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Special Teams Tactics with Mike Guentzel

By Jamie MacDonald, 10/23/15, 11:00AM MDT

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Editor’s Note: USA Hockey strongly recommends refraining from detailed and lengthy instructing on special teams tactics/systems until the 14U age classification at the earliest.

Coaches confront all kinds of commotion throughout the course of a game. Botched breakouts, missed assignments, mixed-up line changes and general chaos reign. But the whistling of a penalty signals the chance for both teams to execute a practiced plan that might just change the course of a game.

We caught up with University of Minnesota associate head coach Mike Guentzel, who shared his approach, mindset and objectives when it comes to creating a successful special teams operation.

USA Hockey: Power plays create one of the rare instances where the game stops and resets with new objectives. What kind of mindset do you want to teach in terms of preparation?

Mike Guentzel: I do think a key is the faceoff – having everybody on the same page, whether you have four on the kill or you have five on the power play. Win a puck, retrieve a puck, then get set up on the power play, or get a puck out on the penalty kill. That’s the one mindset, to have a little structure there within the coaching to give your players a plan – to get it out or get it back.

USA Hockey: Tactically, what does that look like once the puck is dropped?

Guentzel: On the power play, you’re trying to introduce some things where you’re creating outnumbered situations, creating seams and creating some movement through those seams, and having a presence in front. The big thing now is trying to create a presence in the slot for tipping and redirecting pucks. Players have to be moving and players have to be reacting. You have to create those 2-on-1 or 3-on-1 types of scenarios.

On the penalty kill, there’s a different mindset, but hockey sense applies in both. You want high hockey IQs on the ice. If you’re down a man, you really have to work together to try to minimize your deficiencies.

USA Hockey: Is creating outnumbered matchups the element of a good power play?

Guentzel: For sure. You can’t be stationary. So many teams now are trying to dictate on the penalty kill – a little bit of pressure, whether it’s stepping up on the half-boards, or whether the forwards are pushing the puck down the side boards and outside the dots. Teams are very rarely now just sitting back in a tight box or a tight diamond.

USA Hockey: How does a power play get into a rut, and how can a coach get out of it?

Guentzel: Sometimes, it’s the opponent’s system or their structure or the emphasis they put on the penalty kill. You might have some bad bounces or some bad breaks. You may not have enough movement, or you haven’t adjusted to what the other team is trying to take way.

Most teams, they’re trying to take certain things away. You can’t take everything away, but you might try to take something away or a couple things. Or you might take a guy away. If we have an All-American defenseman up top, you might be doing some things to make sure you’re in his shooting lane, or making sure he’s distributing the puck left or right. You’re taking some of the options away.

USA Hockey: How many different kinds of power plays there are at an elite level?

Guentzel: If you watch pro hockey right now, you might think there’s basically one or two power play looks, including the 1-3-1. I wouldn’t advise that with the younger players. At the youth hockey level, I think you still have to be teaching to create 2-on-1s and to try to create an advantage – to put a puck on a good player’s stick and have him use his vision to create some of the movement away from the puck.

At 14U, you might try to draw someone in and then move the puck, or work a little lower because kids might not yet be a shooting threat at 55 feet. It might be working around the half-wall or around the goal line in youth hockey. Going back to when I was watching my sons, that seemed to be popular. The puck started at the top, but it got to the side or down low as quickly as possible because that’s where you had more of your skill and you could create those backdoor plays or little seam passes for scoring chances.

USA Hockey: Now that we can all go online to watch power-play video, what would you suggest the average coach look for in a good power play?

Guentzel: You have to see how guys can create 2-on-1s, that’s the biggest thing. One on top, guys on the flanks, creating opportunities, attacking a defenseman, creating opportunities down low. You want to give one guy who’s responsible for two guys a little more to think about.

USA Hockey: Where’s the best place to shoot from on a power play that’s clicking?

Guentzel: Obviously, down the middle of the rink is as good as any – from the center or the point. It creates rebounds on both sides of the net. If you’re on the flanks, I think that is still is a good opportunity, but you have different rebound opportunities. Certainly, the goalie has a better chance to deflect rebounds away from the scoring areas as opposed to right down the middle of the rink.

