In this week's 'Making of a Royal' blog, coach Pat LaFontaine talks about the improved play of stay-at-home defenseman Aidan Salerno (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) of Long Beach, N.Y. Salerno, the biggest defenseman on the team, has been coached by LaFontaine the last four seasons.
The first time I saw Aidan, he had this long hair from Long Beach and I was wondering whether he was going to be a surfer or a hockey player. He wasn't ready mentally or physically, so I challenged him; I wanted to see how hard he would push himself and how badly he really wanted it. He was just out of house-league hockey and learning the game and I saw a young kid who was progressing and learning.
I can tell you, he's one of the hardest-working kids I've ever met. He never gave up and just kept working at it, on and off the ice. His parents are extremely committed and have made huge sacrifices for him to get to where he is and I know he appreciates that.
In coaching, those kids who learn quickly and don't repeat those mistakes, progress … the teams that usually win are the teams that make the least amount of mistakes and what's nice for me is that I've seen Aidan come into his own. But he's had to work for everything … there was nothing handed to him. I remember times having to pull him off the ice and let him figure it out. Other times I'd pull him aside and explain what he was doing wrong. It was great because he'd then go out and get his confidence and play and then take a step back and figure it out. We'd work with him, teach him in areas where he needed to get stronger.
In Aidan, I've watched a young player get stronger and bigger and become a real consistent defenseman for us this year. It's something that he should be really proud of. He's still learning, still growing and still going to get better. He has a lot of upside but his progression, month after month, is getting better and better. He works hard and is a really great kid. He's looked upon as one of the leaders on defense and possesses a really strong shot.
One of the things I joke with him is he likes to go to that wrist shot from the point and he gets it on net a lot. But I tell him to mix it up because he has a really strong slap shot, too. He's one of our bigger defensemen back there, plays a sound game and has really become a steady defender who does everything well.
It's hard for kids who suddenly shoot up (in height). They get really tall all of a sudden. Aiden is still growing into his body; he's been sprouting up the last couple of years. But he's a player you never have to worry about. It's been fun watching him progress, get stronger, confident and earn that ice time and his position on the team.
LaFontaine was asked the most important aspect of the defensive position that teenagers need to master at a young age.
The details are important. I think the hardest position today, especially in the NHL, is playing defense. We've taken away the red line, there's touch icing, and we've taken away the clutching and grabbing. Nowadays, to be a defenseman, you have to be extremely versatile and agile on your skates and have to have quick feet and be able to see plays develop.
You're asking defensemen to hold the blue line and show gap control, yet there's no red line and these guys are flying. Then in our zone, you tell them to get a body on a player and move them out from the front of the net but be careful on how you use your stick. If you're going in for the puck, don't forget there's going to be a player coming at you from behind at 30 miles-per-hour -- you have to have eyes in the back of your head.
For defensemen, though, it's all the details -- learning how to pivot, making that first good pass, reading pressure. It's also realizing how to relieve pressure by blocking shots, jumping in on the play and being consistent and steady. That's what coaches like most, knowing their defender has a consistent, steady game. By that I mean he can get the puck out, clear it, can play the body, has strong passes, shoots well and will always be in good position.
Positioning is key since defenders must be in good position. They must know how to read the attack, to pinch on plays and know when to drop back.
Obviously there's a lot of expectations around me but it's something I try not to focus on. I'm just trying to go out there, be myself on the ice every day, try to get better, be myself around the guys in the locker room. I think that's what's made me successful and the person that I am.
— Sabres forward Jack Eichel on transitioning from college hockey to the NHL