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Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Line Forms Here

One of the biggest challenges for youth hockey coaches is the formation of lines.
It’s also a frequent source of heartburn for parents and one of the most common issues that can lead to a confrontation with the coaches of the team.

Who plays what position? Who plays with who? Whose line plays more? Which players play in certain situations?

If it sounds a little like an Abbott and Costello skit, that probably fits. It can be all of that at times.

Obviously, there are a lot of different variations of line set-ups and a number of different reasons that lines get formed in certain ways. The number of players on a team is an issue, as are the positions that the players are capable of playing. The skill level of the individual players is also a factor. And unfortunately the offspring of the coaches can at times be an area of concern.

Some coaches bring it on themselves. There are actually some coaches who believe that because they are volunteering to coach a team that it somehow gives their child privileges that other players on the team don’t have. Talk about a recipe for disaster. In some instances it is purely a case of having the parent goggles on in terms of assessing the ability of their child. It can be very easy to over-rate your own child and play them in positions and situations that they shouldn’t be playing in.

Of course, there are some coaches who are just the opposite and go out of their way to make sure that it doesn’t appear that their child gets anything more than the other players. In some cases, the coach’s child actually gets the short end of the stick.

Where they fit
The great thing about the game is that if you pay attention to it, over the course of time it is pretty easy to see where players fit and don’t fit. But in saying that I also know there are many parents who will never be able to properly assess the abilities of their child or the other players on the team.

So how exactly do lines get formed? What is the magical formula that coaches employ in coming up with the right combinations?

We have all seen the Rookie Coach in Mite House Hockey format at work in some form or another, sometimes at different levels and other age groups. That’s the one where one coach’s child plays center, the other coach’s child plays center and there are three set of wings (sometimes even four believe it or not) that rotate through with those centers. But that is obviously not a typical set-up. And it is never very long-term because there is nothing about it that makes any sense.

In most cases, teams will have three lines and at least five defensemen, typically six. It is virtually impossible to play the game with any pace or tempo with only two lines. The players tire much too quickly.

There are players that can go out every second shift, but without adequate rest, they can’t play to the level that they are capable of. When coaches insist on playing players when they are tired, they essentially are creating players that become slow and lazy. They can’t make decisions or execute plays at high speed. They move slowly and develop lazy playing habits.

But sometimes that can’t be helped. Sometimes teams only have ten skaters and have to go with two lines. While it is not an ideal situation, sometimes you have to work with what you have. Once you get to eleven or twelve skaters, it is pretty easy to utilize four defensemen and seven or eight forwards.

It is much easier for defensemen to go out every second shift as typically the demands of the position can be a little less than that of what the forwards are doing. When playing defense, you play your position and the play essentially comes to you. When playing forward you are the group that pushes the pace of the play. Smart defensemen can easily and efficiently play at least half of the game. That is a lot tougher to do effectively as a forward.

Getting to know them
Coaches really need to get to know their players to form effective lines and have to really good understanding of what players are capable (and just as importantly not yet capable) of doing. Chemistry among linemates doesn’t typically just happen out of dumb luck, although sometimes it does. Coaches make conscious decisions to put together a line consisting of a playmaking center capable of getting the puck to a winger with a good shot and a knack for getting open along with another winger who might be strong along the boards and in the corners.

Sometimes coaches will put together three hard workers who might not be that offensively gifted, yet can forecheck like the dickens and be disruptive in the offensive zone.

Some coaches like to operate in more of a pair format where they take two players who always seem to work well together and change up the third player from time to time to stir things up or to try something different.

Throughout the course of the season good coaches with try pretty much everybody with everybody to see what works and what doesn’t work. It is never healthy to play with the same linemates for the whole season.

While it is true that some players seem to play much better with certain players than they do with others, over time players tend to get a little stale playing together and the excitement of a new line can create some energy that might otherwise be lacking.

