“They want me to talk about defensive concepts, but I don’t know anything about that, so let’s just talk.”
That’s what Barry Trotz said to a group of ten coaches in a small boardroom at the Sheraton Hotel in Vancouver last week a day before the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. Coaches from the East Coast Hockey League, the AHL, and a couple of us from the university ranks chuckled at the Stanley Cup champion’s humility, but it wasn’t until a few hours later realization set in – this man just won the Jack Adams trophy as coach of the year.
After a season in which his New York Islanders swept the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs.
And he doesn’t know anything about defensive concepts?
“I had no stress in the season that I won the cup. I let all that go. I stopped coaching for my job and I just coached because I love it.”
Trotz told the gathering a story about accountability, specifically about Alex Ovechkin missing a meeting and being forced to sit out of a game. “This won’t be good for you,” Ovie told Trotz. “I don’t know what you mean, and I don’t care.” A few months later the two men would gather at centre ice and lift the cup over their heads.
After a couple stories, Trotz did get into defensive concepts. He might be humble, but he transformed one of the league’s worst defensive teams into one of its best, and it happened because of stories like Ovechkin’s. Sure, holding your players accountable won’t always come with the notoriety of healthy-scratching the greatest goal scorer who ever played the game, but that’s the point.
Hold everyone accountable. Ovechkin. Jay Beagle. Your goalie coach. The meeting made me realize that the concepts of defensive hockey apply to off-ice lessons as well. Hold your players accountable on and off the ice, and the rewards will follow. For Trotz and Ovechkin, the reward for good defensive habits is getting the puck. Alex wants to score, so Trotz showed him a system that would help him get the puck back as quickly as possible. If that language worked for Ovechkin, chances are it will work for Mat Barzal, too.
Speak their language. It will work.
Here are a couple more tidbits I picked up during the breakout session with Barry Trotz.
Forwards playing D in battle drills
It’s common practice to put centremen on defense during battle drills, particularly drills focues on defensive zone structure or down low 3on3’s, but Trotz takes this one step further. Put the wingers on defense too. It doesn’t matter to Trotz if a centre or a winger is the first forward back, or even the first player. It’s 1-5, so everyone better be comfortable defending.
5 in the picture and you’re playing well
How do you know your team is playing well? For Barry Trotz, one of the biggest indicators his team is going to win on any given night is whether or not all five skaters on the ice are supporting each other. If you can see five skaters in the picture, on TV or up close and personal, then chances are you’re playing well. Too spread out? You get the picture. Five skaters are always in the picture in the offensive zone, so the same tactic applies to the neutral zone and the defensive zone as well.
How do you fix a player’s battle level?
Even though he claimed to not know anything about defensive concepts, Trotz talked about defensive tactics for a long time. One of the most important traits of good defense is simple: battle level. He talked about fixing a player’s battle – fixing their stick position, their foot position, and simply how hard they compete to take away an offensive player’s space.