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Taking a Position

In the NHL, player development differs among all forwards, defenseman and goalies. Here's how NHL Seattle brass see it

by Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com

Hockey comes to full roar when players excel at their positions. The result is a choreography of movement and teamwork that creates quality scoring chances, paired with an equally synchronized defensive effort to stop the puck from entering the net. Forwards, defensemen and goalies all work together for both teams at speeds that challenge oxygen intake. 

This NHL-level version of hockey requires what can be years of development for younger players who are drafted from the ranks of major juniors leagues, the NCAA college ranks or European leagues (especially Finland, Sweden and Russia). Player development starts with management and scouting. For NHL Seattle, the process has already begun, even if no future player will skate his first Seattle-centric shift of ice time until the second half of 2021. 

NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis and assistant GM Ricky Olczyk share a philosophy on how to develop players, formed in part from playing the game at high levels plus a decade-plus each working for NHL franchises in hockey operations, including four seasons together with the Carolina Hurricanes. That philosophy is being imparted, day by day, phone conversation by phone conversation, written report by written report, between the management team of Francis, Olczyk and Director of Hockey Research and Strategy Alexandra Mandrycky and the team's pro scouting staff. 

As NHL Seattle's leader, Francis espouses looking for players with high skill levels plus, importantly, a high hockey IQ. The IQ factor involves a player's instincts about where to be on the ice, anticipating where the puck is headed next. Hockey IQ spins on the axis of players knowing their positions. 

Once scouts and management determine what players to draft or acquire as free agents-with a a high preference for hockey IQ, top skating skills and what managers like to call a high "compete" level-player development is the next step. Future NHL Seattle and AHL Palm Springs coaches will be a vital part of the process, reinforcing how the franchise wants the sport to be approached and played. 

In hockey, player development imparts basic fundamentals for all players: skating, puck handling, balance, stamina, conditioning, nutrition, mindset, emotional maturation, body recovery and more. Then player development branches off by position: Centers, right and left wings, defensemen and goaltenders. 

While centers and wings (aka wingers) are all forwards, Olczyk says the center positions requires covering "more ice space" including more work in the defensive zone, even "below the goal line." That's why centers are referred to as 200-foot players or two-way players because they work from end to end. 

In contrast, Olczyk explains wings move mostly "north and south, along the boards." Some of the best wings are also maestros behind the net in the offensive zone, setting up teammates with perfectly-placed passes. Chicago's Patrick Kane comes to mind. But centers often do that playmaking too, along with other duties. 

Young centers must learn faceoff strategy to be ready for those two-man duels when pairing against "men two, five, even 10 years old who are bigger and stronger who know the tricks of the trade," says Olczyk. 

Francis notes one skating-skills wrinkle for developing forwards: "Skating is always a big part of games. What's interesting is the need for forwards be skating backwards more in the neutral zone [center ice]."

Most general managers and their staffs agree that developing defensemen confront a steeper learning curve while making to the NHL. One proviso: Francis and Olczyk both say there are always exceptions in which 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds are mature enough and skilled enough to play forward or defense. 

But most d-men require a couple years of seasoning before landing for good on the NHL roster. 

 

"Young forwards who are creating offense might make a mistake [such as turning over puck to an opposing player]," says Francis. "In that case, the defensemen and goalie can cover for the mistake. If the young defenseman makes a mistake, only the goalie can cover it up."

Olczyk concurs with his boss. 

"Defensemen need to learn how to minimize the gap between the puck carrier and themselves, playing against opponents with more speed and finesse than they young d-men have usually seen," says Olczyk, who played defense for Brown University and USA national teams. "The bigger the gap, the bigger the puck carrier. You need to take away time and space."

Other developmental touchpoints for defensemen: Stick work ("leading with the stick, getting your stick on the puck", say Olczyk), when to lean on opposing forwards ("especially below the faceoff circles in the defensive zone") and turning an opponent "outside" toward the boards and away from inner zone path to the goal. 

 

Unlike some sports in players handle multiple positions (basketball in particular, plus utility players in baseball), defensemen typically don't move up to forwards and vice versa. There can be some forwards who can handle both wing and center, including veteran wingers who might take some faceoffs to supplement the young center learning the league. 

Developing goaltenders usually takes the longest, but can be well worth the extra years. St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington was a 25-year-old last season who led the Blues to a Stanley Cup championship. 

"There's a lot to work on for goalies," says Olczyk. "There is a whole new level of speed of the game, more puck angles and the quickness of releases is so much different than goalies have experienced whether Europe, major juniors or NCAA. Another skill is controlling rebounds [on first saves], no secondary chances."

Whatever the position, NHL hockey operations leaders are focused on educating players on what it will require to play for the organization and ultimately the NHL club. NHL Seattle is still building out a player development but make no mistake that Francis and his staff will define a clear set of expectations about how to play and conduct oneself as a player. Francis, for one, says he learns more about players' maturity and mental toughness when a team faces a losing streak or other adversity. 

"Everybody is positive and resilient when you are winning," he says. 

Olczyk adds "building relationships right away" will be paramount once players start joining the NHL Seattle franchise. He says young players need to learn how to deal with media and fans, get accustomed to new teammates and even compete for ice time with other young players. 

"When we start drafting [Expansion Draft and Entry Draft] and signing free agents," he says, "it will immediately be about the coaching staff and management building relationships, letting players know we support them, share how we think, that we will support them with video and analytics and every resource to maximize their potential."

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