As hockey has evolved at the highest levels in recent years, players have become less identifiable with specific positions and more identifiable with versatile skill sets.
The NHL has become position-less in some senses, with all five skaters on the ice able to seamlessly change roles on the attack or defense instead of being pigeonholed into forward or defense mindsets.
As a result, the recommendation at youth levels is clear: build players who are comfortable being attack-minded regardless of where they are on the ice.
That means allowing their creativity to flourish without making them reckless – as well as many other things articulated by Bob Mancini, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model.
Building along the way
The fruits of building attack-minded players might not become fully evident until the 12U level and beyond, but the building blocks start as early as 8U, Mancini says.
“It has to start at 8U, and it’s all about getting to the puck and taking it to the net. That’s it,” said Mancini. “At 10 and under, the additional information to that is get to the puck first, win the competition for the puck and then solve the equation presented to attack.”
The 10U window is particularly important, he says, because that’s when some critical pieces of development start to make more advanced actions possible.
“Starting at 9 years old, we get the very beginning of awareness and decision-making. We have to be careful, because humans don’t develop spatial awareness until right around 9 or 10,” Mancini said. “But this is the beginning of that awareness and that has to start with the awareness to get to the puck first.”
Let creativity flourish
What’s interesting is that instinctively most players want to be attack-minded on the ice. So the key to developing such players is – in a sense – don’t mess them up.
Instead, Mancini says, coaches should allow players to experiment with position-less hockey and allowing their instincts to take over.
“Unfortunately, some coaches tend to coach the creativity out of the player at that age instead of allowing the creativity to flourish,” Mancini said. “I think, more often than not, those players have some inherent creative position-less instincts.”
He’s quick, of course, to draw a distinction between attack-minded and reckless.
“We have to be careful in our quest to teach them the concepts of the game that we don’t make them too rigid in play,” Mancini said. “There’s a big difference between concepts and systems.”
Best position is no position
12U hockey is not the NHL, but that doesn’t mean the top professional league in the world can’t serve as a guidepost for how youth players should be developed.
“You’re seeing right now as close to position-less hockey that you’ve ever seen in the history of the game at the highest level,” Mancini said. “Unfortunately, at the lowest levels, we’re seeing adherence to systems and strict position hockey to the detriment of player development.”
Adds ADM manager Dan Jablonic: “You look at the NHL now and how they let players play so free because they’re so skilled. The old days of defensemen getting into the zone and coming back into their lane are over.”
So how do coaches create those attack-minded players at lower levels?
“What we have to do is look at how the game is played at the highest levels and figure out how that translates to the age I’m coaching and what are the first steps I can help with at that age,” Mancini said.
The surest way to do that is simple.
“The best thing we can do for our players is have them play all the skating positions on the ice,” Mancini said. “Ideally, we should have them coming in one door and out the other. The only instructions should be that whoever comes off, the next person takes that position.”
No pigeonholed forwards or defense. Just skaters attacking, defending and replacing each other.
“I know that’s radical, but that’s the kind of forward-thinking we need,” Mancini said.