By: Topher Scott
The 200-foot player. The swiss-army knife. The two-way competitor.
A player that a coach can throw out in all situations and feel comfortable. And whether you’re up or down in the final minute of a one-goal game, that player is your rock. Coaches, you know who I’m talking about. And when we have one in our lineup it gives us so much comfort in managing the game.
But what is it about these players’ games that we fall in love with? And how can we develop the skills within the kids that we coach so we can produce more elite, well-rounded players?
I went on a little mission to find out and did a little digging into the games of some of the NHL’s best two-way forwards. And to take some subjectivity out of it, I chose the last five Selke winners…Sean Couturier, Ryan O’Reilly, Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, and Jonathan Toews
Let’s dive into what makes these five players special.
For starters, let’s not label them as “defensive” players because they won the Selke. All five of these guys are incredibly talented offensively.
They are also different players. They have similar strengths but their skillsets range and differ between them as well. There is no one definition of what it takes to be an elite 200-foot player. The best players are the best version of themselves.
So, let’s dive in. Here are the big-time qualities that make these five Selke winners special two-way players:
1. They don’t play defense.
What?? The best defensive forwards in hockey don’t play defense???
Because the best strategy to not getting scored on is to not let the other team have the puck. And the players above really didn’t play a whole lot of defense.
Now, there are two ways in which this happened:
The first is that they are so good at reading plays and killing them quickly defensively. Great defensive players have the hockey sense in knowing where the puck is going, getting above the puck or the player it’s going to, and then have the ability to disrupt plays or force turnovers.
They are hard to play against not because of physical toughness, but because they have the sense and ability to suffocate offensive players by giving them no time and space.
While there can be an aspect of being hard to play against lending to physical toughness, I would define “hard to play against” as never giving me room to breathe on the ice. And while these players are certainly competitive, their defining quality in my opinion is their smarts.
Couturier and Bergeron are ELITE at this part of the game, and in the video below you’ll see their ability to read the play and pick things off. Just incredible awareness along with elite scanning and shoulder checking to help them understand their surroundings.
The second part of not playing defense is by keeping possession of the puck. Whether it’s individually or as a part of team play, it’s pretty simple:
If the opponent doesn’t have the puck, they can’t score. If you can make the other team defend away from your net or have extended puck possession shifts, they can’t generate offensively and it leads to a really, really frustrating night.
The players I watched are either gifted puck-protectors and/or support players. This first video below shows their ability to protect the puck. When you watch this video, you’ll notice some awesome puck protection skills throughout the clips:
-Pre-contact to establish body positioning and win the initial battle for space
-Playing low with extended hands to have power and keep the puck away from defenders
-Feet moving out of space so the defenders can’t outnumber quickly in the Ozone
-Great ability to win stick battles to get/maintain possession
The next video you’ll see some awesome puck support from O’Reilly, Toews, and Bergeron. They have an uncanny ability to read the play and get to spots for their teammates with the puck. You’ll especially notice this ability in transition. When their team gets the puck they immediately work to support – a huge sign of great hockey sense.
They put together patterns and sequences so well and whether it’s being patient to find holes or speeding up to get to spots, they put on a masterclass of puck support. And the better you support the puck and give your teammates more options, the more your team will have the puck (and the other team won’t!).
2. Angles and Sticks
When I first got the idea of doing this breakdown, I thought I was looking for something really extravagant or cool about what these 200-foot players do differently than everyone else. But a big part of it was just executing on fundamental defensive skills over and over again.
And the most important skill of a good defensive player is their ability to manipulate an offensive player with their angling and stick pressure to force the opponent to where you want them to go. All five of these players did a phenomenal job at it.
All over the ice, these players take away time and space through their angling and stick pressure. Most of the time it was from the middle-out, taking away the middle and most dangerous part of the ice first. And whether it was going up the ice applying pressure, tracking back, forcing battles in tight spaces, or taking pass lanes away in the open ice, these players excelled with angles and forcing turnovers/low percentage plays.
Ask any offensive player, it’s painful trying to play against someone with a great defensive stick.
Check out some of the highlights below:
3. Offensive Versatility
To be a great offensive player, in my opinion you need to have a versatile skillset AND mindset. It just opens up so many opportunities to make plays when you have a diverse skillset and a willingness to use different tools during a game.
Being a dual threat (a good playmaker and scorer) opens up options and can give you more time and space. At the higher levels, prescouting has gotten so good that everyone on the other team knows your tendencies…especially if you have an elite ability. And if you have just one elite ability offensively, the opponent will certainly key in on that and try to take it away.
Being a dual threat creates a level of uncertainty for the opponent, especially the goalie. If they know you are going to shoot…they’ll cheat shot. If they know you are going to pass, they’ll cheat pass. With the uncertainty created from your versatile skillset, it can help create the split-second hesitation from a defender or goalie that can lead to plays being made and goals ending up in the back of the net.
The five players I watched were dual threats offensively. I kind of came into this endeavor with this conception that these guys would be unreal below the goal line and in front of the opposing net with a more puck possession style game.
