Seth Appert is developing some of the top young talent in the country. The USA Hockey National Team Development Program’s Under-18 Team head coach shared his advice for youth hockey coaches looking to spark their offense.
USA Hockey: When you’re trying to help a youth hockey team score more goals, what would you start with?
Seth Appert: In youth hockey, scoring goals starts with skill development, not system development. It’s really important that youth coaches use age-appropriate training, the skills work and the stations. The better and more talented your players are, the better their passing and skating skills are and their in-tight area skills are, the more goals you’re going to score. There’s no substitute for skill development. Practicing systems in practice for youth hockey, when you have limited ice time for the week, might benefit you on that weekend’s games, but long-term, you’re hurting the development not only of your team, but of the individual players becoming great. Skills, skills, skills, small-ice games, and the better you can make your players while still preaching a team concept, the better your team is going to play offensively.
USA Hockey: You have to have the puck if you want to score. How can coaches help teach kids puck-possession skills?
Appert: That’s something we work on a ton, even here at the NTDP. It’s one-on-one puck battles. The will to want to get a puck and to keep a puck is one of, if not the most, important skills in hockey. Simple 50/50 in-tight puck races. One of them we do is you line up the guys up on hashmarks at the face-off circle, puck placed on the faceoff dot, and you crack a whistle and you have all five dots going at the same time. Ten players going, 10 players resting, and they race to gain inside body position to win that puck battle, and then they try to possess it inside the circle for 15-20 seconds while the other guy tries to take it away from him. Then you just keep flipping, and you do that for 10 minutes and the guys are gassed but they’re learning the value and importance of body-positioning and winning that puck battle. We do a lot of our small-ice games starting with a puck race or a puck battle. Maybe it’s a two-on-two down low with a bumper that you can pass to for possession change, but it started with a 50/50 puck race. The team that wins that gets to play on offense, the other team has to play defense, and that’s hockey. I’d say that over 50 percent of our small-ice games start with 50/50 puck battles.
USA Hockey: What do you want a coach preaching to his or her players once they do get the puck on their stick?
Appert: Keep it. Keep it and share it with your teammates. Don’t throw it off the glass, don’t dump it in. I think 12U hockey should almost have a no-dump rule. Dumping the puck should be treated with the same distain as taking a selfish penalty. I think defensemen whipping pucks off the glass or the boards instead of trying to make a tape-to-tape play should be viewed the same way. Mistakes should be encouraged. Taking calculated chances should be encouraged. When we have it, we don’t want to give it up. I talk to our guys all the time that our goal is to never dump it in. Now sometimes we do, but, even when we are, we don’t want to just blindly dump it behind the goal line. Say the defenseman is challenging us at the blue line. We want to place it behind him where our teammates are getting it or we’re jumping around him to get it with a self-chip. The real key is that we keep it, and that you have the keys to keep it. Those skills, as we covered earlier, are honed in the small-ice games, in those confrontational areas, in the skill development areas, so they have the confidence in their stick skills, their body positioning and their passing ability to maintain possession for their team.
USA Hockey: How do you help kids generate the offensive creativity necessary to put the puck in the net?
Appert: Don’t make too many rules for them in practice. The beauty of that is the beauty of pond hockey. I think we’ve lost that a little bit in our sport. Coaches, we’re guilty of this as sometimes we’re coaching that creativity out of them. Unstructured play is healthy. Allowing them to, sometimes we’ll start practice with five pucks on the ice, full-ice, blue against white, just go. You just see them being creative, doing silly things, trying stuff. Sometimes you play small-ice games where you do have rules, sometimes you should have games where you have really no rules. There’s three nets out there and you can score on any net and there’s no offsides and there’s no this or that; trying to give them as much creative play time as possible while still maintaining some semblance of a team structure. It’s tricky, it’s a tricky balance. I think the most creative players are creative within team play, as well. It is hard to teach. It’s hard to define, but you certainly know how to take it away from people, and that’s by yelling at them when they turn pucks over, yelling at them when they try things that don’t always work out. The only way to push yourself out of your comfort zone is to fail, and fail considerably. If you’re never turning a puck over in youth hockey, you’re probably never trying to make plays.
USA Hockey: What are some basic tips for a youth player on beating a goalie and scoring a goal?
Appert: All great goal-scorers will tell you that they see the net and not the goalie. Guys who aren’t great goal-scorers come down and they see a lot of goalie. You need to look for net, and I think hitting the net is critical, too. You go watch a youth hockey practice and our guys aren’t much different, at the beginning of practice, if they get five minutes to skate around shooting pucks, warm-ups in the NHL are very similar, they’re going for the junction between the crossbar and the post. Well, if you miss that shot by 1/100th, it’s going high and wide, with no chance of creating a rebound that might go in. Hitting the net while still shooting to score is a critical component of being a goal-scorer. I think really great goal-scorers have a few things in common. As I said, they see net, not goalie; they shoot with their feet moving, because when their feet get set, goaltenders start to know what’s coming. Deception is important. Sometimes that deception of shot can come from how quick they get it off. Sometimes that deception comes from them maybe looking to pass but then shooting. Sometimes that deception can come from changing the angle of the shot by pulling in a little bit of a toe drag or pushing it past the defenseman and then shooting it by his shinpads, to use that defenseman as a screen. I think those are traits of goal-scorers, they have those things in common, and then the best goal-scorers in the world need to score goals from within about five feet from the blue paint. Sidney Crosby’s goals went up dramatically last year. They went up dramatically not because he was beating the goalies more from the top of the circles, they went up because he was adding way more goals from within five feet of the blue paint. Even the best goal-scorers, if they want to have special seasons, they need to get to the hard areas, create traffic and chaos on the opponent and get rebound goals.