One other consideration for coaches is what to do with those players that seem to have the knack of making the players that they play with better. Some players can do that, but most can’t. When a player might be struggling a little and have a low confidence level, it can be a real boost to put them with a creative player who can get them the puck and involved in the game again.

Opportunity to succeed
One of the biggest challenges for youth coaches is the variance in skill level between teammates. While you want to give your team and each individual player the opportunity to succeed, you have to be careful in how the lines are put together.

It can be very difficult for a weaker player to play on the same line with two of the top players on the team, no matter how team-oriented those players might be. Sometimes it is better to put the three forwards lowest on the depth chart together on a line as they will feel more comfortable together. When you feel good, you tend to play well.

Forming defensive pairings also takes a little thought but with only two players it is a little less complex than with three forwards. Most times coaches will put a good puck-mover or offensive oriented defenseman with a solid stay-at-home defender for balance.

Playing defense is all about positioning, reading and reacting and some players just tend to really click together to work in unison.

Good coaches will ultimately take their cues from their players as to how their lines are formed. Every player deserves an opportunity to play with every other player on the team and in all situations. You never know what someone is capable of until given a chance.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Trying Out

The month of March might be one of the most interesting and entertaining times of the year to be in a hockey rink. Not necessarily just because of what is happening on the ice either. It’s tryout time and the arena lobbies are filled with kids, hockey bags, registration tables and anxious, coffee-sipping parents looking to find a home. At least until next March.

It’s a little like spring training in baseball and draft day for the Lions. Hope springs eternal. The slate has been wiped clean and everything starts anew. There are no losing streaks or last place in the standings. Only promise and promises, some kept, some not.

The cast of characters is the same at virtually every tryout. The players come in all shapes and sizes and mental states. Many of them are nervous, although some are over-confident with a dash of cocky mixed in. Some look downright overwhelmed or intimidated, appearing like they would rather be anywhere but there at that moment.

The parents are always interesting to observe. It’s not that easy to spot the Negotiator, that guy who is always working the best deal for his player. His work is done long before the tryouts. But it is easy to pick out the Mr. Inquisitive, who starts out with one question for the coach that quickly turns into ten. Then there is Stat, who can recite his player’s statistics in every offensive and defensive category since birth. Typically surrounded by the lobby’s largest crowd of parents will be Scoop, who knows everything that you need to know (and plenty that you don’t) about every team and every player and who is playing where and why.

Then there are the coaches. Some are all business, standoffish from the parents, checking the lobby only periodically to see who is there and who is not. Others will work the room like Bill Clinton.

Sixty kids and four skates
If you really think about it, the actual tryout process is inherently inefficient. We start with as many as sixty or seventy kids. We put them on the ice for 80 minutes and try to keep them all active and involved. We do that three or four times, hopefully with less kids each time. From that, we pick a team that we will have for the next year.

Is it really realistic to think that coaches can make a fair and complete evaluation of a player in three or four tryout skates? Can a coach really select a team with all of that going on with all of those players on the ice at the same time?

The answer to both is probably not. But in reality, it is the best we’ve got. That being said, the evaluation process really doesn’t happen that way. Everybody does not start with a fresh sheet of ice and a clean comment section next to their name on the tryout list. The past is very much factored into the tryout present. It has to be. Coaches have opinions and have made judgments on players long before the tryout happens. They have formed those thoughts and impressions based on what they have seen in games and practices and previous tryouts. They have to use every bit of information that they have in making a decision.

The players on the previous season’s team will typically always have an advantage over the other players on the ice. That advantage is familiarity for the coach. The coach has the most information to work with on those players having seen them in practices and games and other situations for at least the previous year, maybe even longer.

I say typically because that familiarity might be a disadvantage to some players who might not have made a favorable impression with the coach. Or maybe the player was fine, but the parents didn’t do the kid any favors with the way they handled themselves throughout the year.

