Developing Offence

Many coaches feel that offensive skills cannot be taught to players, but are natural or inherent. We’ve all listened to someone say: “you can’t teach that … you’re born with it”. If you truly believe this statement … stop reading and stop coaching minor hockey while you’re at it. It’s true that some players lack some of the personality traits needed to be a consistent offensive threat, but anyone can be shown how to read the play and learn to be in the right place at the right time. The one determining factor that is out of anyone’s control is body composition.

There has been much written on the specific skills that are required to complete offensive tasks, so they won’t be covered here in any detail. The other chapters in this series on Posture, Skill Development, etc. will help you to understand how to approach offensive skill instruction. Use your knowledge of body mechanics to monitor and build the skill sets of your players. Without at least adequate shooting, skating, puck protection, puck control and the most important of all passing skills, you will have a difficult time scoring goals. Teams that skate well but don’t complement team speed by moving the puck will not automatically dominate teams that don’t skate as well but can recognize weaknesses and pass to create puck speed.

Developing offence on your team starts with confidence. If the coach is knowledgeable about the game, realistic about his demands, and flexible and patient with his expectations, he will create a fun and productive learning environment. Flexibility is something that cannot be stressed enough with offence because you want your players to gain an advantage with a stealth-like ability to go undetected, and you want your attacks to be unpredictable to the defensive team – deception can be a powerful weapon! If the coach is too strict with respect to positioning, or too rigid with his expectations in terms of tactics and attack principles, he will develop players who lack imagination and the ability to not only make things happen, but also to let things happen. Understand that they are not going to be successful most of the time.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to develop confidence in your players and on your team if your players don’t have a level of skill that matches or exceeds the level of expectation, as well as the ability to understand, and the habits to execute the basics and fundamentals of whatever is being attempted. This is a primary objective for a coach and sets the guidelines for how the game is to be presented in terms of the key points of drills. How you achieve the objectives of a drill as stated in your key teaching points will determine your effectiveness as a teacher and a coach – along with how well you interpret what you are seeing in games and practices. If the coach doesn’t know what to look for, or looks at something ‘incorrectly’, how can he possibly correct ‘mistakes’, or reinforce good habits with his players?

You must as a coach assign a proportionate amount of time to the middle to lower half of your line-up (in terms of offensive ability), and concentrate on developing the skill and confidence of these players. Your ‘home run hitters’ will always have the potential to break a game open, but the ability for a team to get big plays out it’s secondary scoring unit will win you championships. This goes for defence as well. Don’t expect to have success with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ type of mentality. You can’t expect your inexperienced or lesser skilled players to make the same plays as your big guns – which in no way means that they can’t be a dangerous offensive weapon. Be equally as adamant about the execution of fundamentals, and be just as creative when inventing ways for them to gain confidence and be successful. That doesn’t necessarily mean to give them different drills to run … but to be flexible about the execution – as long as they are working and thinking hard and they are fundamentally correct, guide them and allow them to make mistakes and discover. As Jack Nicholson once said: “you’re only going to be as good as the size of the mistake you’re willing to make”.

There are four types of speed that you need to address and develop as a coach. These are … personal speed (hand and foot speed), team speed, puck speed, and thinking speed. Good offensive teams have the ability to get the puck under control and move the puck quickly, maintain control of the puck, generate all four types of speed, and gain the zone with control and pressure the oppositions prime scoring area. The section on team defence contains useful information on puck control, puck possession, and the importance of the prime scoring area.

Here is a sample list of the key offensive fundamentals:

