Lots of coaches buy in to one or the other and pride themselves on it. We get asked it a lot from parents and players, some topics surround it- what should coaches at the elite levels (AA and AAA) focus on more… systems or allow individual skill to take over? Your answer… both are equally as important. Let me explain why.
Hockey is a team sport as we all know. We are taught it from the day we first lace up our skates and participate in our first ever practice, all the way to when we put the blades on for the last time. It is a team game and everybody has to buy in and work hard for the betterment of the team. I mean at the end of the day… if everyone is on the same page all at once, that sounds fairly powerful doesn’t it? Now when we talk about everyone being on the same page, but at full speed mentally and physically to just about perfection- now we are talking. This is why systems have always been, are, and will be crucial in any teams’ success. I hear the argument of not turning players into robots in Minor Hockey and letting them be creative. Okay, understandable. But why do we have positions then in hockey? Why can’t everyone just skate around and be creative, and do whatever they want on the ice? X’s and O’s have a place in hockey.
We have 5 players on the ice at one time- we need to unify those numbers into one powerful unit in all areas of the ice- and have it run flawlessly through repetition in practice. Getting it to the point of being like a well-oiled machine. THIS IS WHERE YOUR FOUNDATION IS- is in your systems. This needs to be established at the start of the year so by the time playoffs roll around… you aren’t teaching your team how to forecheck or how to break out of your own end the week prior. Lay the ground work and build off of that. There are reasons, skill wise, why you chose the players you did and why they are at that level. So now, we need to begin the process of having them play as a team and buy in to a structure that will allow us to be hard to play against, in the sense of unwavering systems and constant attack. Being hard to pick apart and find holes in.
Now you have laid the foundation for your systems. You have worked repeatedly on your d-zone coverage, break outs, zone entries, regroups, etc. Now that the players all have a decent feel for it all and it is slowly coming together… now we focus a bit more on individual skill, or at minimum positional skill development. We have some systems- now lets sprinkle a higher skill set in amongst those systems. X’s and O’s are not too much for players to be creative in amongst by any means. THIS IS WHAT SEPARATES at the minor hockey level. Forwards- sure coach wants you to take pucks wide as F1 on the zone entry- but do you manipulate the D’s skates and gap? Can you make a play within a change of speed? Can you manipulate his stick positioning to create a seam? Can you shoot in full stride? These are not systems… yet things that you CAN do within a system while still buying in. When I scout I don’t like seeing players play like robots. Play your role and do your part- but please stop doing the same set play every single time with no deception. Think outside the box a little bit. Come off the wall when you get the puck as a winger on the boards in your own end. Fake the D outside and then move it to the middle. D- manipulate your forechecker so it opens up your centre guy on the break out. Players need to be taught this things and not just strictly systems because if they play ONLY off of systems- when they leave your team, they are done. They are basically back to where they were in the fall when you picked them.
Now, its the middle of the season and you have a solid foundation of systems- have worked lots on skill work- now the door is wide open. You have something to build off of now. You can add on more options in each area for systems- maybe you have 3 or 4 options for forechecks, set plays on the breakout off of a d-zone draw, specific plays on your regroup- whatever it may be. But you have the skill set and the foundation to build. Much like off-season training- you need to set a platform where you can jump off of and allow yourself to grow. Every player was chose for a role on a team and I get that- but don’t halt their growth potential by not working on their skill to be able to take charge of the game with and without the puck.
Give your players all the tools that you can, to add more skills to his arsenal, to increase his hockey IQ, increase his confidence- while AT THE SAME TIME- making your team a better 5-man unit. Our job in minor hockey is to prepare them for junior- at the junior level, both systems and skill are important. For development, and current success.