In any event, coaches have had a birds-eye view for a year and all of the warts have been exposed. The challenge for a coach sometimes can be to not factor in those negatives too heavily. Who knows what lurks beneath the new stars that shine so brightly in the tryouts, players that look pretty darn good but that we don’t know a whole lot about?

It can be pretty easy for a coach to cut the cord and continually bring in new blood year after year, but what does that really say about you as a coach? Ultimately, what you see is what you coached.

The Crystal Ball
Essentially, whether they are up-front and tell you or not, most coaches have a pretty good idea of what their team will look like before the tryout even starts. They have to. They know which players from the previous team they want to keep, the ones that they might look to replace and they have a good idea who will be coming to try out.

Some coaches have gone so far as to recruit players from other teams to come play for them, a practice that I find kind of repulsive when it comes to youth hockey, but hey I guess coaches gotta do what they gotta do. Those who can’t coach recruit and replace.

The actual tryout is really when the cards get dealt. People can talk all they want ahead of time about where they are going to try out and what they are doing, but until they actually do or don’t show up at a tryout it really means nothing. Even then, it might not mean anything because there are some parents who run their kids around checking out tryouts to see if the team will be good enough for their player.

But attendance is the first step. Then it is up to the coach to determine whether to offer the spot or not and then up to the player again to determine if they will accept. While honesty is always the best policy on both sides of the equation it is always good practice not to take anything for granted or as the gospel until it actually happens.

Getting noticed
So how do players get noticed at a tryout if they didn’t play on the previous team or the coach is not familiar with them in some other way? Is it even worth trying out? Absolutely it is. You never know where you fit or how you will do until you try it.

To get noticed players should do what they do best. Something “extraordinary” will typically get a player noticed in a large group during tryouts. Size is one of those things but that is the easy part. Then a big player needs to demonstrate that they can skate and handle the puck to play effectively at that size. Speed is another noticeable element. That will get you noticed, but you also need to show that you have the intelligence to use that speed to your advantage. There are plenty of players that skate like the wind and can cover a lot of ice but accomplish nothing.

To me skating is probably the most important skill, especially for younger players, but hockey sense is right there and becomes increasingly important as players get older. The game happens really fast and those players that make the best decisions are the ones that make the greatest positive impact for a team. Those are the players I want on my team. But they also need to have the desire to compete and they have to truly enjoy playing the game.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Penalty Time

Serving a penalty in hockey could quite possibility be one of the most-unique actions in all of sports.

Think about it for a second. In basketball, when someone commits a foul the other team gets possession of the ball or free throws. When a player reaches the foul limit they are excused from the game. In football a team is penalized by losing yardage and in rare cases of excess violence players are thrown out of the game. Baseball really doesn’t have any penalties as the result of actual plays that happen, although pitchers sometimes get tossed for throwing at batters and players and managers get booted for abusing umpires.

Soccer might have the most confusing system of yellow cards and red cards and in my opinion the only players who should be kicked out of the game are the ones that do the worst job of acting when they are flopping around like a fish trying to draw a penalty.

Completely different
Hockey, on the other hand, is completely different. Not only is an individual penalized by having to go for a timeout in a tiny box for two minutes or more, but in most cases the team is also penalized by having to play short-handed for that time. Penalties can impact a game and swing momentum in every sport, but hockey might be the one where they have the potential to have the greatest impact.

There are a plethora of different penalty types in hockey, some that cause coaches to go insane and others that already insane coaches actually promote and encourage. Lazy penalties like hooking or tripping, especially in situations that are in the offensive zone or do not prevent a scoring chance, are ones that make coaches crazy. So too can aggressive type penalties like charging, elbowing, roughing, slashing and boarding that border on stupid and selfish. Or undisciplined retaliation penalties. Yet some penalties are totally worth it, ones that take away a scoring chance or save a goal.

And while there are some “good” penalties, it is important to note that too many penalties and too many minutes playing short-handed hockey are more often than not a recipe for disaster.