  • Play with speed and out-work your opponent.
  • Make high percentage plays unless there is no choice.
  • Create options by driving hard off the puck and getting open. Always have a player driving ahead of the puck carrier – this will create team speed.
  • Force hard coverage by being a triple threat in the offensive zone (get into a position to shoot, take a pass where you can gain good control quickly, or drive to the net without the puck). Challenge their ability to contain. If a player is not a threat … they can double-team somewhere else.
  • Play inside when you are being checked hard away from the puck. Inside/outside positioning is critical. – Use area passes when you can’t pass tape to tape.
  • Read possession levels and always try to keep a high level of control – gain control of the puck quickly and know the positioning of the defenders. This is the essence of thinking speed.
  • Support the puck first. Don’t get out-numbered.
  • Create clear passing and shooting lanes – make direct passes.
  • Take what they give you – even if it means passing up the middle breaking out or to a team mate in front of your net who is unchecked.
  • Stay out of peripheral sight lines by making plays in blind spots (behind the defenders).
  • Play off players who are about to receive the puck (when you are not the primary receiver) and get into good pass receiving body positioning – this will help manufacture puck speed.
  • Have down-ice and cross-ice support – try to stretch the coverage.
  • The puck must go in … the puck must come out. Do not turn the puck over at the blue lines.
  • Hit your target spots.
  • Give a clear target when you are receiving a pass and send good information for the puck carrier – including verbal.
  • Accelerate the rush and overload the mid lane from the blue line in. Put the puck on net on every rush.
  • Create 2 vs. 1 situations and force the defender to contend with two players going different speeds (and in different directions if possible).
  • Get on the other side of the guy who was checking you after you make a pass so he can’t become a back checker and so that you can become an option for the puck carrier.
  • Don’t allow them to set up a defensive angle as a team (use the middle of the ice and be prepared to attack the pressure face on and play give and go).

Exchanging the puck is a key component in hockey. Many coaches fail to recognize this simple fact (it’s usually the small/simple things that cause the most trouble). You will be considered a good coach of offensive hockey if you can teach passing. Passing should be taught with shooting, with slight body alignment adjustments and puck placement and release techniques as the key points. Something that is over-looked in the process of passing is the eyes of the passer (this goes for shooting as well). Players can do everything in the passing movement chain correctly, and still not get anywhere near their intended target a considerable percentage of the time. Some of the factors for passing effectively include: getting their hands and feet placed in the best (most comfortable) position, adjusting their body to face their target so that they don’t cause unnatural joint rotations on their follow-through (for control and power), leave the puck near the middle of the blade throughout the entire sequence and direct both hands (sweep) toward the target so as not to cause excessive spinning of the puck (which can result in unpredictable actions making the job of getting it to ‘stick’ to the tape harder), etc. There are many ‘small’ points to passing effectively and they all need to be identified and practiced. The other articles in ‘The Coach’ page will help define skill instruction for you.

The one area that has the potential to sabotage the efforts of the player is his head and eyes. How his eyes retrieve information and how he processes what he sees are absolutely critical. Another reason we ask a player to take a split-second before he makes a pass to turn in the direction of his target (besides moving in the direction of the play and to minimize multi-plane movements) is so that he can get his head positioned so that his eyes are able to gather the information needed by the rest of his body to make the complex action of passing accurately to something moving in another direction. Many times a player will tilt, or drop, their head which creates equilibrium issues, and distorts their perception of the passing lane. Having the ability to fix their gaze on a specific point, as well as intake what is happening peripherally is an enormous asset to a player when they can do both together (which they must do). This is heightened in contact hockey when you are playing against teams that try to out-hit you, as you will still be able to execute offensive skills under pressure and force them to adapt to the speed.

There is an easy way to help develop this in your players. When they’re driving in a car (assuming they are not the driver) … tell them to practice by staring in one direction (straight ahead) and fixate on one point such as the licence plate of the car in front. As they stare at this point, try to use their peripheral abilities to identify things that are going by i.e. pedestrians, signs, etc. When you are teaching a player to pass the puck … make sure he’s aware of exactly what he is looking at, and what he is looking for. He needs to identify and focus on the target spot of the receiver, and keep the receiver in his peripheral vision so he knows when to release the puck to have the player skate into it. Passing to a moving target is always an area pass – the only time a pass is not an area pass is when the receiving player is standing still. The ‘area’ is the target spot.

Calling for passes is recommended at all times. Players at all levels forget to give a quick “here” or “hey” when they are about to be given a pass. Sound detection and directional perception is a very useful human sensory function. Although it may be an ‘easy’ pass to make, you will be surprised at the number of passes that will be completed with a verbal signal from the receiver. Even if he has the target in clear sight, the passer will automatically use his sense of hearing to ‘zero-in’ on the target, and it has a subliminal effect on the mechanics of pass execution.

