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Setting Up the Power Play

By Steve Mann, Special to Minnesota Hockey, 11/02/21, 10:30AM CDT


The power play at the highest levels of hockey receives special attention, and deservedly so, as they often generate exciting scoring opportunities and goals in a more results-focused environment. Teams spend big money on players who specialize in power play situations and hire coaches whose purview includes coaching the power play or shorthanded units.

Typically, only the best offensive players are given extended power play minutes. This elevated status among the elite has trickled downward, with youth coaches, players and parents alike putting these glorified situations on a pedestal.

How much of an emphasis should youth hockey coaches and parents put on the power play though?

A Power Play Perspective

Ricky Saintey, Rosemount High School boys’ hockey head coach, believes that the power play receives far too much attention at the youth levels of the sport.

“The emphasis on the power play is because of the emphasis on winning,” said Saintey, whose kids play in the Rosemount Area Hockey Association. “Teams play with so much structure nowadays, and it’s become mandatory to game plan against an opponent to try to exploit their weaknesses. When you have a chance to score with one person up, the belief is you have to take advantage of it, instead of focusing on development and teaching them concepts. At the youngest levels, we want to eliminate that.”

According to Saintey, social media – particularly sites where players are recognized for scoring goals – and hockey parents aren’t helping.

“I think some parents do view the power play as some sort of status symbol,” he said. “The perspective is, ‘my kid is on the first line, running the power play, scoring the goals.’ There’s way too much emphasis on that and not enough on the team concept. So kids become parent pleasers. What we want the younger teams to preach is ‘we’re creating momentum off the power play, learning concepts and vision and what other players on the ice are thinking,’ rather than it’s my son or daughter getting the glory.”

Give Everyone a Chance

When assembling their power play units, coaches will typically look to players with strong decision-making ability, hockey IQ and skill set. For example, can they skate well, handle the puck in pressure situations, be in a scoring area and shoot the puck?

But what youth coaches should be looking for, per Saintey, is to give all players a chance to participate and learn, regardless of ability, and not define players at a young age.

“Players should rotate in and out of the power play and also the penalty kill, so they’re getting experience in a variety of scenarios,” Saintey said. “If we can get any kid in any situation, at the beginning or end of the game, whether they are skilled or not, if they understand concepts and are learning, it’s only going to make them better in the future. Let’s put kids in a place to be successful, but also to struggle and understand the stress of certain situations.”

Benefits to spreading the special teams opportunities around include better team chemistry, reduction of egos and cliques. Also important, according to Saintey, is ‘making kids comfortable by making them feel uncomfortable’ in different situations. 

“We want them to learn different sides of the rink, or the bottom or top of the offensive zone,” he said. “They can develop different mindsets to see all sides of the puck.”

Emphasize Concepts over Systems

Particularly with the power play, there’s often an infatuation with running a certain system, even at the younger age levels, but the reality is the best power play teams are usually the ones with the most skilled players, not necessarily the ones with kids that know which formation to stand in. Because of this, Saintey says, teams at the youth levels should be focused more on building the skills and concepts instead of spending too much time on systems.

“We want to give all kids a chance at development and not worry about the structure piece as much,” said Saintey. “Kids should learn how to move the puck to open spaces and open teammates. Creativity is a huge piece. Players at the 12U or 14U level can get the concept of trying to find the 2-on-1, or if I’m the player without the puck, how can I find a spot to be open and be a threat to shoot and score.”

Overall, the biggest opportunity is to give every kid different experiences in different locations and settings, so that they can achieve but also fail. And, Saintey says, it’s not all about hockey.  

“It’s not just athlete development,” he said. “It’s also life development. They’ll learn how to handle stress, anxiety and transfer that outside the rink. They may attack a situation in life differently because of how they handled something in the rink. This can apply to other sports, home and school.”

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