John Russo

Selecting and developing position

By John Russo
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

 

Note: This will be one of the articles (Chapter 2; Getting Ready) in John Russo’s soon-to-be published new book: “Best of Coaches’ Corner - 26 Years.” Watch for it in 2013.

 

Many coaches tend to accept the positions of players as they come on to their teams. Youngsters have always been defensemen or forwards, and so they are chosen and continue as such. I believe that this should not be the case all the way up through high school. While it will take a bit of effort and time to convert a forward to a defenseman at the high school varsity level, a player with good overall skills can be converted if the right frame of mind exists.

Let’s first step back, however, and look at the various positions and what coaches should expect from each. That is a good portion of the basis of how the players should be chosen for each.


Goaltender

At an early age (Mite/Squirt), the goaltender position is not set any more than any other position. Even at the PeeWee and early Bantam levels, goaltenders could still possibly be developed. Goaltenders need to be extremely good athletes with well developed “quick twitch” muscles (e.g., quickness), great perseverance and a stable emotional makeup.

Unfortunately, some kids are put in goal or choose to play goal for the wrong reason. Sometimes weak skating ability steers players into goal. Sometimes it’s just being bigger than the other players.

If I were trying to find a Mite or Squirt that would be a great goaltender all the way up through youth hockey, I would look for a really good, quick, athletic youngster that has shown an even disposition. If all goaltenders were chosen on this basis, there would likely be a large number of very good ones at ages 16, 17 and 18.


Defensemen

Again, this position should not be a set one at too early an age. Many young players are put at defense because they grow faster and are big.

Defense is the most demanding skating position in hockey. Not only do defensemen have to be able to learn to defend going backwards and in their own end, but they also need excellent puck handling skills to be able to move the puck out of the defensive zone and transition in the neutral zone. 

It also takes a mental state that will allow them to have a defense-first orientation and be able to handle the greater potential for being embarrassed. There are many players that cannot be happy unless they are offense oriented.

When I was coaching below the high school level, I tried to make certain that two of my top five players were defensemen. Conversion is relatively easy at a young age. Even now at the high school level, I am very particular about skill level and mental state of my defensemen – and am in the process of converting a forward. A good corps of defensemen is the first requirement for a good to excellent team.


Centers

The best young players are very often put at center. Along with defense, this is a good decision. Centers need to have nearly the overall skills of defensemen. They generally are defensemen in their own zone, and are considered to be the playmakers of the forward positions, and their responsibilities are greater than wings. 

Again, two or three of the top five athletes on a team should be centers. I watch forwards very closely for their ability to be defensemen in their own zone. That is the biggest determination for me, along with the ability to face off and handle the puck.


Wings

The least demanding position in hockey is generally the wings. They have less responsibility in their own end defensively. They also deal with a smaller portion of the ice offensively than centers; and seldom handle faceoffs.

I believe that, for the most part at the youth level, wing is a “learning” position; one for players with a narrower skill range. At the college level and pro levels (plus very good high school), wings can be high skill players. After all, Gordie Howe and Brett Hull, among others, were wings.


Coaches need to understand the skill level differentials needed for each position. For example, weak or marginal wings cannot easily be converted to defense. Unfortunately, I see coaches making that move all too often. Successful conversions generally will come from centers or good skill wings.

Position development to some degree is determined by the players themselves. What I mean is, players must have the correct athletic skills and potential, as well as the proper mental makeup to be able to develop well at any position, especially the more difficult ones.

As would be expected, defensemen tend to be the most difficult to develop. At the pro level, many defensemen don’t come into their own until age 26, 27, 28, then may have careers that extend into the late 30’s. Defense is more mental and more technique than the other positions and doesn’t rely as much on pure speed and quickness.

At the high school and college levels, it is my opinion that a good defenseman coach is critical to development. A good defenseman coach knows what it takes to play at many levels and can get players there through practice and proper correction.

For all positions, I believe that repetition is a key item. I don’t recall being heavily coached as a youngster, although I was fortunate to have good coaches. The bigger factor was the 400 or so hours of outdoor ice and boot hockey every winter. I learned many things by experience.

Another couple of determinates of development are competition and length of competition. It takes a large dose of consistently good competition to bring out the best and to push development of all players. Without that, players rely upon old “easy” moves.

I constantly see high school players that get away with what I call “PeeWee moves” because their competition allows them to do so. The lack of a good, long season of competition is hard to make up later. Most players, I believe, never catch up. Early development deficiencies keep players at a lower level and the vicious cycle keeps them from reaching their potential. This is especially true for goaltenders.

I believe that tough competition should start at practice, not just in games against good or better teams (which is also critical). Coaches can demand high tempo practices and can put their best players into more competitive situations in practice. My high pace practices are meant to move the pace of my teams up several notches as soon as possible early in the season.

When most players think they are at 100 percent, I usually see them at 75 to 80 percent. Most good high school players in Minnesota have seldom been challenged to go at (truly) 100 percent and to innovate and create as they go in games and practices unless they are in the Elite League.

Coaches should be looking for every opportunity to create those situations in practice. This is the environment from which very good and great players emerge. Smooth and nice looking practices are not enough. They have to highly competitive and fast paced to be developmental.
 
John Russo, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. He was a captain at the University of Wisconsin, and his Coaches’ Corner columns have appeared in LPH since 1986.