Developing into a complete player is player development (part I)
By John Hamre
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist
Tim Taylor, coach of the 1994U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team and longtime coach at Yale, once shared that the key to hockey is the offensive defenseman. Since hearing this as a young assistant coach, I’ve often thought back upon what he meant. Did Coach Taylor mean this in literal terms? Or did he mean this statement in a deeper understanding as to how the game is played? Did he mean this in relation to the playing attributes possessed by successful team-oriented players – who then fulfill various positions and roles on a team?
Goaltending advocates will offer opinions on the singular importance of the goalie. Their thoughts are respected. Goaltenders and their play are vitally important to the relative success of a team. In fact, a goalie is the one player who can “steal” a win in a game for his or her team. Great teams have great, or at least very, very good goaltending. At competitive levels, a weak goalie can undermine the potential of an otherwise tremendously talented team. There is only one goaltender on the ice for a team during the game. Yet to win, you still need to score at least once.
Those who argue for the superior importance of forwards might point to the 24 forwards who have received the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL Playoffs MVP over the last seasons. Over these same 50 playoffs, there have been, in comparison, 10 defensemen and 16 goaltenders recognized with the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Or they might point to the 27 forwards who have won college hockey’s Hobey Baker Award, compared to the six defensemen and two goaltenders that have been named the top player in NCAA men’s hockey. Puck possession, goal scoring and offensive points are easily noticed and quantifiable by goals and assists. Highly-skilled forwards are more inclined to accrue points as they play closer to the opposing net in the offensive zone.
Hockey is often said to be a game of transition. Transition hockey can refer to the moments in a game when the puck changes possession from one team to the other, and how the teams respond in their team-play accordingly. Transition hockey can also refer to the offensive attacks begun, on breakouts and in neutral zone counter-attacks, and simultaneously how they are fore-checked and defended against.
Ken Dryden, in his book “The Game,” most eloquently wrote: “… Instead, hockey is a transition game, offense to defense, defense to offense, one team to another. Hundreds of tiny fragments of action, some leading somewhere, most going nowhere. Only one thing is clear. A fragmented game must be played in fragments. Grand designs do not work. Offenses regrouping, setting up, meet defenses which have done the same and lose. But before offense turns to defense, or defense to offense, there is a moment of disequilibrium when a defense is vulnerable, when a game’s sudden unexpected swings can be turned to advantage. It is what you do at this moment, when possession changes, that makes the difference. How fast you can set up. How fast you strike. What instant patterns you can create. How you can turn simple advantage into something permanent …”
In these moments of the game that Dryden describes – when the recognition of options, and decision of the next play to be made, lies solely in the mind and heart of the puck carrier – his skills, vision and hockey sense are vitally critical to the subsequent plays a team will make. The offensive opportunities a team may generate at then depend on this player’s decision and ability to execute the play. Hopefully, this player who has gained possession of the puck – often times a defenseman – is offensively skilled. It is a defenseman who gains possession of the puck – from rebounds in the defensive zone, from recapturing pucks cleared from the opponent’s zone, or from turnovers in the neutral zone. These defensemen are able to keep the game in front of them.
An offensive defenseman typically possesses a high level of puck skills, broad rink vision and sense, and smooth skating skills. An offensive defenseman’s rink vision and passing skills are critical to breaking the puck out of the defensive zone. It’s the ability to complete the first pass successfully that leads to the second, third and fourth passes up ice.
Successful breakouts and quick transition plays are also very effective forms of team defense. Your team is no longer playing in your defensive zone, and your team possesses the puck with a chance to score on transition attacks and subsequent offensive zone play.
An offensive defenseman can quarterback an entire game through puck distribution decisions. The better ones can literally dictate which zone the game will be played in by his decisions and successful execution of plays, and can generate many scoring chances through transition and offensive zone blue line play.
Offensive skills will get a player the initial chances to get to a level of play, and to get into the game. Offensive skills lure the eyes and attention of scouts and coaches. But a player with a conscience and offensive skills is a special combination. The player’s conscience will make him a complete player, and allow a player to stay at a level or to advance to the next. The player’s conscience will allow his skill to be described as special. And for some, the player’s conscience is the special skill!
