By JD Lagrange – In hockey like in any other sport, coaches are somewhat similar in many ways. Depending on the level that you are coaching, you all want to win. After all, hockey is a lot more fun for everyone involved when you can taste victory. In minor hockey however, some coach put winning way too high on their priority list, even at the Rep levels. Your role as a coach is to develop these young men and women and sitting them on the bench – or shortening your bench, as we say – doesn’t accomplish that.
Every single coach will try to draw the maximum out of his players. They want the goaltenders to make saves. They want to see the defensemen defend and execute zone exits, perhaps even support the offence a bit. They want their forwards to generate offense and support the defense when the opposition has the puck. But there are a variety of strategies and concepts to accomplish all of that and that’s where coaches differ.
Martin St-Louis brings a different and refreshing approach and players seem to appreciate what he preaches. He claims not having a “system” but don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s totally true. He has a structure that he wants his players to play within, particularly when they don’t have the puck. But he does leave his forwards latitude to rely on their offensive instincts, on what brought them to the NHL to start with.
Truthfully, I find that, as a coach, I had more similarities with St-Louis than say… Jacques Lemaire or Jacques Martin. I too don’t believe in “systems”, or “traps”. I would like to share some of them and you might recognize some that relate to St-Louis, or other NHL coaches. I will leave out what applies only to minor hockey, things like spreading the ice time more evenly, for example.
Offensive freedom for forwards
As mentioned, I never believed in actual systems but we did work on different breakouts for the defensive zone, working on positioning and decision-making between defensemen and forwards. Getting the puck out of your zone is key as the least amount of time you spend in your zone, the better your odds are at winning. I also believe in a two-men forecheck, but being aware of keeping one man high. Things sure have changed over the years as when I played minor hockey, I was taught “corridors”, where the ice was divided lengthwise into three segments.
Aside from defensive zone breakouts and keeping a man high in the offensive zone, the only two other times I insisted in some structure was on special teams. For one, I used my most skilled players on the power play and to keep them fresh, I was using my third and fourth line players to kill penalties, for the most part. But in both situations, they needed to know how and where to pass the puck to relieve pressure with the man advantage. They also needed to learn how to cut dangerous passing lanes on the penalty kill.
Defensemen on their natural side
One of my strongest beliefs is to play defensemen on their natural side: right-handed on the right, left-handed on the left and here are some reasons:
- In the defensive zone, they play more on their forehand, allowing for more accurate and stronger passes, and rapidly make plays or flip the puck out of the zone.
- Their stick while defending allows them to guide the forwards towards the boards, as the higher hand is positioned in the middle of the ice and forwards will try to go where the stick isn’t.
- It’s easier to keep the puck in the offensive zone when it comes along the boards, allowing for a quicker and harder shot, dumping it back in deep along the board, or making a cross-ice pass.
I wish I had a mean to make a video, as you would clearly see what I mean but you would see how much it makes sense.
I’ve always encouraged defensemen to skate with the puck if they see open ice. Unless you have a teammate open ahead of you, take what they give you as you have possession. I am also very supportive of defensemen joining the rush but must pick their timing. That’s why I liked Shea Weber’s offensive support as the third or fourth man in, as opposed to PK Subban’s end to end, risky plays.
Of course, I insisted on managing the game and making the right decision based on factors like score, time in a period or a game (late goals against hurt more), etc. Also, a pinching defenseman who gets caught up ice better be the one working the hardest on the backcheck.
A bit of a pet peeve of mine is seeing defensemen trying to transform themselves into goaltenders. There’s a guy behind defensemen who is fully geared to stop pucks and that’s the team’s goalie. You see, when a defenseman tries to block a shot, it’s a gamble and in general, I don’t like the odds. You risk:
- obstructing the goalie’s view
- deflecting the puck
- leaving a man open in front for a rebound
- getting injured and miss time or be less effective playing through an injury
If you are well positioned, with an active stick, you are in a position to let your goalie do his job, and ensure that you cut the pass or check an opponent, preventing second and third scoring chances off rebounds. You are quicker and more effective on your feet than on the ice. It also allows for a higher percentage of recuperating the puck to transition to offense or get the puck out of the zone.
