, you’re not falling. It was also about understanding if you’re running on ice, you’re not necessarily going as fast as you might think. It looks like you’re working hard but if you think of the best skaters in the league, you don’t think working hard is what makes them great. It’s honestly quite often the opposite. You watch them skate and they make it look easy.”

Coyotes skating coach Lars Hepso
Coyotes skating coach Lars Hepso demonstrates a technique at development camp. (Photo courtesy of Kelsey Grant/Arizona Coyotes)

Challenges for Lars Hepso

Hepso’s greatest challenge may be finding enough time to touch all of the bases that he needs to touch. While he lives in Phoenix and is around the NHL club most, the Coyotes’ demanding schedule makes it hard to carve out time. 

“If you’re thinking of sessions as hour-long sessions, it’s never gonna happen,” he said. “When you’re teaching kids, that’s what you get. When you’re teaching pros, it’s about how do you make the most of five minutes. You might get 10 minutes, and that’s a bonus. Fortunately, you’re around these guys enough that I know exactly how each guy skates. I know exactly what they need to work on.

The tricky part of being what I hope is a good teacher is you can look at any player and say, ‘There’s five things you need to work on.’ If you have five minutes, you don’t have time for five things. So you’ve got to pick and choose what’s going to make the most impact. Maybe it’s going to be hard to teach so you don’t do it. Or if you do fix a problem it doesn’t affect their game that much. So as a teacher, you’ve got to look at that one thing you can focus on to help them and then we can build from there.”

Prospects are a different challenge due to travel and league-specific restrictions. As an example, the NCAA does not permit pro coaches to get on the ice with college players.  

Hepso uses a lot of video and he talks constantly with the development staff members who also visit the prospects across the world, but he also travels a fair amount himself. He went Munich, Germany this season to work with prospects Julian Lutz and Maksymilian Szuber. He has visited Dylan Guenther in Seattle. He has visited Maveric Lamoureux and Manix Landry in Drummondville, Jérémy Langlois in Québéc and he has visited Conor Geekie in Winnipeg multiple times.

“Conor’s skating has improved,” Stempniak said. “A lot of it’s been about posture and ankle flexion and how you feel on your feet. Are you more balanced on your heels? All that stuff that goes into your edges and how you feel on your feet.

“There’s still areas he needs to work on and it’s certainly a work in progress, but there’s been growth in his game thanks to Lars.”

Through their constant collaboration, Stempniak and Hepso have formulated a plan for 2023 development camp. They are going to create a comprehensive baseline for every player’s skating stride via video and then use that to chart their progress throughout the 2023-24 season and beyond.

As technical as his work gets, Hepso never loses sight of another key component of coaching.

If you’re working strictly on skating, it’s not always the most fun thing to do and everybody knows that, so for me, it’s important to keep it light,” he said. “Yeah, we’ve got a goal at hand and I’m always making sure that they understand what the end goal is and why we’re doing certain things to help their game so they understand its impact; that it’s not just a waste of time.

“But I’ll crack jokes, or we’ll talk, or if I’m out with prospects we’ll talk about life or family. If you’re just grilling them with stuff to think about the whole time it can be draining so I try to make it a fun environment. If you can see that someone’s trailing off, maybe you throw them a bone. I’m a skating coach but I can do other things so I’ll give them some pucks, some shots; give them some other things to play around with and then we’ll get back to what we’re trying to accomplish.”

 

Top photo of Lars Hepso courtesy of Arizona Coyotes

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