In the fall of 2018, Conor Garland was off to a strong start for the AHL Tucson Roadrunners when his head coach brought him to dinner.
At the time, Garland still didn’t know Jay Varady very well. It was just 10-to-15 games into Varady’s first season as head coach in Tucson, where Garland was playing in his third season as a pro. But Varady nonetheless posed a big question to his new player.
Why aren’t you in the NHL?
“It was kind of the first time a coach had asked me that, or kind of been that blunt, where he wanted to see what I thought,” Garland said.
Garland’s first response, he recalled, was a quick joke: “Because nobody’s gotten injured yet.”
Varady laughed, Garland said, but the coach was asking the question for a real reason. By that point, Garland pretty much had the AHL figured out. But that final step, from succeeding in the AHL to actually making the NHL, is a big one — especially if you’re going to stay there.
Varady’s point was: If the then-22-year-old Garland was going to get an opportunity over perhaps more experienced players who had at least played in the NHL before, he needed to prove he could consistently be trusted. He needed to be sound defensively, and be able to give the Coyotes solid minutes in a depth role without hurting them. And not just for a game or two. They needed to be able to count on Garland to be consistent and responsible night after night.
Shortly after that dinner, Garland and the Roadrunners found themselves on the wrong end of a blowout. The Stockton Heat had opened up a big lead fairly early in the game.
“I just remember thinking on the bench, ‘this is what they’re talking about,'” Garland said. “Like, this is a game where a lot of players that are trying to have numbers to get up would say, ‘hey, the game’s over, I can try to get a cookie or something — free point.’ And I remember just thinking: ‘Just play that game that they’re talking about the whole night.’”
The Roadrunners ended up losing 8-2, and Varady, naturally, wasn’t thrilled with the team’s performance. But he had noticed Garland’s effort in the loss, and as Garland was walking out of the rink, the coach told him, “You play like that each night, you’ll be up there.” That was on November 20, 2018.
On December 8, Garland stepped onto the ice for his NHL debut with the Coyotes. And two seasons later, Varady joined him, joining the Coyotes staff under Rick Tocchet for the 2020-21 season.
Garland was eventually traded to Vancouver in the 2021 offseason, and Varady returned to Tucson in 2021, but recently, the Canucks forward sent his old coach a text congratulating him on his new job: last week, Varady was announced as the newest assistant coach for the Red Wings.
Detroit had only carried two on-bench assistant coaches since 2020, when Adam Nightingale left the Red Wings for the US NTDP and was not replaced, but now is going back to a deeper bench under first-year coach Derek Lalonde. After hiring associate coach Bob Boughner and goaltending coach Alex Westlund during the NHL Draft, Varady is the latest piece of a staff that Lalonde envisions as a collaborative unit, sharing special teams assignments between them to get more eyes and minds on each task.
And certainly, one of the biggest areas of emphasis for Detroit will be improving a penalty kill that last season ranked as the worst in the league.
Tocchet’s staff was similarly collaboratively-driven, but Varady was relied upon there to helm a unit that had been a top-five PK in the NHL under Tocchet — but had also just lost their three most-trusted forwards (based on time-on- ice) from that unit: Derek Stepan, Brad Richardson and Michael Grabner. And as Tocchet recalls, replacing them got off to a rocky start.
But Varady and fellow assistant coach Cory Stillman helped the Coyotes right the ship, and by year’s end, buoyed the PK back to being a fringe-top-10 unit again.
“Jay did a hell of a job,” Tocchet said last week. “He didn’t waver. Sometimes, when things don’t go your way, you panic a little bit. He didn’t panic.”
Prior to working in Tucson, where he coached Garland as well as Michael Bunting, Varady had coached primarily in junior hockey, including against Lalonde in the USHL. That gives him a long background of working with young players that should serve him well as an assistant coach in Detroit.
“The word I would use to describe him is cerebral,” Garland said. “He doesn’t yell — or he never yelled at me. … It’s a lot of questioning. I’ve watched the film with him as an assistant, and it was a lot of questioning of just ‘Why do you do this?’ ‘Why do you do that?’ I think he’s just trying to understand each player.”
Varady also has a particularly useful skill set in the realm of hockey analytics. Alongside Michael Zucker, Varady co-founded the hockey analytics software Bench Metrics. The company’s website features endorsements from coaches across the hockey landscape — including Lalonde.
Lalonde had previously worked with Zucker, who was a volunteer assistant coach at Denver University while Lalonde was an assistant coach for the Pioneers, and in the endorsement — which came while Lalonde was coach of the AHL’s Iowa Wild — Detroit’s now-head-coach wrote that the service was “one of the first analytics we turn to immediately after the game. I’ve used it for the last three years and I’ll be using it going forward.”
Now, one of its co-founders will be in the room with him — which could signal a continued integration of data in decision-making for the Red Wings.
Former Detroit coach Jeff Blashill increasingly referred to advanced metrics when explaining the team’s performance or his own decision-making process late in his tenure, so that was already something the Red Wings were doing.
But they did not have a staffer quite like Varady, whose experience with hockey data made him an even more valuable resource for Tocchet with the Coyotes.
“He was a conduit between the analytics department and the coaching staff,” Tocchet explained. “So he would decipher stuff and get us the meat of the analytics part, he’d try to trim the fat for us.”
That’s key, because as useful as data and analytics can be in sports, data itself still needs to be interpreted in order to be actionable for coaches and players.
“I knew, when I look at a hockey game, what’s important to me,” Tocchet said. “And so Jay would try to help me, ‘OK, that’s what we need in the analytics part, for you.’ And instead of having like 80 million pages to read, he’d have about three or four pages for me to go over. And that really made my life a lot smoother.”
That fits right in to the collaborative approach Lalonde has emphasized, borrowed from his time with the Lightning. There, Lalonde has said, Tampa Bay’s coaches shared special teams’ assignments and meetings, making sure to get different eyes on the key issues and decisions facing the staff. He saw value in the shared ideas and that more collaborative approach — as opposed to each coach having one specific assignment — and decided it’s how he wanted his future staffs to look.
Tocchet, in Arizona, felt similarly, and said Varady was “excellent” in that kind of environment.
“He’s easy to work with, not afraid to state his opinion, and then when everybody agrees on something, he does the research and he does the (leg work) on that,” Tocchet said. “Whether you take his idea or not, he’s an all-in guy when it comes to whatever the staff has agreed on, the head coach has agreed on.”
And that may be the most important quality he brings, even beyond the experience. Now fully staffed, Detroit’s bench features a first-time NHL head coach (with Cup-winning experience as an assistant) flanked by two former NHL players in Boughner and Alex Tanguay — with Boughner also bringing NHL head-coach experience — an up-and -coming goalie coach in Westlund, and now, an analytics-savvy assistant with lengthy experience with young players in Varady.
It’s easy to see how many perspectives will be represented and accounted for in those meetings — especially now that the Red Wings are back to being fully staffed behind the bench.
“I think Jay’s the perfect hire for (Lalonde),” Tocchet said. “Because he’s going to put a lot of those small fires out for Derek. And I think as a head coach, you need that from your assistant coaches. And that’s what he does.”
(Top photo of Jay Varady: John Rivera / Icon Sportswire via AP Images)