For me, still it becomes having that shooting threat up top. It gives the penalty killers trouble with what they have to be reacting to in terms of certain rebound opportunities. That’s how we score a lot of goals right now – create rebounds and create screens and traffic up top. Teams are taking that away, but if you have a defenseman that has the ability to get the puck to the blue paint, you’re going to have a pretty good chance to score.

USA Hockey: What do you think about coaching one-timers? Does it ever feel like a low-percentage play?

Guentzel: I think it’s a really good option. The one-timer is very difficult to defend. It just happens so quickly. The skill level it takes to develop an accurate one-timer with some velocity on it, I think it’s a real advantage in a skill set. For me, if you can one-touch pass or one-time pucks in shooting situations, you have some of the skill set that’s required at a higher level.

USA Hockey: What kind of coaching can take place during a power play or penalty kill? How much can you do while that clock is ticking?

Guentzel: I don’t know that you can do a lot. Hockey is such a fast-moving sport. It’s hard sometimes to slow it down. You can overanalyze it and over-invent it. We’ll show our guys video clips when they’re out there, and you still have to make plays. The more you give kids to think about, the more you can scramble the process. I still think it comes down to reading the situation, having that hockey sense to give and go or to see the seams or the creases, and to see the plays develop.

USA Hockey: Over the course of time, how much of your practice time is devoted to special teams?

Mike Guentzel: At our level, let’s say we practice an hour-and-a-half every day for four days. That’s six hours a week. I’m going to guess we spend probably 60 minutes per week, minimum, or 60-75 minutes, on the power play. On the penalty kill, it’s probably, at maximum, 30 minutes a week of those six hours.

When we’re practicing power play, we’re also not practicing 5-on-0. You might have your regular power play against a scout penalty kill. And some of those scout penalty killers might be some of your primary penalty killers, so those numbers could be skewed a little based on those situations, too.

USA Hockey: Even with an extra player, things go wrong on power plays, from poor breakouts, to ineffective entries. What should a coach be thinking about when, for example, a team is having trouble setting up a power play?

Guentzel: One thing you’re trying to coach is that you can score off the rush as easily as you can on an in-zone setup. We would like to score right off the rush, whether it’s a full-ice rush or neutral-zone transition. You get two minutes, but there’s no rule saying you can’t score in the first 10, 15 or 20 seconds of the power play. For me, if your first group goes out, they usually get a minute – they would love to be out for the full two minutes, but they get a minute. The emphasis is you get this time and you might as well get it done quickly. You’re going to get taken off, and here comes the next group. You create a little competition between the two groups and give them equal opportunities during the games as well as practices.

USA Hockey: Do you try to simplify a power play or do you try to make it as tactically challenging as possible to defend?

Guentzel: You have to have some simple, structured plans right away. You have a retrieval plan, you have to have a faceoff plan, you have to have a couple of go-to plays. I think you start from a little bit of a basic foundation and then you can add from there.

You can have all the fancy, creative situations you want, but I think the most effective power plays come back to who has the best shooting power play. If you get play-happy, you’re never going to shoot the puck and you’re not going to have the chances for success. Goalies nowadays are stopping 90-to-92 percent of the pucks. So it’s pretty basic math to say you better get a lot of pucks on net.

USA Hockey: When you talk about the kinds of players you want to have on the ice, if you have one great player on the power play, where should he be?

Guentzel: For me, he’d be up on the top, handling the puck on the point or certainly on the sideboards. I think there are a lot of teams that have some kind of an umbrella overload, a 1-3-1 situation. They have a strong side with two good players on one side and most guys are adept at handling pucks and seeing opportunities develop, and they’re adept at creating opportunities.

USA Hockey: Is there a setup for a less skilled or less experienced roster?

Guentzel: It kind of goes back to the regular setup, 5-on-5, which is two defensemen on the blue line and three forwards. Have a net presence, and you basically start with your regular philosophy in the offensive zone. You can go low to high, over to the weak-side point and create some movement just as you would at 5-on-5 in the O-zone. In youth hockey, I don’t think you want to specialize to say, “We’re going to run one D and four forwards.” I think it’s more important to develop all your defensemen’s stick skills and give them equal opportunities.

You should probably spend more time with two defensemen, three forwards and creating some of the same things that you do in your offensive zone play so that there isn’t information overload. It’s carryover. Guys understand it quicker, and now the habit has been built over a segment of time and they’re pretty good at it.

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