Of course, there’s a time and a place to block a shot if you’re a defenseman but in general, I will take defensemen who block fewer shots ahead of guys known for their shot blocking “abilities”. Forwards blocking shots? By all means as they are usually higher in the zone, giving more time to the goalie to adjust, and the defensemen behind them to check opponents for rebounds in front.
When watching the current edition of the Canadiens, I shake my head most times they take a penalty. Most times, they are penalties that can and should be avoided. Hear me out… I had zero tolerance for “lazy penalties”. Those are infraction where players used their sticks to slash, hook or trip an opponent instead of skating and moving their feet. Even when coaching girls’ hockey, I taught defensive positioning to play the body, angles to force opponents in low scoring position. So you had to move your feet to do that, gauging and matching your opponent’s speed. There as also no room for selfishness or dumb retaliatory penalties.
It’s amazing to see Martin St-Louis coach but mostly, seeing how positive he remains even when his team isn’t performing. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t get mad at his players. It’s done on purpose. Coaches have always had to be good motivators and more than ever before, they have to be good communicators. In a world of entitlement, handing out participation trophies no matter the effort or results, kids have grown accustomed to having everything handed to them. There was a time, not long ago, where bridge contracts were a no-brainer. Today, players want to get paid before having accomplished anything, based on potential instead of what they’ve actually done.
As a coach, I applied a very simple theory, not to hurt feelings: Be critical, but always end with a sincere positive point. I was a talker behind the bench. If I noticed something that just happened on the ice, as we didn’t have tablets and video replay to show the players after the game, I immediately jumped at the occasion to teach. I would describe the play and provide feedback to a player or two. I would also ensure to reinforce a positive thing or two that they have done either on that very shift, or earlier in the game. A quick tap on the back, on the shoulder and on the head, and we’d move on. It often worked wonders.
Strong believer that you play the games as you practiced. My focus was on high tempo, with lots of skating (with and without the puck), conditioning, and I had long segments with high ratio for touches of the puck. Players need to be comfortable and confident when they have the puck on their stick, otherwise they’ll give it away like a hot potato. I wasn’t much into bag-skating here, although I’ve done it when the effort or seriousness wasn’t there. But my players came off the ice having worked a sweat.
If you asked any opposing coaches about facing my teams, or if you asked any of my former players, they will all say that we formed a very hard working team difficult to play against. I’m a strong believer that while you, as individuals or as a team, can get out-skilled, there are never any reasons to get out-worked. The old saying that “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” cannot be more true. And that applies not only during games, but also in practice.
My favourite tool that I’ve used every year, at first practice and throughout the season is the mirror analogy. I would tell players to pretend to look themselves in a mirror and ask themselves, without giving me an answer, if they felt like they gave their best effort out there. If the answer is “YES”, then not a coach, not a parent, not a teammate can expect more from you. But if you feel like there were times when the answer was “NO”, then others were justified expecting more of you.
And at the year-end gathering, in minor hockey, I would provide them with a magnetic mirror to put in their locker at school and I would stick a sticker on it with our team logo, with the quote: “Did I give my very best?” I would turn it into a life lesson, saying that it doesn’t apply only in hockey. If you give your best at school, at work, in your relationship, no one can expect more from you. But if you don’t, then perhaps it’s normal for them to expect more? And only you knows the ultimate truth.
As you can see, whether you coach minor hockey – house or rep – or at the NHL level, there are a lot of similarities. While coaches like Jacques Lemaire will dumb it down for players to execute a well strategized plan and system, others like St-Louis want the players to have fun while playing hockey. That’s right. Hockey is a GAME so it must be PLAYED. One thing we’ve noticed for the most part, since Marc Bergevin changed the leadership group and now with the new management, is that the players are having fun together in spite of a couple of bad seasons.
The NHL, however, is not a place to change the style of a player. I remember when then goaltending coach Roland Melanson tried to change Carey Price’s style of play in his first couple of seasons, and it was a nightmare. At that level, if a player is thinking more than he’s relying on instincts, what brought him to the show, it’s not conducive to success.