Players at 14U/16U level know how to pass. They know how to shoot and skate. Most have a nice repertoire of stickhandling moves developed over the years. Motor skills have become second nature. So what will elevate your game to the next level? What’s going to separate you from the players you’re competing against? We asked 2014 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey coach Dan Bylsma.
His answer? Learning the craft of your position.
Now’s the time to start honing in on your responsibilities and developing more skills that are position-specific to help you understand the nuances of your position. Mental skills, game concepts and decision-making are important at this level of play.
“There are so many aspects of the game that are coming into play now,” said Bylsma, who also coaches the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Wingers should learn to take pucks off the wall. Practice screens, tips, rebounds and other slot area play.
Centers can spend extra time on faceoffs. Improve passing in tight spaces. Clog up passing lanes with an active stick.
Defensemen can work on lateral movement at the blue line to improve shooting angles. Practice puck retrieval on breakouts and neutral-zone regroups.
“For defensemen, there’s an even significantly greater number of individual positional skills that can be taught,” Bylsma said. “Not only are they done in small, specific drills, but they should also be used in team drills.”
These are just a few specific skills that make a player more valuable and more effective during games.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
Watch hockey more intently. The development of the game from a skill and positional perspective has drastically increased because of the availability of watching hockey at a younger age.
“The skill development in the last 15-20 years is largely greater than it was the previous 20 or 30 because kids have seen the guy from the University of Michigan pick the puck up on his stick and lacrosse it into the net,” Bylsma said. “They can YouTube Sidney Crosby right now, watch him and then try to repeat it in their yard or driveway or basement.”
Watch Ryan Suter pick the puck up off the wall and straddle the blue line. Focus on David Backes during faceoffs and Phil Kessel on line rushes.
“By watching and being exposed to more hockey, it’s incumbent on the player and the coach to say, ‘Hey, that’s the forward or defensive skill I want,’ Bylsma said. “A good coach or an observant player will say ‘OK, how do I practice that? How do I do that?’”
Don’t Count Out Other Positions Just Yet
While one skill may be more prominent at wing than at defense, that doesn’t mean the entire team shouldn’t practice it.
“While I wholeheartedly believe and would spend a good portion of my practice time on position-specific development, I wouldn’t also just limit it to what label you have in front of your name on the program,” Bylsma said.
Don’t just teach winger skills to a winger and a center skill to a center. Bylsma has three current Penguins that can play wing and center.
“Centermen take the majority of the faceoffs, but there are people that have made a living by being a wing that’s able to take a faceoff,” Bylsma said. “Ken Klee played in the NHL for 16 years. He played as a defenseman essentially his whole life, but played 250 games as a forward in the NHL.”
“We work on wall play – and 80 percent of the time that’s the wing’s job – but everybody practices that in our team practices,” Bylsma said. “It’s not exclusive for just the wingers to be in that position. That’s a wing-specific skill but we have everybody do it.”
Even NHL’ers Still Work on Individual Skills
We’ve all seen the viral video of Patrick Kane putting on a stickhandling clinic. That’s just part of his daily routine. Why shouldn’t players at the 14U/16U levels continue working on individual skill development?
“A good portion of our practice time is spent on individual development,” Bylsma said.
Even top college and pro teams spend time each practice working on individual skills. At 14U/16U, it’s imperative to take it a step further.
“Now, it’s important to combine the two,” Bylsma said. “To be able to work on your skills and habits that are pertinent to your position.”