“Play your positions, guys!”
From atom to peewee to major midget, the time coaches spend on teaching positional play is astounding. There’s no question that skill is rightfully becoming one of the game’s most important elements, but all the skill in the world means nothing if you’re not in the right spots to use it.
I’ll confess, I was a player with considerable skill. I had good hands, I could pick the corners and I could thread impossible-looking passes through to my teammates whenever I had the opportunity.
So, why am I writing for a hockey blog instead of boarding a private jet for a date with the Vancouver Canucks?
There are a number of reasons (so I’ve been told), but the one that sticks with me the most is my positioning. I was a great defensive forward, but I didn’t put myself in enough positions to score goals.
“At some point you’ve got to score,” my coach in college told me. “So here’s a 25 dollar wooden stick from Canadian Tire. Now get out of my office, Kevin.”
“It’s Kelvin, actually.”
“Sure thing, have a good day, Kelsey.”*
It’s a tough balance to strike, being defensively responsible in the defensive zone while also contributing in the offensive zone. As a coach, it’s up to you to put players in a position to succeed while also assigning them a role that will help the team win.
Players have a tough time accepting defensive roles, and by no means should you be confining players to the defensive zone in atom or peewee, but at some point a player’s natural skills should shine through. Scoring isn’t the only way to contribute to a team.
Goalies and defensemen have clearly defined responsibilities in the d-zone: stop the puck fem going in the net. The forwards need to contribute to this as well without cheating for offense (blowing the zone for stretch passes).
If you noticed the featured image for this post, you'll note that none of the players pictured play for the Edmonton OIlers any longer.
Goalies: communicate and stop the puck
Defensemen: pick up a man when you don’t have the puck, move the puck to the forwards once you get it back
Forwards: centremen support the defense, wingers pick up their points and create outlets for the defense and centres.
The neutral zone makes coaches uncomfortable. There’s less control and structure than the D-zone and the offensive zone, and you’re always one breakdown away from a chance going either way.
Goalies: pay attention (just in case)
Defensemen: take away space from opposing forwards and move the puck either D to D or up to open forwards
Forwards: force opposing D-men to make mistakes and offer outlets for teammates.
“Get pucks deep!”
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night muttering this phrase to myself. Coaches relax and enjoy the game way more when the puck is consistently deep in the opponent's zone.
The only way to score goals is to get pucks and traffic to the net. Players with a nose for the net, regardless of their skill, will find ways to score. This is the area I had issues with - I was always concerned about a fast break coming the other way so I’d frequently position myself as the high man, covering for the forechecking forwards.
And no, it definitely was not because I was afraid of what would happen if I went into the corner with a lumberjack who outweighed me by 100 pounds or so.
Goalies: relax and refocus
Defensemen: seal the boards to keep pucks in the zone and get shots on net
Forwards: score goals.
Every coach’s system will vary a little bit, but ultimately we’re all looking for the same thing: a win. Playing positions within a system creates opportunities and allows players’ skill to take over.
Playing your position also builds a level of trust with the coach. If the coach is comfortable putting you on the ice, then you’re eventually going to get more ice and more opportunities to contribute.
*This is an actual conversation that happened to me. Honest.