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Special Teams Skills in Everyday Drills

By Mike Doyle, 05/08/24, 10:00AM MDT


Teaching Power Play Concepts in Youth Hockey

In youth hockey, there is a great deal of variance between abilities – not just from age-group to age-group, but sometimes even on a single team. Regardless age or ability, coaches can introduce power play concepts into their practice plans for the benefit of every player. 

“What makes a good power play player are two things,” said Joe Bonnett, USA Hockey Manager of Player Development. “One, having good technical abilities – skating, shooting and passing. The second thing is having the ability to make proper reads in making good hockey decisions.” 

For youth hockey coaches, teaching kids where to stand on the power play is the easy part. The real work is all about teaching kids how to make good reads and developing hockey sense. 

Teaching with Intent

Before kids are ready to learn about different power play variations – be it a 2-3, 1-3-1, overload or umbrella – they need to get reps at making power play decisions. Coaches can put their players in those situations before even introducing the term power play. 

“Everything you do in practice should have intent,” said Bonnett, who recently coached Team USA to a Winter Youth Olympic Games gold medal in Gangwon, South Korea. “It’s not necessarily about playing power play games; it’s about running small area games or drills that have power play intent.

“As a coach, I have an intent to get a behavior out of my kids.” 

Coaches should begin introducing power play concepts at 6U. 

“You’re introducing power play and offensive habits at 6U – deception, puck protection, 2-on-1 passing, getting open, puck support,” Bonnett said. “You can argue that a power play is just a 2-on-1. So even a 2-on-1 keep-away drill, you might look at that as they’re just playing keep-away. But what are the power play habits and concepts in that drill you need to coach?”

Bonnett said that with proper intent games like keep-away instill special team skills into everyday drills. Examples of these important power play skills include: the players without the puck getting open; the player with the puck making a read to make a good pass; passing hard and flat; deception in having the defender lean one way and going or passing the other. 

“Those are all young power play skills that need to be built over time,” Bonnett said. 

Intent of Unpredictability

Whatever type of power play structure a coach wants to devise, it is important to break it down into smaller pieces, so players get high reps in game-like situations. This is where small-area games come into play. 

Bonnett gives a 5-on-2 keep-away on 1/4 of the ice as the first example, so the offensive players are set up in a 5 of dice. 

“So what are you teaching now? Obviously passing, it’s keep-away. But now you’re teaching your power play concepts,” Bonnett said. “On the power play, I never want to put the puck on the wall, so during this drill I tell the kids you’re not allowed to use the wall as an outlet. Everything is tape to tape, preferably forehand to forehand. Now, the player in the middle, I’m teaching bumper skills and how to make a triangle out of that dice to give your passers a short outlet. You’re not necessarily standing still but you’re moving to support the puck. The puck is doing the work.” 

When the defending team gets the puck, they don’t throw it, but try to play their own keep-away. This will also improve retrieval skills, something vital on a good power play. 

“[The offensive players] have to swarm the puck and get it back and then reset up in their structure. So I’m not working on a 1-3-1 or a 2-3, but think of all those power play concepts that I’m working on,” Bonnett said. “It’s a ton – puck possession, real reads, deception, influence, puck retrievals. What I would do with a college team to start getting into my power play concepts and habits.” 

He gives another example of a small area game that works on an overload system. By setting up a 3-on-2 on your lefthanded unit – point, half-wall and downlow – on the right side of the offensive zone and mirroring that with a righthanded unit on the other side. When the defending players gain possession, they move it to their teammates on the other half of the ice.

These small area games can also come with instructions that work on power play skills. 

“Now I’m working on my defensemen getting into the middle, the half-wall player is getting to a good height to support the defenseman so, when he gets the puck he’s working on downhill shooting, again power play concepts. And when the goal line guy gets it, he’s working on passing, scanning the ice for other players or slamming the puck on net.” 

The goal of these small area games is to mimic the game and create confusion and unpredictability. This gives players live-action opportunities to think on their feet. 

“The game asks these kids a question that they have to answer very quickly. And it’s not perfect. It’s ugly and it’s messy. But I’ve put my kids in an environment where they have to make reads, they have to give answers to questions. And they have to not only perform physically but they have to perform mentally,” Bonnett said. “To me, that’s the secret sauce when putting together the power play.” 

Linking It Back to the Game

As players progress in age and skill, there will be more time for introducing power play structure and implementing strategy. 

“USA Hockey is not just saying play a small area game and a beautiful power play is going to appear, but how do you structure small area games that have that intent?” Bonnett said. “At 14, start to link the game together, teach an overload, teach a 1-3-1, teach a 2-3.” 

A few times during the season, it’s OK to run through power play setup in a controlled environment. 

“With my youth teams, we do the Red Wing power play, so we’ll do 5-on-0 build up,” he said. “We’ll do 5-on-0 in zone maybe three or four times during the season for 10 or 15 minutes.”

Bonnett also said that he watches video with his teams to discuss setup and strategy. Another place he likes to walk through areas of the power play, without using valuable ice time, is in the parking lot or field with a hand ball. 

“We will watch video with 10U-14U kids,” Bonnett said. “Where we really get work is by breaking down the power play and getting kids into small area games where kids are starting to make reads.” 

Developing players who are good on the power play is not about drawing up the greatest man-advantage system. It’s about kids learning how to make good hockey decisions inside that structure. Coaches can ask themselves if they are providing those game-like experiences for their players. 

“What’s important – is that a real environment? Is it chaotic? Did kids have to make decisions? Yes,” Bonnett said. 

Using small-area games puts kids into high repetition situations, gives them in-game situations to read and react to, and allows them to become better power play players. 

“Kids have to play the game with their head up and take what the game has given. That’s not going to happen in predetermined drills. So, take your drills and concepts, and add liveliness to them. Add liveliness to your practice. If your practice is alive, there’s probably good stuff going on,” Bonnett said. “But don’t just coach block drills because you’re cheating your kids’ brains.” 

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