There’s no denying that I have an interest in coaching a professional hockey team someday, and that I miss being “a part of the game” at times. At this stage in my life, however, moving and travelling and getting fired every couple years isn’t something I’m ready to throw myself and my wife back into. I’m pro-stability right now.

I have to do something with the technical hockey thoughts in my head, so in the meantime, I thought I’d share with you how I’d coach a team if I were to run one starting tomorrow.

Assessment

In my experience, too many coaches think that there’s a “best system” or a “right way to play.” They grab their square peg of a team, and try to stuff them into a round hole.

What I mean by that is: my preference for a neutral zone forecheck is a 1-2-2 (I’ll elaborate below). But if you have an exceptionally fast team, having guys “steer” opponents rather than jumping them is a waste. A fast team (or specific line) can play a 2-1-2, jump the defensemen at every opportunity, and turn pucks over with regularity. You get a slow team in a 2-1-2, and all you’re doing is making two forwards irrelevant.

So I’d assess: what are our strengths? Our weaknesses? How’s our skill level, speed, size? And from there, I’d build.

Neutral zone

As I mentioned above, I think most teams are best in a 1-2-2 (here’s how it happens after a lost neutral zone draw). Assuming your opponent has just gone D-to-D, the first forward’s job is to not allow a pass back to the other D-man. So he swings between them, and herds the man with the puck up the wall.

The forward on the wall will pressure the puck before the center red forcing the d-man to either dump it (for an icing), skate it (into pressure) or pass it (to covered guys). As with all neutral zone forechecks, when one guy doesn’t do his job, you’re all hosed.

In a nutshell, the forward on the wall holds the red line, the forward in the middle gets “over top” the center, and the d-men deal with the wingers. Sometimes as a bonus, a winger will clog up the area around the center red on the boards with the defensive forward and creates a traffic jam, which is sweet.

Here’s a crude image from the post I linked to:

Anyway, that’s how I’d start with my team. As the season progresses, you’d add alternative forechecks, occasionally line-specific ones that cater to certain players strengths.

Forecheck

Your offensive zone forecheck is a lot more “read-and-react” than most systems, but you almost always start with a basic premise: F1 heads in hard on the puck carrier (obviously if he can get to the puck first, he should) and tries to make contact, ideally separating the man from the puck

F2 reads – if F1 caused chaos on the puck (as in, there’s a chance for retrieval), his job is to fish it out. If your opponent maintains possession, F2 has some tough reading to do. Should he recede into the neutral zone forecheck? (If F1 got roasted and the D maintains possession, yes.) Should he track down the other defenseman, knowing a D-to-D is coming? (He should certainly be cheating towards him as the play unfolds.) Should he go after the puck carrier and expect F1 to recover and fill in his spot in the neutral zone defense if he gets beat? (Only if he can get to that d-man quickly before he has time and space.) Lots of talk with your teammates helps here.

F3 is always high, and generally works from top of the left circle to top of the right circle, reading depending on what’s happening with his teammates. If the puck pops loose and goes side to side though, he can get involved.

I wrote this post on how to rotate in the offensive zone, but in a nutshell, you can see how F1, 2 and 3 would end up in the spots I’ve shown: F1 went after the player, F2 went low to retrieve the puck, and F3 stayed high. If the puck goes side to side, once they’re in-zone, they’d move like this:

Offensive zone

Because I’m an excellent communicator and my team fully understands the system and executes it to perfection regularly, we’ve turned the puck over.

In zone, I think standard cycling is relatively useless. Some players are just so happy to spin their wheels and maintain possession and get that pat on the back from coach for a shift in the offensive zone (fine when you’re up in the third) that they never create anything.

Two things create holes: east-west player movement, and north-south puck movement.

Players are often to proud in the d-zone to be protecting an area of the ice, they forget that it’s useless if there’s no man to cover. So wingers will sit up high and watch their d-men, all the while leaving a soft spot off the half wall (just above the hashmarks) for a guy to cut into. You make this holes bigger by going low-to-high with the puck, and letting your defenseman decide if he should put it back in deep, or fire it on net (after you move the puck up high, heading to the net for a tip/rebound is a good idea). It stretches the defense, so more passing lanes open too.

