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Why turning players into “specialists” can be problematic for your team

In Coaching Hockey, Tactics by Malcolm SutherlandLeave a Comment

Watching this year’s Stanley Cup tournament suggests the use of specialists is an unmistakable tactic used. Look no further than the Tampa Bay Lighting with the array of high-scoring talent locked and loaded in their top two lines. And when studying most NHL team’s top-six player combinations, a clear demarcation of player type emerges.

The delineation is by offensive ability with those with flare being assigned top jobs. Interestingly enough, the Eastern Conference Final standoff between the Lightning and New York Islanders was particularly interesting in that it could be argued that New York was employing less specialist use and a more team-play approach.

For the specialist style, bench management is of course vital. More time on ice (TOI) is required for the top offensive forwards who occupy the first two lines. While the third and fourth lines fall into assigned defensive roles and by default see less ice, especially if things aren’t going well.

When adding the power play units, the bench can become quite short and problems tend to grow when the overplayed begin to drop out due to fatigue and injury. The use of this system also tends to highlight pervasive gaps, for teams, in player personnel especially in post-analysis, i.e. teams who have exited from the playoffs.

Some defensive players, who play on teams that use this bench and player management process, can enjoy assignment on the penalty kill, but otherwise as a defensive specialist they tend to wait on being called to play against their match, against the opposition’s grinders, or if they are lucky in a unique assignment to shadow a hot hand. For the most part, the defensively-strong player sees ice to give a needed breather to the “talent.” And in a mismatch, or when they get caught in a quick/deliberate change, they can easily fall back on their heels and get caught in poor-ice situations.

Their probability of success is always low. And, what happens when your scorers aren’t scoring?

Or, what do you do when your analytics guy tells you that preventing goals is the mathematical priority to be successful for this series? Your first line can’t check! And your third and fourth lines are not used to playing that much and really can’t handle that much ice time.

Of course, as coaches, we don’t intend to create these consequences. We hope to build a coachable environment where our players enjoy their role assignments and feel they can contribute.

But, the truth is we may be causing the opposite effect.

The problem with specialists

When relying on specialists and when creating roles, we are limiting player’s control over playing time and over their effectiveness. This is because on-ice performances become constrained and tangible achievement is limited. And, when we employ the tactics of specialty we tend to reinforce player weaknesses and limit team resilience.

As coaches, we may even find ourselves chastising players for their lack of ability in the very situations we have created. For instance, if the player is offensively gifted and we lose, we chastise their defensive vulnerabilities and if they are defensive players we criticize their deficiency in offence. In this team system, over time, players become entrenched in a shortlist of strengths and yet fear situations that are outliers to those strengths.

They fear failure.

As such, they seldom take risks and they play cautiously.

Alternative methods

The alternative method seen in the modern game is for players to soak up and build a growth mindset. This is where they strive to become better and more skilled in all situations and requirements on the ice.

They take calculated risks and reap the reward of these actions. They are also willing and able to accept the challenge to play in varied and diverse situations with confidence. They have the self-efficacy to respond and permit themselves to take their foot off the brake because they recognize what is required to be successful.

We hear the results of this enigmatic dilemma constantly in post-series analysis.

“We didn’t have the depth.”

“Our best players were not our best players.”

In other words, our specialists only performed in some specific and limited situations, and when things got difficult, all plans and execution fell apart.

Team tactical purpose

One way out of this conundrum is by identifying and clarifying team tactical purpose for all players. In this process, teams adopt a system that matches player personnel and/or a system that when executed well has a high probability of success. The choice is either defence first, as our analytics department recommends, a high(er)-risk choice of a run and gun offence.

Regardless of this dichotomous choice, a laser focus on team tactical purpose is required. All player personnel, when on the same page, can better understand and better align. All on-ice actions, tactical to technical, can then be litmus-tested against the system of play. These tests can hopefully occur in real-time so that on-the-fly adjustments can be made.

To do this, the rehearsal and assignment of all team tactics, group tactics and even everyone’s individual tactical choices have to be defined without exception. For example, the individual player’s on-ice tactical decision take either a conservative D-side positioning on an opponent or in an offensive-biased system spot opponent and then leave your check and try to stretch.

That’s just one example of an on-ice situation that can be governed by the clarity of purpose. I would suggest that even a player’s skating must change depending on this clarity and tactical pre-made decision.

When using this method, coaches could also elect to use a hybrid of this system and assign tactics depending on location and proximity of play. For example, the location of play in the defensive zone (DZ), neutral zone (NZ) or offensive zone (OZ) can be used to describe and dictate on-ice initiative. In this manner, the modern coach may blend tactical choices dependent on success on the ice (puck possession) with location becoming an antonym for risk and reward.

In this system, coaches can effectively manage unanticipated events and situations to allow for wins in every zone. And TOI then can be better allocated and better distributed (with understanding) among line combinations and players.

Player management choices then become less intuitive, and not left to chance, but rather more evidence/play-based than predetermined outcomes. And specialty assignment of players can be left to special teams (PP, PK).

You will find that roles on teams begin to be less pronounced.

Today’s players want clarity and choice, and with this system, predetermined parameters can allow for both.

About the Author

Malcolm Sutherland


Malcolm Sutherland is a coach, physical educator, sport pedagogist, and SME in sports development, sports safety and injury prevention. As an athlete and player safety expert Malcolm has developed prevention tools and a program to control serious injury in sport. He is a Chartered Professional Coach holding designation with Coaches of Canada. In hockey specifically, Malcolm is now active as a sought after development coach working internationally and nationally. Malcolm has coached at every level from professional minor leagues, varsity as well as junior and AAA levels of minor hockey. See All Posts By Malcolm


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