Blink and you might miss a crucial part of the action. Hockey today is played faster than ever and critical to the pace is how fast a team can transition from defense to offense and vice versa.
As head coach of the U.S. National Under-18 Team at USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, Seth Appert helps some the best American-born amateur players advance to the next phase of their career, be it junior, college or even the pros. To him, the transition game is so important, they work on it constantly in practice.
“When you have good angles, good gaps and good backchecks, you have a chance to create turnovers and you have a second or two to catch your opponent going the wrong way. And you need to take advantage,” said Appert, a former Ferris State goaltender from Minnesota who has 18 years of NCAA Division I college hockey coaching experience at Denver and RPI. “There’s a lot of ways to transition, different philosophies of where teams want to go. Do they want to go straight up with the puck? Do they want to go to the weak side? But I think it’s important to have a plan for your players so they can play faster because they know where to go once that turnover is created.”
Before taking advantage of a transition turnover, a team needs to get the puck back.
With the speed and skill of players today, Appert emphasized a mindset change that needs to take place when teaching angling at the youth level.
“We need to get rid of the mentality that we’re going to run in to kill somebody when we’re angling,” said Appert. “It’s not part of the game anymore, and it certainly shouldn’t be a part of the youth game. We shouldn’t be teaching our players to hit so hard that they’re trying to injure or scare people. That could turn youngsters away from the game of hockey.”
And coaches must remember, body contact must be taught at every level. It cannot wait. Follow the age-appropriate progressions.
The main objective of angling is to take away an opponent’s good ice and force them to bad ice. Taking the proper angle includes having your own goal in mind.
“When you’re skating to take away time and space from your opponent, one thing you need to have for the proper angle is momentum back toward your net,” Appert said.
When angling toward an opponent with the puck, if he or she makes a pass or play off the wall, the angling player’s momentum is returning to the defensive net. This way, the angling player can stay “above” the attacking player and help out in a defensive manner.
“Second, you want your stick on the ice in a sweeping manner and protecting good ice,” Appert said.
Appert said “good ice” typically is the middle of the rink. The goal of angling is to push an opponent toward “bad ice,” on the outer areas of the rink, where the defensive player can continue to angle and close space.
“When you get to the contact point, if your opponent still has the puck, you want your stick on the puck,” Appert said.
By playing stick-on-puck, players of checking age won’t be cross-checking, elbowing or having high contact. Additionally, they have the best chance of disrupting the attack by intercepting the puck or deflecting any potential passes.
“You want to get your stick on the puck, you want to get body contact on the player by getting your shoulder or rear-end into their hands so you’re cutting their hands off, so to speak, with your body and eliminating their ability to continue to carry the puck, while maintaining position defensively toward your end.”
Typically angling is driven by the forwards, while the gap is minded by defensemen. However, a good gap – the area between a defenseman and an attacking forward – actually often begins in the offensive zone.
“A good gap starts with your defensemen never standing still on the offensive blue line,” Appert said. “The D should constantly be moving, they should be constantly active offensively and defensively. It doesn’t mean they should be all over the place, but if you watch NHL defensemen that are really good, they’re never standing still flat-footed on the blue line.
“If you’re standing flat-footed watching the play and there’s a turnover, you just back off the [blue] line and your gap is terrible. If you’re constantly taking ice and moving, now you’re establishing your gap before the opponent even gets the puck.”
Similarly to angling, players want to protect good ice early and push the opponent to bad ice. Much like the game has changed with the idea of the big hit disappearing, defensemen don’t just continue to back off toward their own net anymore.
“Once you push them to bad ice, defensemen are pivoting and skating forwards and angling into players to eliminate their time and space instead of just backing off into their zone,” Appert said.
Skating confidence is crucial to maintaining a proper gap, so good skaters will have a much easier time with this concept.
“Now that the game is faster, there are more defensemen who are capable of doing it. There are less and less of the 6-foot-5, mean, physical defensemen who don’t skate well,” Appert added.
So, if players are taking proper angles and controlling a good gap, a team will cause a lot of turnovers. But players have a limited amount of time to take advantage – that’s transition.
“When you do get turnovers, don’t look to hold it or slow it down,” Appert said. “You have about two seconds to take advantage of your opponent being out of position. You want to look north [up ice] and look to beat a couple of their players with one pass to put your forwards in position to create a 2-on-1 or 3-on-2. Once you make that pass, you need to activate one or both defensemen.”
How fast your players can recognize a turnover and turn defense to offense can be enhanced by the coach and how much freedom a bench boss allows for anticipation. Players need to learn on their own when it’s a good time and when it’s a bad time to try and get the jump to offense.
“I think it’s important to allow players to anticipate turnovers and break to offensive positions. Is it anticipating or is it cheating to offense? I don’t know,” pondered Appert. “If you’re always telling them they always need to stay on the defensive side of the puck, we’re eliminating their learning process of anticipation that we’re about to get the puck. Patrick Kane is the best at it. Is it cheating? I don’t think it is, because he anticipates turnovers and breaks to space and gets himself into offensive advantageous positions and he’s better than anybody in the NHL.”
However, there is still a part of transition where coaches can put their foot down and hold players accountable.
“You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to turn some pucks over, so it’s important to allow them the freedom to make mistakes, but hold them accountable for how hard they backcheck and have habits to get back on the defensive side,” Appert said. “We allow for offensive creativity – but it doesn’t mean we’re just throwing pucks around.”
“That’s a critical part of youth hockey. If coaches are always yelling at players for turning pucks over, they’re going to stop ever trying to make a play, and in youth hockey, we need to allow them to make plays and take some calculated chances,” Appert said. “Where, as coaches, it’s important to hold them accountable in their effort after they make a mistake in putting on the breaks and backcheck.”