Puck control is a critical part of puck speed in offence, and should be taught as an extension of pass receiving. The reason for this is that the pass receiver has to have the puck under control the instant it comes into his possession, and be prepared to move it instantaneously. If you don’t stress this point with your players, they will learn that it is acceptable to take extra time to gain control once they come into possession of the puck. To gain control instantly, the player must adjust his pass route to square up his stick and his body position so that he doesn’t get handcuffed or force the passer to have to make a difficult play. He should make it as easy as possible for the passer by sending good information to the passer and by using tight, quick, controlled pivots and turns rather than slow developing turns and crossovers – minimizing the time he is in a turn and skating directly toward his ‘target spot’ with the goal of eliminating any guess-work between the passer and the receiver. We define a target spot simply as a spot where a player needs to be. On offence, that means to receive a pass, get into a good position for a shot, draw someone out of position or support the play, etc. To ‘hit his spot’ perfectly, a player must be going in the right direction, with the right speed, and get there at the right time. If any one of these three factors are absent, it hurts his chances of completing the play.

Another concept that will help to build puck speed is playing off the option. What this means is suppose player A has the puck … he has 4 players in support who are potential options. Only one of these players (let’s say player B) is actually going to get a pass. If players C, D, and E are aware that player B is the primary target, and make/allow him to become the primary target, they can adjust their pass routes, pick their target spots, and get into position so that when player B gets the puck, he can move it quickly to one of them – and the other players play off that player … and so the process continues. The ability to give and go (or get and give if you like) is a very difficult offensive concept to get your head around, especially for young players. What typically happens is when player A gets the puck, 2 or 3 players move as if they are each getting the pass. When one of them gets it … there is nowhere to move it because they have all reacted to the puck carrier (player A) instead of playing off the receiver (player B). Teach your players how to move the puck by reading who is the best option, and choosing who will get it next. “It’s not just what you do with the puck … it’s what you do before you get it”! Be careful not to abandon support fundamentals in the process.

Here is a short list of points to consider for the coach in practice to help with offence:

  • Get lots of shots. Avoid cumbersome, slow developing drills. Slow developing plays allow the defence to react.
  • Involve your defensemen in scoring drills (even go as far as having your D in the cycle or driving to the net). Allow your D to go in deep after shoot-ins when they think they can get there first.
  • Work on transitions from breakouts to zone entries, and then to net drive plays.
  • Practice getting chances off of turnovers on the forecheck.
  • Keep the tempo high and the passes hard. If the player is positioned correctly and is in a position of strength … he shouldn’t have trouble with hard passes.
  • Practice entering the zone wide and down the middle. Get your third attacker into the rush ahead of their first back checker.
  • Realize that good offence is about pressuring the other team and keeping them in a defensive mindset, creating energy, momentum and opportunity … not just about scoring goals. Don’t just stress good offensive principles on the finish of a play, but all the way through the drill – especially for players off the puck.
  • Make your players aware of creating options.
  • Develop the ability to challenge down low with screens, tips, driving to the net without the puck, out-muscling the defenders around the net, creating short/quick developing two on one plays, etc.
  • Become adept at give and go hockey.
  • Teach players to anchor plays and become a stationary target to support players who are passing while under pressure with a medium to low level of control – it’s easier to pass to a stationary target … and then teach the other players to play off the anchor. We call this a hinge play because the whole play swings up ice like a door.
  • Teach the importance of controlling their hands and stick. Schooled defenders will always seek to separate the puck carrier from the puck by checking through the hands and stick.
  • Learn to use the boards.
  • Always insist that your late players block the path of a back checker. This will give the down-ice attack the option of delaying without immediate back pressure.
  • Practice making plays down low and from the high slot. Use a high player as an offensive threat and to support the points, not just as a defensive cushion.
  • Work with your goaltender on moving the puck and setting it up for a player on shoot-ins.
  • Practice stretch breakouts with more than one player high. This will give you an automatic 2 on 2.
  • Teach your players how to absorb body contact and to play while under the threat of being hit. Even though you don’t/can’t put full defensive pressure on for every drill, insist that they execute as if they are under attack.

