Guest Coach: Kyle MacLennan on Progress Over Perfection in Development

I am thrilled to present Kyle MacLennan, Head Coach of Weeks Majors U18 in the Nova Scotia Major Midget Hockey League as guest coach for the Coaching Project.

Kyle MacLennan, Head Coach Weeks Majors U18

Kyle is a rising star and you can learn more about him and the Weeks Majors here.

Kyle shares his experience with the tension between his commitment to developing players and the pressure to win hockey games. He opens up about the individual tactics he is teaching and how progress can be messy. It is a terrific read with video that outlines game-like drills and live game action that makes his point tangible, providing a clear take away for all of us. The rest of this post belongs to Kyle. Enjoy!

Development & Winning: Progress, Not Perfection

It’s commonplace for many in the game of hockey; the never ending challenge to balance development and winning at the youth level.  I believe we all know that the development of our players needs to be the top priority (not saying the only one).  Not just on ice development, but the personal skills off of the ice as well.  We want what’s best for our players and for them to look back at their time with our programs in a positive way. 

The Tension

Then one of a few things happens. The team strings together some wins, and starts craving more.  The team loses a few games in a row and we debate completely changing our “development” approach. Whether it be strategy, tactics, skills, motivation, player usage; something must have to change.  In either case, there are moments of second-guessing and an urge to change direction, forgetting entirely about the pledge we made to long-term development. Do we act or do we fight that urge and stay they course?  Perhaps it’s just a slight adjustment that’s needed?  Maybe a change in communication or maybe, just maybe, the players just need more time. 

Personal Experience – a Case Study

Over the course of the past 10 weeks our U18 team has been focusing all of our time to player development, and the evolution of our team game to mimic a more modern style of how the game is played.

  • Defensemen playing more aggressive up the ice, forward angling, denying entries, generating exits through the middle of the ice.
  • Forwards finding new ways to enter the offensive zone with possession and create scoring chances off of the rush. 
  • All 5 players playing “positionless” in the offensive zone. 

Nothing revolutionary in the game of hockey but a lot of concepts that we just do not see consistently in our region at the U18 level.  The majority of these principles were foreign to our players but were met with optimism and excitement.  “Could this be an more fun way to play the game?”

Progress, Not Perfection

On January 30th, 2021 we took to the ice for our first game in 10 weeks, ready to implement our skills we’ve been working on and play our new style.  We talked at length that all changes and development take time, so we don’t expect perfection; we are just looking for progress.  2 hours later the final horn sounded; Halifax McDonald’s 11 Weeks U18 Majors 3.  Not what we hoped for, but the mood of our group and the optimism from our coaching staff was surprisingly positive.  We certainly don’t prefer to lose (by 8 especially), but there was something bigger in the works.  We failed time and time again trying to execute new concepts.  Players made mistake after mistake trying to play out of their comfort zones and grow their abilities.  That’s the thing with development and trying to stretch us as individuals, and as a group. There are going to be days that are just plain ugly, and we’re going to fall flat on our face from time to time.  After all, many are so used to playing a certain way for so long, change won’t come easy, and often it won’t feel ‘right’. 

With a rematch looming the next day, it could have been easy to be reactive and abandon our new concepts in hopes of a better outcome.  But, our coaching staff saw several things that we really liked.  There were things that we did very well, and some things we attempted to do but just didn’t execute properly. We weren’t going to be satisfied with the result, but we weren’t going to let it push us into a change of philosophy and reroute the course of development for our players. The message was clear: “We aren’t changing a thing; we will learn from the mistakes and execute better tomorrow. Process and progress over results right now.” What doesn’t work for us now and the mistakes we make today will be less frequent if we keep getting reps.

Although we dropped the contest 6-2 the next day, we saw further progress and evolution in our players as well as our team game. A couple of late goals and a penalty shot were the difference in the third period and although we left the rink disappointed with the result, we were incredibly encouraged about the progress yet again. 

A week later, we ended up splitting our weekend set with the 1st place team in our league at the time.  Again – great progress and indication that the players are moving in the right direction.  Of course, there were plenty mistakes and teachable moments along the way that we will certainly learn from. I’ve seen fantastic growth in our players. We, as a group, know that sticking to the process will tip the scales back in our favour later on in the season (as it pertains to winning and how we balance that with development). 

Below are three examples of some of the principles and tactics that we have been focusing on with the development of our players.  I have provided examples for three different areas and included video that illustrates an attempted execution teaching clip, successful execution clip for reinforcing and a development clip from practice for each.

D Defending The Rush With Forward Angling

Purpose: Develop confidence and efficiency in our defensemen’s skating, creating accountability in our forwards for their tracking and retrieval support, force turnovers at the defensive blue line or dump ins.

Focused Skills: Skating, pivots, angling, stick pressure, retrievals.

Reads: What type of support does the puck carrier have?  What type of support does the D have?  Who is going to pressure the puck?

