Teaching Special Teams
Sometimes as coaches we just make the game way too complicated for our players. I have written quite a bit about the problems of over-coaching and teaching way too many “X and O” systems to our players - not only to younger players but to older, experienced players as well.
The systems I use with my teams are all pretty standard and simple. I am a little old school in my approach to coaching whereby in general, hard work, fast skating, good skills and a little hockey sense can win you an awful lot of games. But, players need to have some kind of idea of what they are doing on the ice and this is where coaches can be much better at simplifying the game for them.
If there is one area of the game that really gets over-coached its special teams. Once you get your players standing fairly still - as they do on the power play and penalty kill in the zone - there is this great temptation to dictate every move that they make on the ice. In doing so, you are expecting all of your payers to be in sync with each other in order to run a play on the power play, or remember where they should be in certain situations on the penalty kill depending on what the opposition is trying to do. Frankly, this can be confusing for even the highest level players.
As a member of the University of Toronto Varsity Blues hockey team, I was never a top two line player. But, I was fortunate enough to be on one of the top two penalty killing units for most of my career. It was something I took a lot of pride in being good at. In some games, the PK would be the bulk of my ice time - and I certainly wanted to do a good job in order to be called upon again.
So, here are my thoughts on teaching and executing a great penalty kill. I start with my team playing a fairly static box. The key is this: I tell my players “don’t let the puck get into the box or through the box.” Now, having told them this, I have taken most of the teaching of X’s and O’s out of their mindset and have given them a clear concept of what we are trying to accomplish.
Here are three power play situations that we can combat well with this concept in mind:
1) Give and Go out of the corner. The strong side defenceman has to play the 2 on 1 out of the corner well and the strong side forward needs to collapse into the seam if the forward from the boards breaks hard.
2) The Umbrella. When the puck is taken to the middle of the ice by the defenceman, the two forwards take away the dangerous pass to the players on the boards with good sticks. This leaves only a shot from the point with two penalty kill defencemen playing two power play forwards down low at the net, moving them physically away from screens and secondary chances. Goalies should be able to stop a shot from the middle of the point.
3) A 1-3-1. The most dangerous player in this power play system is the man in the middle of the box. Going back to our original concept, the penalty kill has to make sure that the puck does not get into the box and as a safety person, the weak side forward should hedge towards that player to be sure they don’t get the puck to them. Now, if this is the main power play system of the opposition, I might think of turning the box into a diamond but, the same principles apply: “don’t let the puck get into the box or through the box.”
I know this may seem to be an over simplification. As coaches with scouting reports, we know what the opposing team’s tendencies are and what we might want to do to be successful. But, teaching basic concepts of what you are trying to accomplish on the penalty kill (or in any system) will undoubtedly help your players learn the game AND think the game better. ON the bench, you will get more results correcting a player with “you have to make sure that puck doesn’t get through” rather than pulling out a white board and diagraming where a player has to be on the ice in a situation that is changing constantly.