Hockey is a team sport – perhaps the ultimate team sport – because of its fluid and flowing play at such high speeds, high intensity and high levels of physical strength, all while played on skate blades, on ice. Individual players have both offensive and defensive responsibilities because an opposing team will have good offensive players, too.
At highly competitive levels of play, for an offensive defenseman to play against opposing top lines, he must be a responsible defensive player. For a defenseman to play in the biggest minutes of a game, besides being gifted offensively, he must be a responsible defensive player. A defenseman must be able to defend late in periods, execute on the power play and penalty kill, and defend when the game is on the line.
Thus, being a true offensive defenseman means you are a “complete player.” You are responsible defensively, while being capable offensively and in transition. You are involved in both your team’s offensive and defensive efforts, and the transition games between the two. The old adage, “when we have the puck we’re all on offense – and when they have the puck we’re all defensemen” certainly applies, and an offensive defenseman is among the best at both.
Over the past couple months, several individuals – Patrick Eaves, Brian MacLellan, and Rob Ohno – have shared their stories in Let’s Play Hockey. Each current and former hockey player had switched playing positions, from forward to defense or defense to forward – for entire seasons prior to advancing to Division I or NHL playing levels. These players were in the midst of their prime development years. Each was arguably among the best players on their respective teams and within their level of play. And each selflessly switched positions for entire seasons for the betterment of their teams … and probably for the betterment of their own development. Perhaps, each of their coaches recognized their team’s need for an offensive defenseman – someone who could defend the best opposing forwards and generate breakouts and offensive plays in transition.
The article “In the Blink of an Eye” (LPH, Dec. 10, 2015), written about Patrick Eaves of the Dallas Stars playing in his 500th NHL game, shared: “(The U.S. National Team Development Program coaches) played Eaves at all five skating positions in five consecutive shifts. Each shift Patrick played was ‘textbook’ position-wise. He was not playing a position during his shifts; rather, he was just playing hockey. He was thinking the game, and how to work with and support his teammates in competitive situations, both with and without puck possession by our team.
“This level of execution in positional play was indicative not only of Patrick’s hockey-playing ability, but more importantly of his true identity as a person. His physical skill, mental capabilities and emotional maturity at a relatively young age allowed him to play the game rather than play positions. His personality and maturity allowed him to relate to, interact with and support his teammates – as players on the ice, and supportive friends off the ice. His genuine personality and leadership skills transcend the game and are indicators of the immense depth of his character.
“’For the Shattuck Prep team, I played defense, and then played forward for the U.S. team in Ann Arbor,’ Eaves said. ‘It’s a fascinating game to see it from different angles and to learn it from different angles. When I was a kid, I’d play forward one year and defense the next. My brother, we helped teach each other growing up; and my dad, he’s a brilliant hockey man. We’re fortunate.’
The article, “Leadership in the nation’s capital” (LPH, Dec. 31, 2015), on Brian MacLellan, General Manager of the Washington Capitals, included: “Throughout his 10-year NHL playing career, from signing as an undrafted free agent in 1982 until retiring after the 1991-92 season, MacLellan played professionally as a forward.
“MacLellan attended college and played hockey at Bowling Green State University from 1978-82. MacLellan moved from playing forward to playing defense late in his junior season, and was named an All-American in 1982, while playing for now-Boston College coach Jerry York. He was a co-captain at Bowling Green from 1980-82. Leadership and adaptability.”
The article, “Next on the tee … Rob Ohno” (LPH, Jan. 14, 2016), on the Senior Vice President of Business Development for the PGA Tour, shared: “At (Bloomington) Jefferson, Ohno was the first Jaguar to earn nine varsity letters. He was a four-time high school team captain – twice in hockey, and once in both baseball and soccer.
“Jim Becker was a high school teammate of Ohno’s, and also a captain on the 1981 state championship team. ‘An example of (Ohno’s) character occurred his junior year at Jefferson. We had just come off a third place state tournament season where Rob contributed a ton. We lost three Division I defensemen off that team, and Rob was entering his junior year as one of the best forwards in the state. Our coach moved Rob to defense that year and in typical, selfless Rob Ohno fashion, he didn’t hesitate or complain, and as a result, our team went on to win a state championship. Rob always seemed to put everybody else first and that earned him the respect of his peers, teachers, coaches and community.’
