skip navigation

14U/16U: Incentivizing Intelligence and Adaptability

04/29/2022, 8:45am MDT
By Michael Rand

Constraints shape player behavior, and players will adapt to the environment that the coach creates.

Long before Ken Martel became Technical Director of USA Hockey’s American Development Model, he was a defenseman for Lake Superior State.

It was in that role that he got a big lesson in how to develop skill adaptive players. Constraints shape player behavior, and players will adapt to the environment that the coach creates.

“My coach (Frank Anzalone) told us as defensemen that we aren’t allowed to rim the puck around the boards. It had to be a direct pass. That was the rule,” Martel recalls. “We adapted and found creative ways to break out. The basic lesson was that when you hold players to a higher standard, they will make plays.”

Lake Superior State made enough plays that it won the first NCAA title in program history in 1988.

That sort of thinking was a part of the considerations in a recent USA Hockey decision to extend a rule that had existed at youth levels to all levels aside from high school and adult: Short-handed teams are not allowed to ice the puck freely. If they do – contrary to the existing rule in the NHL and college hockey – it results in a faceoff in their own zone.

The goal? Teach players to skate the puck out of the zone, move the puck efficiently and perhaps even turn a shorthanded situation into offense.

“USA Hockey doesn’t want to encourage throwing the puck away when they get the puck,” Martel says. “They can still chip it out, they can still do that. We’re incentivizing them to do it more intelligently.”

In addition, allowing short-handed teams to ice the puck freely is a change to the normal playing rules that gives the penalized team an advantage.

Age-Specific Lessons

While 14U/16U players have spent most of their formative years in USA Hockey playing with the no-ice penalty kill rule that went into effect in 2017 for younger players, they can still reap the benefits.

“Over time, players adapt. Older players have more ability to take advantage of it,” Martel says. “There’s nuance to the play. I go to watch games at the older levels where the coaches have embraced it and it’s helping to improve players in the way they should.”

Teams good at skating or working the puck out can neutralize opposing power plays and catch them off-guard with short-handed opportunities. Teams that don’t adapt and continue to ice the puck find themselves in precarious situations with defensive-zone faceoffs while down a player.

14U/16U Development

To Martel, the no-icing rule is “incentivizing intelligence within the play from a developmental standpoint.” 

The goal is to develop top-level players within the context of competition.

As players get bigger, the time and space on the ice continues to shrink. Technical skills are important, but teaching players to be adaptive and make good decisions quickly is just as critical. Getting players to scan the ice, to understand the relationship between their teammates, the opponent and the puck are key to successful play. Players need to problem-solve both with the puck and most importantly away from the puck. What this rule emphasizes is players off the puck moving to areas of support; to work as a unit to move the puck up ice. 

“The difference between good players and great players is the ability to make good reads and make plays consistently,” Martel says. “We feel this adds an additional layer to that process while in conflict.”

Change Behaviors

Just as Martel experienced at Lake Superior State 30-plus years ago, changing the environment for players “will incentivize certain behaviors.” That happens across many levels of hockey in many different situations. Perhaps it seems jarring to have it applied to games, but it’s effective.

“When you add constraints – different rules – they shape behaviors. That’s what this is. When you look at our sport, the necessary abilities to play at a high level, it comes to can you play in traffic, make a play under pressure, read and adjust?” Martel says. “We do a lot of these things in practice with small area games. Those are changing constraints, playing with size and shape of the rink to change behaviors and learning. This is sort of the same thing but on a larger scale within the game itself.”

It’s another step in the evolution of making thinkers out of players instead of just having them perform tasks.

“It's really easy to just grab the puck and hammer it into the other team’s end. You don’t have to think,” Martel says. “Can you still ice the puck? Yeah, you can. But there’s a price. The good coaches look at it as a chance to improve – and go on offense. You can still chip it out and chip it down the ice. But the playing environment is incentivizing them to do it with more intention and feel.”

“The greatest gift of the rule change is the constant discussion in rinks as to why the change,” Martel adds. “To have open dialogue with players, coaches and parents about player development.”

Player Development News

Tag(s): ADM Features