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  • Writer's pictureRick Traugott

Do You Have a D-Zone Dilemma?

It amazes me how much trickles down to minor hockey from the NHL from a coaching perspective. We watch so carefully how the “Ken Hitchcock’s” of the world piece together their system play and how they play against different opponents that we often think, as coaches outside the NHL, that we should be adopting those strategies to our teams. There is one HUGE difference: the skill level for anyone coaching “south” of the NHL will not have the same skill level and so the expectation that our players can execute (or even understand) the same tactical playbook is just a little foolhardy.

I was very fortunate to have played in the CIAU (now the CIS) at the University of Toronto for coach Tom Watt. Tom was a legendary figure in the Canadian university hockey world. Through the late ‘60’s, 70’s and 80’s, the way we coached hockey changed because of the development of the game from a handful of coaches that were behind benches in the CIAU: Clare Drake (Alberta), Dave King (Saskatchewan), George Kingston (Calgary), Tom Watt (Toronto) and later Dave Chambers (York), Wayne Fleming (Manitoba) and Jean Perron (Moncton). These men created systems and tactics that worked well with smart university student-athletes and in many ways changed the way we ALL coach today.

Another legendary coach is Wally Kozak. I have gotten to know Wally over the past decade as a terrific mentor in the game, an extremely knowledgeable hockey guy and one of those people you never have a conversation with without learning something. Wally spent many years wotking in the Canadian National Women’s Team program both as a coach and a scout. He has a terrific YouTube site and also occasionally sends out some interesting tidbits on coaching to his extensive mailing list. This week he sent a piece about defensive zone coverage from former NHL, SHL and KHL coach Dave King. I found it very interesting as the e-mail talked about defensive zone coverage. The difference in this piece was not just outlining a system but actually talking about teaching points, drills to support the system and ways to improve. Mostly though, the piece talked about what skills needed to be developed to play well defensively in the defensive zone.

What I found interesting was the simplicity of the system. It was pretty much a straight man on man coverage with the weak side winger dropping down into the slot to make it a defensively outnumbering 3v4. The how’s, where’s and why’s aren’t the important part, but the simplicity is.

I watched a friend of mine’s midget team play this week. It’s early in the season and so I didn’t expect a lot with regards to team play. But, I was a little taken aback by the team’s lack of direction in the defensive zone. It looked like no one knew where they were supposed to go or what they were supposed to do. It wasn’t that the players didn’t know where they were supposed to be, it was that they didn’t really understand how to play defence at all in the zone. It was the little things: staying on the defensive side, angling, toe caps facing the puck carrier, stick on puck, taking away passing lanes, and the skating skills that go along with these tactics. To my mind, these are all skills that players MUST learn long before their midget years.

Defensive zone coverage in the NHL seems to be simply “let’s outnumber the offensive team at all time, work from the net out and block as many shots as possible”. This works great in the NHL and seems to be the prevailing, current, thinking. What coaches in minor hockey seem to miss is that most NHL players will have the defensive zone skills and will understand the defensive zone coverage tactics that are necessary to be able to play in the zone well - no matter what system is being played.

So, a few points from this somewhat scattered post:

1) It is not good enough just to teach systems. Coaches need to focus on the skills and tactics that lead to good system play.

2) Keep things simple. The more players don’t have to think about where they are supposed to be on the ice the better. Free their minds and let them play!

3) We don’t all have NHL caliber players so we have to tailor our tactical and system play to fit best with the skill of our players.

For those who read my posts regularly, you know that I am a big fan of strict man on man coverage in the zone. I like Dave King’s variation with the weak side winger covering the front of the net. My guess is that most coaches will consider man on man but not implement it because they have “a few players who aren’t strong enough skaters to do it properly”. My argument is that by playing man on man you are forcing players to learn how to play defensively in the zone. Not a strong enough skater? If your player doesn’t want to be beaten every time one on one then they will find a way to make it work. Although there might be some short term pain there is HUGE long term gain.

As the old adage goes, you don’t have to win every battle to win the war. Player development is more important than winning games – particularly early in the season. Don’t sacrifice the end game for the sake of winning two more games in October.

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