Potential Mistakes: Poor angling, lack of support for partner or tracking forwards, duplication of tasks (pressuring the same player.

Click here if the video doesn’t play.

Clip 1: Practice clip showing a simulated 1v2 and the tracking forward starting below the puck.  On the whistle the D gap up inside the dots, while the defensive forward begins to back check.  If the D recognizes the opportunity to attack the puck carrier with the forward angle they do so, while the tracking forward insulates them on the inside and retrieves any loose puck.

 Clip 2:  In this correction clip you can clearly see the intention of the SSD to be aggressive and forward angle at the puck carrier.  A misjudged angle allows the carrier room and the SSD to be left behind.  In addition our tracking forward and WSD have some loose gaps and the play extends on and ends up in the back of the net.  In theory, we had the right intentions, just a couple of misreads and failed execution.  We can learn from this one.

 Clip 3: Reinforcing clip showing the intention of our SSD to recognize great support and gaps by our F3 and WSD.  Rather than back into the zone and allow the possession entry our SSD transitions forward and attacks the puck carrier on a great angle.  The entry attempt is entry and we are back to offence.

Attacking Off The Rush With A Priority Of Entering Inside The Dots

Purpose: Creating more quality offense off of the rush while keeping multiple options open without be angled off to the outside early.  Developing confidence with the puck on entries without throwing the puck deep (there is a time and place) or shooting low percentage shots.  Teaching support options with width and depth of the attack.  Creating an automatic response by the D to join the rush every time.

Focused Skills: Puck Protection, passing & receiving (slip passes, spotting pucks, etc), puck support, angled entries, linear crossovers, creating small 2v1’s.

Reads: Can we get the puck inside the dots?  What is the numerical situation?  How is the D’s gap? What type of backpressure?  Where is our support?  Where is the space located (in front of the D, behind the D, weakside, etc)?

Potential Mistakes: Poor passes, lack of support, skating yourself out of room early, misreading pressure, forcing 1v1 attacks (although, there is a time & place for these skills).

Click here if the video doesn’t play.

Clip 1: Small area game we often use to work on transition skills and habits.  With the conditions we put in the game it drives the priority to manage the puck, enter with possession and preferability inside the dots if the opportunity is there.

Clip 2:  In this teaching clip all starts off well, we have great middle support from our centre in the defensive zone and you can clearly notice his mindset of wanting to get the puck into the middle of the ice as he transports it up ice.  By doing so we bring the opposition tight together in the middle of the ice and clear space on the outside lanes for a kickout.  After the puck is kicked out we have several options, but elect to look to the 3rd man wide/high when alternative options would be better.  The opposition recovers the puck and transitions the other way.  Despite the turnover this situation provides a fantastic learning opportunity and also illustrates the multiples options that can present themselves when we get pucks inside the dots

Clip 3: In this clip we get a middle entry and attack the opposition WSD allowing time for our drivers to push the D back, rather than forcing a quick rush play at the net.  Our puck carrier delays and find the 4th man all alone in the slot which results in a goal.

Clip 4: Unlike the previous clip we are unable to enter inside the dots.  However, rather than dumping the puck, shooting a long outside shot or turning the puck over, our puck carrier recognizes the available space behind the SSD.  So does our F2! The puck carrier spots the puck to space while our F2 takes advantages of the positioning he has on the opposition WSD, resulting in a first touch and a goal.

“Positionless” Movement In The Offensive Zone

Purpose: Shift from a static offensive zone structure to a more dynamic free flowing offensive zone that creates confusion amongst the defending team.  Develop confidence in our players by forcing them to play out of their “usual positions”, read the pressure and support on the ice

Focused Skills: Puck protection, puck support, scissor plays, playing in between checks, creating forced switches or duplication of coverage

Reads: What space is open? What space can be filled? What is the ice balance? Where is the opposition pressure and how many are they pressuring with?

Potential Mistakes: Poor reads & movement creating imbalanced ice, forcing plays despite the coverage, poor puck protection.

Click here if the video doesn’t play.

Clip 1: Two practice repetitions playing a small area game focusing on offensive zone play and movement.  In this game the deck is stacked in the favour of the offensive team with a 3v2 below the tops of the circles and a 2v1 above the tops of the circles. Although the offensive players are redistricted to these “zones” to start they can move freely from zone to zone as long as they are being replaced/replacing someone. This creates a lot of fluid offensive zone movement and gets our players playing in “non-traditional” spots.

Clip 2: Offensive zone movement and player rotation looking very similar to a 1-3-1 power player.  The movement and ability of our players to create space and fill space creates a duplication in coverage by the defensive team and our WSD is able to attack downhill into space.  The execution isn’t perfect as we do not receive the puck cleanly but the intensions are clear and creativity/read is fantastic.

Clip 3: Very similar to the previous clip, however the execution is much better. The movement of our players creates a breakdown in the defensive coverage and duplication of jobs.  We attack open space and create a couple of great scoring chances.

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