Hockey has a unique quality associated with offence because of the bluelines. A primary fundamental of advancing the puck is to have a player driving to open ice ahead of the puck carrier – if the puck carrier is leading the rush he has limited options. On breakouts, the essence is to move it ahead and out of the zone etc. Breakouts are affected by the defensive blueline in that the number one objective of any breakout tactic is to get the puck out. Simple chip out plays solve many problems that arise from complexity. The first pass in your zone has to be to beat the pressure, with that player in a position to get it out if he has no other play. Make only the passes in your zone that are necessary to achieve this goal and save the fancy stuff for the other end – be direct and safe. Anyone who is open is potentially safe. Just because your team has the puck doesn’t entirely mean you are on offence. That depends on where the puck is positioned, immediate pressure, support, options, etc. If you read the section on Team Defence you will understand this better. Only with good control in your zone can you go on offence. Most breakout situations (by a large margin) arise from a turn-over created by good defensive play in your zone, not off shoot-ins. Your philosophy and practice regime should reflect this fact. You don’t see the same intensity of forechecking on shoot-ins because a large percentage of the time the team shooting it in will be making changes.

The process of advancing the puck by moving it to a player driving up ice changes when you hit the offensive blueline because of the off-side rule. Coaches usually spend a good deal of practice time on specific breakout plays and very little time on break-in plays. You would be wise to adjust this formula to working on puck advancing skills and fundamentals after transitioning from defence to offence in your zone (breaking out), and to quick attack and play setup once the puck is under control past the offensive blueline. Hitting the blueline aggressively with speed and numbers is a difficult task at any level. There are many scenarios that are possible (1 vs. 1, 2 vs. 1, 2 vs. 2, etc.) and each must be discussed and practiced with speed and intensity. 2 vs. 2 is the most common and the hardest to beat. The end goal in all cases is to get a player free in good shooting position as soon as possible, and to keep possession until that happens. You must take what they give you with the purpose being to get to the middle of the ice where the net is situated. The main objective of any system or tactic is to put your players into a situation where they have an odd man advantage and/or an unfair advantage in one on one matchups. Getting the puck past the defenders is the obvious task, but don’t overlook the fact that the goaltender is the player you must ultimately beat.

You must prepare your players for the possibility of driving wide with speed to create openings in the slot, but also to take the puck to the middle to force both D to stay close and to respect the puck carrier. Most teams will soften the coverage down the middle with wide lane drives, so a key teaching point for the coach becomes how to instruct players off the puck to drive the mid lane without the puck – getting body position and remaining dangerous in terms of not getting tied up (especially their stick), etc. Another key point on wide lane drives is for the puck carrier to remain a threat to score by not lowering his level of control or skating to a bad ice position such as the corner. You have to keep the goaltender respectful of the player in possession if you want to catch him flat footed and keep him deep in the net. Also, it is best if the puck carrier is in a position to shoot or pass in case the player off the puck can get free in good shooting position so that he can take a pass, or get inside position to get a rebound or tip, etc. If the puck carrier can’t get the speed to beat the defender wide and he can’t get to the net himself, he is best off taking the puck behind the net and looking for open players, or delaying and looking for the high player coming late – play the percentages!

Taking the puck down the middle affords the puck carrier the option of attacking the pressure (especially on 2 on 2 situations) which leaves no defensive angle, and allows him to dish off to a player with more speed. Think about it … we ask our players on defence to keep the play to the outside – and you can bet the other coach is saying the same thing. Why would we insist that our players on offence go wide all the time … doesn’t that make it easier for the defence team? It’s not a bad idea on 2 on 2’s to key on the stronger defender. The weaker player will often over-commit leaving some room, or not support because he doesn’t want to get caught ‘out of position’. A key for the coach on mid-ice entries is to make the supporting players aware that they must look to create short ice 2 on 1 situations, and to support the puck carrier if he takes it to the net – perhaps dropping it, criss-crossing, etc. A play that works well on 2 on 2’s, when it doesn’t seem likely that you can get the puck past them cleanly, is for the puck carrier to simply lay an area pass into the low area between the corner and the net so that his team mate can get to it before their D. Then they can work a cycle/switch or get the puck to the back of the net and use the net as a pick.

