“Get there fast, move it fast and move it accurately.”
– Willard Ikola, legendary Minnesota high school coach, describing his breakout philosophy.
When Sergei Gonchar went crashing into the boards and was lost for the better part of the third period and overtime of the crucial Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, television announcers bemoaned the fact that the Pittsburgh Penguins were left without a puck-carrying defenseman to lead the charge.
Such a statement, especially when describing NHL-caliber players competing on the game’s grand stage, may seem a bit odd, but ask a number of high level coaches and they’ll point out that it all boils down to the same old thing. Not enough is being done at the youth level to allow today’s defensemen to gain the skills and confidence to quarterback a team’s breakout.
"“All the top players have a very low panic point.”
The problem may start at the grass-roots level but it permeates through the Junior and college ranks and into the National Hockey League.
A quick check of NHL rosters will show a limited number of “puck carrying defensemen” that general managers covet. From Gonchar to Brian Rafalski to John-Michael Liltes, most NHL teams are lucky to have one defensemen who can tote the biscuit or deliver a quick and accurate strike to kick his team’s offense into drive.
So why are puck-carrying defensemen in such high demand, and what is being done to create the next generation of nimble blueliners?
'Chip' Off The Old Block
One of the reasons most widely given is the conservative nature the game is being played at. As nine-year NHL veteran defenseman and current player agent Neil Sheehy wrote in his 2004 essay “The Systematic Erosion and Neutralization of Skill and Play-Making in the NHL,” “the most skilled players are not given the freedom to exhibit their skills. Rather, they are coached to ‘play the percentages’ and ‘chip it in, chip it out’ … chip, chip, chip.”
While this style of play may be effective – and boring – in the win-at-all-costs world of professional hockey, it has sadly made its way down to the grass-roots level, where coaches at the Squirt and Peewee levels feel more pressure to sport a winning record than develop skills and creativity among their players.
“The emphasis on winning at the youth level has taken hold of our development,” says Eric Rud, an assistant coach at St. Cloud State University who is coaching the U.S. Under-17 Select Team at this summer’s Five Nations Tournament in Prievidza, Slovakia.
“What happens in the world of winning is you create a whole bunch of robots. You can win a few more games in the short term if you chip it off the glass a lot and throw it in deep, but by the end of the season the team that’s working on skill plays and passing the puck is going to bypass that team that doesn’t work on their skills at all.”
Breaking The Mold
The challenge, then, is to change that mindset at the youngest levels where there is a growing concern that basic skills, along with the hockey sense to utilize them properly, are being stifled, especially in practice.
Coaches who are more committed to teaching systems rather than working on the basic skills aren’t doing anybody any favors, says Mark Tabrum, USA Hockey’s director of the Coaching Education Program.
“You can’t execute a breakout without skating, puckhandling and passing skills,” says Tabrum, who spent six years as an assistant coach at Colorado College. “So a coach who practices breakouts before working on fundamental skills is wasting his time.”
Actually, coaches who concentrate on improving basic skills are in fact working on breakouts, just not in what has been considered a conventional way.
“It is possible to work on the components of breakouts in every drill in a particular practice and not actually perform one breakout,” says Princeton University Head Coach Guy Gadowsky.
“This means that valuable ice time can be used for drills focusing on skill development through fun competitive drills instead of monotonous system repetition.”
Small area games, such as “Pig in the Middle” for beginning players to competitive three-on-three games for elite players, teach players to make quick decisions without panicking with the puck.
“There are no drills that provide the combination of thinking, reading, reacting, competing, skating, passing, shooting and stickhandling as experienced in a small game,” says Paul Cannata, head coach of Milton Academy outside of Boston.
The Right Mindset
And as a player’s basic skills improve, so too will his confidence to handle the puck more effectively. It’s that puck poise that separates the average player from the elite player. It comes with experience and repetition, which is best learned in practice situations.
“All the top players have a very low panic point,” says Rud, a defenseman at Colorado College in the mid-1990s. “The biggest thing you can do to improve your panic point is to be aware of what’s going on before you even get the puck. Then you’re so much more confident when you get the puck rather than just getting the puck and chucking it up the ice.”
While there will always be times when chipping the puck out of the defensive zone will be a player’s only option, it is always better to maintain possession of the puck on a breakout, either by making a tape-to-tape pass or skating the puck out of the zone.
“As a defenseman you want to put your forwards in the best position you possibly can to get the puck in transition and going the other way,” says Rud.
“When you start with that mindset, it’s a great start in the right direction in terms of your transition game.”
That mindset will only come when players are encouraged to be creative at all ends of the ice. Some parents and coaches act as if a turnover is the worst thing in the world, while other coaches can live with a turnover if it’s caused while trying to make a play.
“The biggest mistake we make at the youth level is not allowing our kids to make mistakes,” says Rud.
“Hockey is a game of mistakes. You have to make mistakes to learn how to make the skilled play. If all we’re doing is teaching kids the different ways to make the unskilled plays it doesn’t help anyone.”
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