Each of these players, in the relative primes of their development periods within their playing careers, selflessly switched positions from forward to defense for at least a season. Each player helped his team to highly successful seasons as a defenseman before continuing their playing careers at higher levels as forwards:
• Patrick Eaves played defense for the Shattuck-St. Mary’s national championship midget team before moving on to the USNTDP, Boston College and the NHL;
• Brian MacLellan was an All-American defenseman at Bowling Green prior to heading to the NHL;
• Rob Ohno played defense for a state championship team at Bloomington Jefferson High School before moving on to play NCAA Division I hockey at Harvard.
Were each of these players true offensive defensemen in their season(s) playing defense? Well, they possessed high offensive skill levels, were stellar defensive players, and helped their teams to championship level successes – playing in the biggest minutes of their teams’ biggest games.
So how do we help more young players develop these offensive puck skills, game vision and physical playing skills similar to these three? How do we help develop the playing attributes of a complete hockey player that Taylor so respected within offensive defensemen, and evident in the play of these special players?
Lots of coaches have forwards practice or play defense, and defensemen practice or play forward. Both situations create a great appreciation for the other’s position and playing responsibilities. Playing different positions helps enlighten players why it’s so important to do your responsibility, from the other position’s perspective. It’s another way to learn and appreciate how to help make a teammate better – when you’ve walked, or in this case, skated a mile in their boots.
Forwards need to backcheck and not allow for odd-man rushes against their own defensemen and goalie. Forwards need to hustle back to support a breakout or neutral zone regrouping pass from a defenseman who is often under pressure from forechecking opponents. The defenseman needs to make good passes to forwards moving with speed. The defenseman needs to lead the forward, so that the forward doesn’t have to look back to catch a pass in a vulnerable position. Defensemen need to deliver the puck to forwards in goal-scoring situations on rushes, in offensive zone play, and on shots to screens and tippers in front of the net to maintain the forwards’ speed of attack.
Players in the NHL and elite level players play this way. Particularly, forwards’ responsibilities are often defined by whether they are first, second or third entering the offensive or defensive zone.
However, at these same levels, winning and losing for owners, players earning bonuses from statistics, and the fact that organizations at these levels of play are vying for entertainment dollars, keep players for the most part within roles they are skilled for, mentally capable of, and confident within. Playing forward and then defense, or playing defense and then forward – within a game, from game to game, or from season to season – is really about understanding how to play hockey. This kind of development is more possible at the younger and earlier levels of play, but it’s possible to continue at every age and level of play. Often times this development is facilitated through the use of small area, and full rink, 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 game and competitive situations (part II next week).
Coach Taylor was a brilliant coach and a gentleman of the game. He appreciated hockey’s beauty, and understood the contributions all players could make towards the betterment of a team. He also understood that offensive defensemen are the conduits of hockey. Offensive defensemen connect the goal-scoring forwards with their partners, the defensive-minded defensemen, and their goaltender – who are critical to protecting one’s own goal.
Upon a few years of reflection, some coaching and being a student of the game, I’m inclined to believe Coach Taylor was referring to the many attributes that a true offensive defenseman possesses – both offensively and defensively. These playing attributes are the keys to the game which a defenseman and forward, and even a puck-handling goaltender, can possess. The attributes and objectives of the game are seemingly embodied and woven into the play of a consummate offensive defenseman – think Stanley Cup winners Bobby Orr and more recently Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith. Offensive defensemen are the players who connect and unite team-play.
During a 22-year coaching career, John Hamre has coached PeeWee, Bantam, high school, NCAA Division I, Junior A and minor professional hockey. He is currently the Director of Hockey Operations for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team. Hamre was the video coach for the 1994 USA Men’s Olympic Team, coached within the USA Hockey NTDP, and at many USA Hockey festivals. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.
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It’s time we understood the difference between “Coaching to Win” and “Coaching to Develop Skills”. We need to understand why it’s counter productive to have our players compete in 80 games a year. We need to know how to implement a North American Skills Development Program which follows a linear progression of development. We need to understand how we can change league schedules to accommodate a 5:1 practice to game ratio. And we need to understand how we can make the game fun again.