Another strategy for mid-lane drives is to gain the zone and have a player drive through without the puck to freeze the D and clear the area ahead of the puck with the puck carrier taking it right behind him through the hole. This also creates a natural screen. You will be doing your players a great service if you give ample time for 2 on 2 practice with both players attacking the pressure; not just on zone entries but also on breakouts and short ice net drive situations such as coming out from behind the net, off the half boards, etc. Read this statement at least twice: Do not at any time close the door on any tactical possibility for attacking the other teams goal with speed and numbers. Don’t let your fears or prejudice hamper your players ability to create. Just present the options and give them alternatives in case they are unsuccessful.

There are numerous tactics that will help your players with the transition from zone entries to net drives, and with controlling the puck in the offensive zone. Here is a short list and it is by no means complete. Work on as many of them as you can come up with.

  • Criss-crosses and picks.
  • Give and go plays down low, off the half boards and with the points.
  • Drop passes.
  • Driving to an area and delaying to hit a late man.
  • Cycling and switching.
  • Protecting the puck.
  • Quick releases and shooting through screens.
  • Drawing a defender toward you and moving the puck to a team mate directly behind him (in his blind spot). This is what we call ‘turning a defenseman’.
  • Work on finding holes to pass the puck through the defender – you won’t always get an unobstructed look at the target.
  • Setting up behind the net.
  • Getting rebounds into the top of the net. Most goaltenders will be down.
  • Battling to stay open in the slot.
  • One timers (in the slot and on point shots).
  • D joining the rush at the blueline.
  • The use of deceptive moves – head fakes etc.
  • Area passes – an area pass is still a direct pass. Think of a dump-in as an area pass to recover the puck deep.
  • Quick decisive moves, such as stops and starts, turns, changes of direction and acceleration on the changes, etc. Change directions quickly and skate hard in straight lines.
  • Face-offs. When you win the draw, you have the puck.
  • Get the weak side D up the ice and into the attack. You don’t necessarily have to have a forward drop back to cover for a rushing D. Take the advantage and catch them on an over or under backcheck.

When you go about tackling the offensive part of the game in practice, try to stay away from too many set plays – at least until you get control deep or you are on the PP. It’s smart to have ideas and explore options, but if you try to do the same thing all the time you are setting the table for your players to become predictable, and you’re leaving yourself open to be out-coached. Defence is successful more often than offence (if this were not true you would score on more than 50% of your possessions). Scores in hockey would look like basketball. As the coach, you have to keep an open mind and allow ample time to practice offensive fundamentals. Run many small area quick puck movement drills, as well as high speed full-ice quick up drills and everything in between. Be a team that can get the puck up the ice quickly. Teach your players how to get open. Personally, I believe puck movement skills and creating puck speed is the most useful thing to learn (after skating) and should at least equal all other activities combined in terms of practice time (good skating technique has to become second nature and should be constantly and consistently reinforced). We have all witnessed a player or team that doesn’t exchange the puck and it can be painful to watch. Put in defensive pressure as soon as you feel a drill is working well on the offensive side. Play lots of mini-games with tough competition and always insist on quality skill execution.

Offence is really not that hard to coach, even though it is harder to execute than defence. Don’t forget that players want to play offence, and that offensive teams draw more penalties. If you learn to attack quickly rather than set up fancy regroups or set-play breakouts, you can get the other team running around (either over forechecking or over or under backchecking) … and with speed and good possession levels, you will force them into double-teaming which leaves someone open. Don’t run drills that make the players use the face-off circles as pass routes! Hash marks, dots and circles are for face-offs; they have nothing to do with cycling, switching, breakouts or net drives except to offer a rough idea as to where you are on the ice during play. Try to create speed out of your zone with the second pass – be a good first pass team to get the puck out … but understand that the second pass has the potential to do the most damage. You can make a good first pass, but that player is unlikely to carry it down and score – you need to have a good second pass to be a dangerous offensive team. A good second pass will allow you to use breakouts to set up your offence, not just to get the puck out. Get your D involved as much as you can – you only have to catch one of their players being lazy on defence to create good chances if all of your players are thinking offence when you have the puck. Make them have to out-battle and out-work you. And of course, make it fun.