But they all had really good rush games as well. They could score from the dirty areas or a missile from the slot. And they were AMAZING passers. In the first video below, you’ll see a montage of just some remarkable passing plays for goals:
They could all score goals in different ways too. Rebounds, skilled plays, shots off the rush, shots off the cycle, they did it all. Check this video out below of the variety in how they scored their goals:
Versatility is a great asset to have in your offensive game. Even players like Ovechkin or Matthews who are elite scorers…they are really underrated passers. Or a player like Patrick Kane who is an elite playmaker…he can score from pretty much anywhere.
These players have worked hard on those underrated parts of their game. This work has made them into these dual threats which ultimately gives them more options in their arsenal to thrive offensively.
4. Cerebral and Poised
Playing 82 regular season games against the other team’s top lines can be grueling. The grind of an NHL season can take its toll on any player both physically and mentally.
So many of the top professional players have this marathon-of-a-season understanding of their physical and mental makeup, and they use this intelligence to get the most bang-for-their-buck with their energy capacity on the ice.
They don’t go 100mph all over the place. They don’t waste their energy when revving it up is not needed. They don’t play with a reckless abandon that can get overvalued with the tough and competitive nature of our sport.
These five Selke winners are all so cerebral. They’re thinkers.
So much of the language in hockey today is FAST, FAST, FAST and GO, GO, GO that I fear we are losing the thoughtfulness of the game. Breaking down the games of these players really showed the importance of game awareness and really thinking the game. As the saying goes, “They are playing chess, not checkers.”
Both offensively and defensively, these players had so much poise and patience. And when they needed to attack or make their play, they knew just when to pounce.
POISE UNDER PRESSURE is a major quality of elite athletes, including and especially for hockey players. And the five Selke winners epitomized it.
So with all the above being said – How do we develop more all-around, versatile players??
Here are a few thoughts…
1. Play Games with Constraints
Games are always fun and can lead to development of skill and creativity. But you can also throw in certain constraints to these games that can lead to players figuring out how problem solve on the ice.
Example: In a game setting, instead of just having points for goals, you can put a rule in the game that you get a point for every pass broken up by a good defensive stick. Not only will that allow the defensive players to think more about their defensive angles and stick pressure, but it will also force the offensive players to have to problem solve making more play around or through sticks.
Another Example: In a game setting, give a team a point every time they make 5 passes in a row. This will influence the players to move without the puck as this game promotes puck support. Let them play it out and figure it out, but give the game a sort of theme of a skill or concept that you would like to work on.
2. Try a Progression Approach
Let’s say you want to work on angling in practice. You can start off with more isolated type drills to let the players feel it out and then progress to the type of games above.
As the players get more and more confident with the skill you are teaching or introducing, push them a little more out of their comfort zone with more pressure. Eventually, you’ll build to more and more pressure leading to less and less time and space as the players progress through the skill that you’re trying to teach. The ultimate goal is to continue to build confidence in that skill for the player as they develop more success leading to more poise under pressure.
3. Teach with Video
So many kids today are visual learners. They are in front of devices for large amounts of the day and are bringing in so much of their information visually.
Use higher level video and their own video to teach them about the principles of being a versatile player. Show them NHL players angling, how they support the puck, different patterns and sequences in the game, and then encourage them to use what they saw during practices and games.
4. Make Playing Both Ways Fun
Players get really excited for goals. They get really excited for cool offensive plays. And rightfully so. Those are fun!
But as a coach, what if we got really excited for the great, maybe little-noticed plays during games and practices? What if we consistently showed these positive plays in video sessions? What if we reinforced it so much that the players are so pumped to make these little nuanced hockey-sense plays?
Most of what the players see on their phones and watching highlights are the great offensive plays throughout a game. The talent and the skill with the puck. So naturally, that’s what they’re going to focus their attention on as they try to seek approval from their coaches and peers.
But if we as coaches create an environment where little plays like getting back hard through the middle, or a great defensive stick, or showing poise with the puck, are just as celebrated as the sweet breakaway goal? If these plays are met with extreme enthusiasm from the coaches, the players will learn to show enthusiasm too and want to make these plays more.
At the end of the day, versatility is such a huge asset for any player. If you have goals of playing higher level hockey, it’s almost a necessity. Here’s why:
-Each level you go up, the players defending you are bigger, faster, and stronger. If you can only do one thing well, chances are at the higher level the defenders will be able to defend that one thing at a much higher level. And if you can’t find a way to work to add different skillsets to your game, your ceiling will be much lower.
-Each level you go up, the chances of you having to play a different role go up as well. The higher you go up, the more talented your teammates and there’s a good chance you’ll be asked to play a different role than what you’re used to. By having more tools and versatility in your toolbox, you’ll be able to adapt to playing other roles and ultimately have more success as a player.
As coaches, I think it’s our responsibility to promote and teach versatility. Especially with the better players at the younger ages. If we allow the best players to skate in a straight line to score goals because they are faster than everyone, or allow them to be lazy without the puck, or allow them to be uncompetitive solely because they’re helping you win by scoring goals…we are doing them a HUGE disservice.
The game changes with each age level and it’s our job to make sure we are developing a versatile skillset and understanding of the game so they can adapt to the changes that each level bring.
It was much so fun diving into some of the best two-way forwards in the game today. I can’t wait to hop on the ice to teach the kids that I coach what I learned from watching them.
Hopefully you can use this post and the play of five of the best all-around players in the world in developing your players as well!