It’s that time of year that most tryouts have finished and teams have been picked for next season. My guess is that 90% of coaching staffs have sat down to evaluate their players and decided that they don’t have much offensive talent on their team this year. The conversation probably goes something like this:
Head Coach: “Wow! The AAA team really didn’t leave us with much talent this year.”
Assistant Coach #1: “I know. We are going to be lucky to score two goals a game this year.”
Head Coach (shaking his head): “It’s really going to be a long season.”
Assistant Coach #2: “We better be really be good defensively or we are not going to win many games.”
Head Coach: “You are right! Here is what we are going to have to do: we are going to have to be the best shot blocking team in the league, make sure nothing gets to our net, get the puck out of our end every chance we get, goalies are going to have to be excellent at smothering the puck so there are no second chances, every time we get the puck over the center ice line we have to dump it in and never forecheck with more than one forward. That’s the only way we will have a chance to win any games.”
Assistant Coach #1: “Hey! I read this great article on how the New Jersey Devils ran the TRAP back when they won some Stanley Cups. We can teach that in the first practice. It will be great!!”
So here is the issue. We are so focused on winning games, not just as coaches but as adults in youth sports, that we totally miss the whole point of player development. Really, the conversation above should have turned when Assistant Coach #2 first spoke. His sentence should have been: “We better be really good offensively or we are not going to win many games this year.”
Here are some random thoughts about what this might look like:
1) For the most part, at least two-thirds of the teams in leagues will make the playoffs (most of the hockey leagues in Ontario have everyone making the final playdowns). A team’s goal at the beginning of the year should be to make the playoffs and play their best hockey at the end of the season when the games matter most.
2) Focus most of your energy on getting players to play full speed and pressure the puck. The coaching staff should teach team tactics and systems that encourage these two things - not take away from them. Playing the TRAP after dumping the puck, blocking shots, playing a defensive zone system that looks a lot like six goalies in front of the net, doesn’t encourage playing full speed and pressuring the puck.
3) Find ways to get players to use and count on their teammates. Here are three ways to do that:
a) Create a mindset where players feel that when they pressure the puck that they are forcing a bad pass and ultimately having a teammate recover the puck. Most often the first pressure doesn’t recover the puck. Although pressure should be “stick on puck”, often it is the speed of the pressure that will get the opposition to cough it up.
b) Get players to recognize when they need to beat someone one on one and when they should be looking to create some time and space to feed the puck to a teammate. This is really crucial to player development.
c) My guess is that teams that have two “better” players on forward will tend to play them as centers on their first and second lines (this is probably true on defence as well). Unfortunately, this discourages players using their teammates effectively. Play your top players together. This will encourage players of like skill levels to use each other effectively.
4) A fellow coach Dave Fisher and I had a conversation about using power play practice to develop good offensive habits. He had a coach as a high schooler who was a “master” coach in the Soviet Union named Vlad Baranov. Dave explained how Vlad would create and work on 2v1, 3v2, 4v3 and 5v4 situations all the time in practice with improving the power play as the obvious goal but, the real advantage to this was to foster better offensive play in any situation. Dave, now coaching his young son, feels this is a great way of developing an offensive mindset that can be applied to all facets of the game. (I will add that Dave, growing up playing in the North Toronto Hockey Association, is a big fan of small area games and half ice hockey for young players.)
As many of you know, I am a big advocate of the development of offensive play. In my little world we all practice the power play at our first practice of the season (metaphorically!). Stop focusing on finding ways to win with good defence and start focusing on winning more game with awesome offence. Your players will have more fun and they will develop their skill sets far more (and I will add that the fans (i.e. parents) will enjoy the game much more as well). There is a time and a place for the TRAP but, it should not be the go to system for all but “professional” hockey teams. Let players play, score goals and have fun.