And once you’ve established that, going east-west forces teams to rotate, which is where problems start. Suddenly they have two D in the same corner and the center is left alone to defend the net. The more you make hockey players think, the more likely it is you’re going to create complications for them. Cycling in one corner is Basic Defending 101.

Defensive zone

I don’t know any team that defends all that differently from the next, I just know I’d place an emphasis on players, not areas of the ice. Also, I’m okay with the wingers collapsing down to help out on shots, just to get sticks up, clear rebounds and all the rest. One of my best coaches used to talk about where you’d like your opponent to get their shots from, and I assure you that “on rebounds from in close” is pretty much near the bottom of the list.

Shots from the point (assume you’re boxing guys out well), and shots from the yellow paint (the walls) are preferred. Anything from inside “the house” (crease out to faceoff dots up to top of the circle and across) isn’t smiled upon.

Powerplay breakout

I explained the standard PP breakout that all teams start with before getting fancy here. The general routes are here, with the d-man stepping out from behind the net with the puck. Far guy is stretching the D so there’s more ice to use, d-man has several options. Ideally, he’ll go to the wall, which will draw the PK defense over, then that guy will go wall to wall, and give him time and space to get the puck set up.

This is a fine jumping off point for a team, but powerplay break-ins need to be super-customized to your talent. During Scott Gomez’s prime, when he skated like a waterbug, had his head up, had great vision and hands, you could basically let him rag it into the zone, stop and get set-up. If you have a guy like that, you let him do it.

More and more teams like to use their best offensive player like that – most commonly, they’ll have the defenseman work the puck up to the blue line or neutral zone, then drop the puck to said skill guy who’s coming with speed to pick it up. I’d be all about that too.

Powerplay in-zone

I mention this farther down when I talk about penalty kill in-zone, but you really can’t decide how you want to attack on the powerplay without knowing your personnel. Sometimes you have a guy like Dany Heatley who’s basically only valuable as a guy taking one-timers in the slot, so you need to set plays for that. Other times you have skill guys like Datsyuk who you trust to free-wheel and be creative.

My preference though is to pick your best trigger guy, check what hand is, and make sure he’s open in the slot on his one-timer side. Then you have a defenseman in the middle behind him, so the guy on the half-wall and the guy down low have options when they get the puck: if the D takes the shooter in the slot, your d-man can sneak back door. If they watch back door, you have a guy in the slot. If both are taken, you can move it up to the wall-side D and let him drag it to the middle and look to shoot (ideally, guy on the half-wall is now on his one-timer side).

Penalty kill forecheck

First and foremost: I’m down with having an aggressive F1. All teams and lazy, skilled d-men want to do is to non-nonchalantly¬†saunter back on the puck, take their time, let everyone get set up, then move the puck up the ice. They hate the pesty-harassers, so for my money, if a guy thinks he can get to the puck or body, I say go for it (obviously don’t chase behind the net, but that’s an “always” staple).

Otherwise, I’m a fan of simplicity – I like to have two D back, a forward around the center dot, and a forward who takes a preposterous angle to dictate where the defenseman has to go (1-1-2). By preposterous, I just mean that the d-man has to take what’s given to him. Hell, coaches tell d-men “take what’s given to you” on a PP breakout. Basically you just want to cut your opponent’s ice in half, drive it into traffic, and hopefully force a guy to make a play before center. Also, there’s minimal risk of your two d-men getting roasted like there are with the “fancier” kills. Aggressive up-ice, passive in your own zone.

Penalty kill in-zone

In-zone PK, must like in-zone defence 5-on-5, is pretty standardized. The adjustments you make depend on what your opponent does, and who their personnel are. Of course there are the basic rules, assuming they set up with a guy on the half-wall, a low guy, and a guy in the slot as I mentioned above – but you can’t say “I’d defend our opponents PK _____ way” without knowing what you’re dealing with.

And finally…

Style

Iron-fist Mike Keenan days are mostly over. At the same time, I don’t think you can be a players coach and cater to everyone’s pout and whim.

If you look at guys like Mike Babcock and Dan Bylsma, they’re more professorial. They treat people like adults, expect results, and put in the work. I don’t think you have to change who you are, I just think your players expect you to be a pro. I’d let my assistant coaches do the bulk of pulse-taking on the team, try to listen to other people as much as possible, and make the final decisions. Dictators don’t work. Babysitters don’t work. There’s got to be a happy medium.