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Key items for team and player success

03/13/2018, 1:00pm CDT
By John Russo, Let's Play Hockey Columnist

Having quality defensemen – like Minnetonka senior Andrew Hicks – is critical to have a successful team. Photo: Christine Wisch

I believe that there are a few key team and player items that can take a team “over the top” or leave them just fair or good at the youth and high school levels. The following are five (not all) and not necessarily in order of priority.

1. Using the D: As I watch youth teams practice and play, from Mite through high school, this is one of the biggest shortfalls that I see. In the offensive zone, the coaches fail to teach (or enforce) the forwards to move the puck out to the defensemen to spread out the zone. The forwards continually cycle and continue going around the inner half of the zone 3-on-3 or really 3-on-5, since the wings covering the D’s eventually sag back more and more toward the net.
Coaches should first make certain that the D’s are moving to be in an open position to get a pass. Then they need (in practice) to move the puck back outside to these D’s. It doesn’t mean that the D’s have to shoot. Many/most times a pass back to a forward is in order. Once a pass goes out to one of the D’s, the opposition’s first tendency will be to look and face that way. That gives the three inside forwards time to move to an open position or a screening position.
A really good small area (in-zone) drill for this is the Tag Up 3-on-3. As you may recall, Tag Up 3-on-3 is just 3-on-3 play in the zone, but when the puck changes hands it must be tagged up (passed) to one of the two offensive D’s. The D’s then have the option of passing, shooting or x-passing to their partner (who then has the same options). Good practice for using all five players offensively.

2. Passing into traffic (defensive and neutral zones): This is an especially bad habit that coaches should work on. Drills can be created (and teaching done) that start with the puck along the boards in the defensive and neutral zones and go “full scrimmage” at that point. 

I see defensemen (and forwards) constantly forcing the puck up the boards, into heavy traffic in the defensive zones when they should look to regroup (go behind the net or pass to a partner or center). The U.S. Women’s Olympic Team is an example of not doing it wrong. They regrouped their forwards continually.

Coaches should make certain that when breaking out of their own zone, D’s understand and drill all of the options – not just passing the puck to a covered wing along the boards or “dumping” it up the boards. It just ends up coming back deep into the zone and creates opposition scoring chances.

The same thing happens in the neutral zone when forwards or D’s try to jam the puck up the boards – into traffic. There, it is more safe to pass (hard) across the middle.

The rinks are wide and should be fully used. Cross-passing behind the net (when no chance of interception exists) and all the way from the top of the circles out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone is critical for D’s – and even forwards as the puck moves up the ice.

3. Having dynamic practices: If coaches put extra effort and ingenuity into their practices, the game will be much easier. First, of course, is to plan well and have a good and well-defined practice plans. There are still many coaches that make up their practices “on the fly.” Practices are the most critical for improving in all areas. The games are the test – to see if the practices are working.

The things that I have discussed many times before are the basics: pace, intensity, basic drills, game situation zone drills, basic skills – teaching. That is all it takes, at all levels. The balance might be different for the various levels from Mite through high school (and college, junior and pros as well).

I still see young teams (Mite/Squirt) running full-ice drills and scrimmages to exhaustion. Many players never touch the puck. I also see good skill “stations” teaching. There is a mix out there. It is really up to the associations to have knowledgeable people as coordinators and consultants (if you will) for the coaches at each level. Practice plans should be reviewed – and some practices monitored and critiqued. Coaches should be open to suggestions and critiques – and not be allowed to have “bad” practices or fail to include critical skill or game drills/teachings and exercises that are important for development.

This is, as I have preached for many years, where good teams are made or not made. So they need to be done very well.

Even coaches that do create extensive practice plans (they only need to be one page and have time applied) often need some suggestions from other experienced coaches (or ex-coaches). It is important to keep most drills short (distance). Otherwise, players wear out too fast and then the practices deteriorate. Even drills like 1-on-1’s, 2-on-1’s and 3-on-1’s should be mostly red line starts for the forwards. Shorter drills, but more of them are the result – and better development – and faster pace.

Having dynamic practices requires that the players “buy in.” It should be explained that doing the whole practice at full intensity (with rest as is appropriate) will take the place of most conditioning drills. And it will allow them, over time, to play at a fast pace than other teams. Speed is often just intensity – trying hard all the time. Then the slower players look like they have above average speed and the fast players (like Jason Zucker on the Minnesota Wild) are WOW!

Pace and intensity in practice make it hard for opposition teams to compete in games because after a short while the practice pace/intensity shows up in games.

4. Having quality D’s and defense: Now this may sound like a “what?” item. However, it is critical for youth coaches to choose quality D’s first over all else. It is hard to be a successful team without strength on the D’s. That is true from Mites to pros. I always have felt that my 5-6 D’s should all (or mostly) be within the top dozen or so players on the team. And two of the 5-6 should be in the top 6-8 in scoring.

The 5 or 6 D’s is for high school level and above (mostly). I coached D’s specifically for a number of years and would always prefer to play five D’s for critical portions of games so I could “overplay” my top one or two D’s. That is the way it is done at many upper levels. Most teams at the pro level have a D that plays more than others, especially on penalty kills or power plays.

The most critical aspect for selecting D’s is their defensive skills – how they function in their own zone. There are many D’s that have long NHL careers based on their abilities to defend an oncoming rush, cover well around the net, and collect the puck and move it out of the zone. Scoring and offensive skills are important, but not most important. Many D’s that score (more) also give up more goals, so their plus/minus is really no better than the defensive D’s.

Coaches need to carefully select or create D’s (from forwards). They need to have a really good defense coach that mostly concentrates on the D’s, defense strategy, play in the defensive zone and penalty kills. These D coaches (I was one for a number of years at several levels) need to have time in practice to work on defense-specific items and their D’s skills. They can also create a rapport with the D group – a sense of pride.

Good D coaches are not easy to find. They invariably should have played the position. Good ones can also spot a good D very quickly in a game or scrimmage.

5. A great scorer: Coaches need to make certain that their teams have a top scorer or even two, even if they sacrifice a little for it. There certainly are great two-way players that are great scorers. However, even a great scorer that has glitches such as taking penalties, poor defense coverage, etc., is critical. There are a number of times in the season that getting the key goal depends on these players that are driven to score – the go-to guys.

If I were to cut this down to the two most important of the five, I would say dynamic practices is No. 1 and having quality D’s and defense is No. 2.

Dynamic practices can create a team that is hard to play against all over the ice because they try harder (and have learned to perform skills at speed), so they push the pace all the time. As the late Bob O’Connor of USA Hockey (Edina JV coach for years) used to say, “Speed kills in hockey.” This is especially true with girls’ teams.

I have also said for decades that everything hinges on good D’s and defense. Nothing has changed in that regard.


Order John Russo’s new chapterized book, “The Best of 26 Years of John Russo’s Coaches Corner”. It has been described as a “must read” for all youth coaches. Go to for information and ordering.

John Russo, Ph.D., is founder and now mentor to the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. He was a captain at the University of Wisconsin and recipient of prestigious hockey awards at the state (Peterson award) and national levels (Snooks Kelly). His Coaches Corner columns have appeared in Let’s Play Hockey each year since 1986.

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