From winning battles to making that extra effort, many of the best NHLers are also the most competitive. But you don’t have to be a beast to be tough: just ask the hockey minds at an elite hockey coaches conference.
William Karlsson (No. 71) and Tomas Hertl|Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Vegas Golden Knights assistant coach Mike Kelly was giving the opening seminar at a hockey conference, so he kicked things off with a football clip.
OK, let’s rewind a bit. Kelly was speaking at the TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference in Toronto, an annual gathering of hockey minds from all levels, from the NHL on down. Kelly was speaking about competitiveness and to illustrate its importance, he brought up a video segment from the NFL Network on New England Patriots tight end Ben Watson from the 2006 playoffs. During a rare Patriots playoff loss, Denver’s Champ Bailey picked off a Tom Brady pass in the end zone and began burning up the field for what looked like a 100-plus yard touchdown. But at the one-yard line, he was walloped by Watson, who had come all the way from the other side of the field to chase the speedy Bailey down. In interviews, coach Bill Belichick was thoroughly impressed, while Watson noted that he would have had to live with himself if he hadn’t tried to tackle Bailey. Game footage shows that even the Broncos were impressed by Watson’s hustle.
Which brings us back to hockey. Sure, NHLers are competitive, but in Kelly’s illuminating presentation, he proposed that coaches and players think of that compete level as a skill unto itself.
“Nobody holds a monopoly on competitiveness,” Kelly said. “My question is, should we put more of an emphasis on it?”
Kelly showed a variety of clips from Vegas games in his presentation, pointing out extra-effort plays from various Golden Knights that resulted in goals and not coincidentally, a good number came from the top line of William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. He also showed a famous offensive drive by a certain Pittsburgh Penguins icon.
“Sidney Crosby may be the most competitive player in the league since he first stepped on the ice,” Kelly said. “And he remains that way today.”
As a bonus, the clip showed Crosby making move after move behind the Ottawa Senators net before eventually getting the puck to the point for a Pittsburgh goal. But Kelly also gave credit to Senators center Jason Spezza on the play: Spezza, not known for his defense, was hounding Crosby the entire shift.
Spezza’s efforts reminded me of something Kelly spoke of later in his presentation: recognizing positive efforts, not just successful efforts. What’s the difference? A successful effort would have been if Spezza had been able to get the puck off Crosby. But it was a positive effort for him to give No. 87 such a hassle. That’s a shift you’d hope Sens coaches patted Spezza on the back for, to inspire future efforts.
Similarly, the Golden Knights don’t want Karlsson – one of their most skilled players – blocking shots. But Karlsson will attempt them if he believes he can prevent a goal. Obviously the Golden Knights aren’t going to criticize him for that: it shows he is invested in his team.
Reinforcing a competitive mindset is something all coaches can do to encourage their players and good results will follow.
One of the hallmarks of competitiveness for Kelly is being ‘Tough Within the Rules.’ That means finishing checks with purpose (as opposed to just flying around looking to crush somebody), no retaliatory penalties, being strong on pucks and winning 50-50 battles. Another key aspect is “reloading” on turnovers. That means transitioning back to defense immediately.
“We lose possession, it’s five-to-seven strides hard to get back,” he said.
Reloading was also a factor in the next presentation by AHL Texas coach Derek Laxdal, who was preaching on offensive zone principles: the faster you get the puck back, the faster you can get back on offense, after all.
One stat from Kelly’s presentation really caught my eye and it had to do with NHL goal-scoring in the slot (the area directly in front of the net). While 72 percent of goals were scored from the slot area last year, only 32 percent of shots overall were attempted from that hard ice. Players had a 10 percent chance of scoring from the slot and a two percent chance otherwise.
As Kelly pointed out, you need to be competitive to score from the slot because there isn’t much room. And you don’t need to be big to do it; you just have to be willing to fight through traffic.
“I think you can treat a competitive mindset as a skill, to be practised and reinforced,” Kelly said. “What you start in September doesn’t stop in March. It has to be repeated over and over again.”