But it’s never the team or coach’s responsibility, right? It’s always the stupid refs who don’t know what they are doing isn’t it? Maybe. In some cases. But in most cases, most refs get it right. Not saying they don’t make mistakes. They do. But when they are wrong, they typically share the mistakes with both teams and it usually evens out, if not over the course of a game, then definitely over the course of a season.

On and over the edge
Penalty minute totals usually don’t lie though. Over a period of games or months or a whole season, it is pretty easy to see which teams play on and over the edge of the rules and which ones don’t.

Not only can you get a pretty good picture of the personality of a team by their penalty minutes, but probably a good indication of the style of the coach and whether or not he or she has respect for the game, the officials and the opponents and has the ability to instill discipline in the players on the team.

As an aside, with it being “tryout time”, it is always a good idea to factor the penalty minute stats of teams into your evaluation of the coach of the team your player is trying out for.

If you look at penalty minutes in all levels of hockey, you will typically see that the majority of teams at the professional, college and junior hockey levels average between 12-18 penalty minutes per game. Some teams fall outside of that grouping, maybe as low as 8 on the low end or as high as 20 or 22 on the high end. The average is probably around 12-15 minutes per game, or 20-25% of the game length.

In college hockey, where there is very little fighting because of strict rules against it, you might expect there to be less penalty minutes. However the season is a little shorter and with teams playing fewer games, the pace and intensity of those games is high, which can result in some higher penalty totals.

Penalty minute numbers in pro hockey today pale in comparison to the way the game was played in the 1970’s and ‘80’s. It is definitely a cleaner, more highly skilled brand of hockey today than the butchery and barbarianism of the ‘70’s that provided the inspiration for Slapshot. The movie actually wasn’t that far off of how the game was played then.

At the NHL and college level, penalty minutes are deemed to be so unimportant they aren’t even listed in the team standings. In looking through the division standings in some youth hockey leagues, most of teams fall within the normal range of penalty minutes, but some of them are alarmingly high. A Midget Minor team with 949 PIM’s in 34 league games, an average of 28 minutes per game. Seriously? A Midget Major team averaging 23.5 PIM’s per game? Pee Wee Minors (11-year olds) averaging 18 PIM’s a game? Keep in mind these are shorter games than the 60-minute pro and college games. Keep in mind we are talking “average” here, which means some games are actually higher than that.

Up to the coaches
Some people will say “that’s good tough hockey” and intimidation is part of the game. In my opinion it is undisciplined, idiocy and is an embarrassment to the game. The players are not to blame. It’s up to the coaches to create the culture and demand the discipline of the players to play the game properly.

If a team is consistently playing more than 20% of every game short-handed they are obviously coached (poorly) to play that way. It’s a coach’s obligation to teach the players how to play tough and play hard, but also play within the spirit of the rules of the game.

Fighting in youth hockey is also something that always amazes me. First of all I find it hard to believe that the penalty is only a five minute major and game misconduct. What is the purpose of fighting in a game where the players have full face-masks anyway? Oddly enough, it would make more sense to me to allow fighting (to the extent the current rule does) if there were no facemasks. But how senseless is pounding someone’s facemask with your gloved hand? It might be only somewhat smarter than a bare hand.

Why is fighting even considered to be “part of the game” at the youth level? They are kids. Receive a major penalty for fighting in college hockey and sit out the next game too. Pretty simple and, not surprisingly, there are virtually no fights. Fighting major penalties in youth hockey should result in removal from that game and sitting out the next game as well. At a minimum.

Toughness is an interesting word. For some it conjures up images of Joey Kocur and Bob Probert pounding on an opponent. Absolutely those guys were tough, but so is the current version of the Detroit Red Wings, which averages less than 10 penalty minutes a game and never gets intimidated. When you have the puck most of the time you don’t take penalties.

Winning puck battles and having the discipline and tenacity to maintain possession of it to control the game is a different, more important kind of toughness.
There is a fine line between toughness and stupidity. Sometimes it gets crossed.