Chalk Talk: Playing as a unit makes all the difference in the world
In hockey, the NHL sets a standard of play that trickles down to all levels of organized hockey.
Sometimes an individual player in the NHL makes a play that is emulated by millions of youth players. As a coach, you tend to watch the style of play and ask two questions: What is making a team successful? Why is a team struggling?
Due to this, you see many of the same styles of play and systems being executed at all levels. Most teams are trying to figure out a way to score more goals 5-on-5. In the 1990s, you started to see 2-3 defensemen a year that could rush the puck, join the rush and still defend well. Watching the 2016 NHL playoffs, those 16 teams have 2-3 defensemen on each team highly involved in the offense, especially off the rush.
There is another area that we see teams involving their defense in the offense. Defensemen are much more active on the blue line and throughout the offensive zone. It’s fairly common to see defensemen behind the offensive net.
The Scissor Cycle is a staple for many teams – where the half-wall forward and the strong side defenseman run a switch coming up the wall. Many teams are continuously dropping their weak-side defenseman to the back door. This was something you’d see on the power play a few years ago, but now you see it 5-on-5 all game.
These are the traits you want when looking to expand your defensemen’s roles. They need to be mobile, have good hockey sense and great passing skills. The days of having a “big guy” that could “staple” a forward to the wall and had a hard slap shot are long gone.
The next thing you need is “team buy in.” Forwards are hesitant to have to cover for a defensemen. You get defensemen that are forcing it or trying to do too much. You need to practice as a unit of five through all three zones – thousands and thousands of repetitions. We really try to incorporate the hinge in all three zones.
Here are a couple of examples:
Breakout – D1 to wing, wing out front to D2 or weak-side D and he initiates the rush inside the dots. Thirty years ago, this was unheard of. With the skill players have now and the lack of time and space available, this can become a great place to find puck relief in your zone.
Neutral Zone – D1 to D2 back to D1 again and you attack from inside the dots. D1 is staggered 20-30 feet behind D2. From here, you can adjust how you want your forwards to regroup, play “in their lanes” or create some flow or movement.
O-Zone – Half-wall forward (F1) to strong D. He walks the blue to get inside the dots, then slides the puck back to the forward (F1) on the wall. This might be a good time to drop your weak-side defenseman to the back door.
Here is a drill still I took from Cedar Rapids RoughRiders head Mark Carlson in the United States Hockey League. Last year, I coached 13U and it took us 5-6 practices until we got all four guys up ice together with multiple puck touches. Try it with three forwards and one defensemen.
Matt Huckins is the operations director for the new Sport Stable in Superior and the 14U AAA coach for the Rocky Mountain RoughRiders.