This is me taking off my statistical glasses and putting on my coaching glasses. With the NHL draft behind us, I want to share my view on non-statistical player evaluation. Meghan Chayka declared the term “Hockey IQ” banished yesterday, so I figured I would give you my interpretation of on-ice decision making.
Talent vs. Natural talent:
Before we get started, I just want to say that I always differentiate between talent and natural talent. The most naturally gifted isn’t necessarily the most talented. Work ethic, discipline and mental strength is all part of your talent. That’s my definition of talent.
The 3 steps:
Instead of just evaluating players by their abilities, I try to look at them through 3 steps. Every single move a player makes on the ice has to go through these steps: Perception – Decision making – Execution. So, first you have to perceive the play. Where’s your teammates? Where’s your opponents? Based on that information you can make a decision, which can be either instinctive or thought out. And finally, you have to execute your decision.
Let’s look at the steps in greater detail:
How well AND how fast can a player see plays? How well does he see the ice, when he’s under pressure? Those are the questions you should ask, when you evaluate perception. Some players have better natural perception, which can be hard to improve. However, there’s plenty of things you can work on to improve the on-ice perception.
How to improve:
- Technique: Good hands allows you to look up more (split vision). And good technical skills allows you to just focus more on the perception.
- Communication: A team that communicates well on the ice can increase the perception, because they use more senses.
- Predictability: In the words most positive sense. If you know what to expect, you also know where to look and you can sharpen your perception.
- Conditioning: If you constantly play with a high pulse it can limit your perception and decision making.
- Keep the front towards the play: Try not to turn your back to the play. You often do so to protect the puck, but it also limits your perception.
- Perception in the second potence: Being able to see two or three steps ahead. If I pass the puck to player x, he can pass it directly to player y, who is in a scoring position.
- Buying time: This doesn’t really help your perception ability, but buying yourself time can help you see the right play and make the right decision. Much like a quarterback moves around in the pocket to buy a few split seconds, so he can make the right play. The key is to always move your feet. I think Nicklas Backstrom is a fascinating player in this regard. There’s nothing flashy about his play, but he always seems to have unlimited time on the puck.
What to look for as a coach:
- Unforeseen plays: Whenever you go; I didn’t see that coming, it’s a sign of fast perception.
- Huge performance differences: Sometimes you see a player dominate at one level, but being completely useless at the very next. This can be a sign of bad/slow perception. The higher the level, the faster you need to be. If you’re unable to perceive plays, you will become almost useless.
Next step is to make a decision. This decision can be based on the systems and strategies of the team, or it can be based on the players own creativity. As mentioned before, the decision making can be either instinctive or thought out. If a player plays primarily on instinct, he will likely make decisions faster, but it can also be difficult to change his style of play. Bad instincts are a nightmare for a coach.
How to improve:
- Structure and order: Obviously, the decision making becomes easier if the game plan is well structured. Predictability increases the perception, but also the decision making. However, too much structure can limit the creativity of the players. Smart players know when to break out of the system.
- Moving from system to instinct: I want my players to play offense on instinct, because it increases the speed and the creativity, but it’s a long process. To teach a new strategy to your players takes days or weeks. But it takes months or even years of repetition before you start seeing set plays intuitively incorporated into the game.
- Chemistry: Putting together the right players can increase the decision making, simply because their intuitive decisions fit well together.
- Why: Often players are told what to do, but not necessarily why they do it. Understanding the bigger picture can help the decision making.
What to look for as a coach:
- Anticipation: Being able to break up passes, pinch at the right time and so on. You could argue that perception plays a role in this as well, but I think defensive anticipation relies more on reading the play than seeing the play.
- Adaptability: Players that can adjust their play based on role, teammates or team strategy are often good decision makers.
- Risk/reward balance: Good hockey decisions is basically finding the right balance between risk and reward. You need to play with risk at the right times, so you can create scoring chances without risking bad turnovers. Great players have the ability to be a threat, while still playing with large marginals.
The final step is the execution. How well does a player execute the decision? This is where the classical attributes come into play – skating, shooting, passing, stickhandling and so on. The execution is easy to spot and easy to understand. So sometimes I think it gets overvalued a bit.
Clearly the execution is essential, but I’ve seen players who were completely execution-driven fade out when the going gets tough. If your entire game is based on you being stronger, faster, better than your opponents, then you could have problems translating your junior success to the pro level.
It doesn’t matter if you have 100mpH slapshot if you can’t get it off in game situations. From time to time you see “drill heroes”. Players who are amazing in drills, but as soon as the game starts all their skills seem to disappear.
How to improve:
- Training: Improving your execution requires training. There’s no loophole to success.
- Adding new tools: Players are creatures of habit. They will stick to what they know and what they’re good at, but sometimes you will need to force them outside of their comfort zone. Even at a high age you can learn new skills, but it’s difficult to improve on the skills you’ve practiced for 20 years.
- Replicating game like situations: Adding defenders to exercises and trying to simulate actual game situations.
- Fast execution: Making sure you’re working on fast execution as well as good execution. Often times getting the shot off fast is more important than shooting a powerful shot.
What to look for as a coach:
- Skating, shooting, stickhandling, passing, strength and so on.
- Fast execution, perception and decision making: If a player dominates at one level, you have to consider if he can translate it to the next level. Perception and decision making are easier to transfer from level to level.
What is Hockey IQ?
Now, I have discussed my view on player evaluation, so what is hockey IQ? The term gets thrown around quite a bit, but no one really knows what it means. It could be decision making. It could be hockey instincts. Or it could be a combination of perception and decision making.
If I got to choose, I would say it’s the decision making – both the instinctive and the thought out decision making. However, since the term isn’t clearly defined, I will try not to use it from here on forward.
Time vs. Quality:
I’ve already discussed this, but it’s important, so I will repeat myself. It’s crucial to consider the time a player takes to go through the 3 steps.
The limiting factor:
I always try and find the limiting factor. What step is holding the player back? So, the first question you have to ask: Is time the limiting factor? If the player has a lot of turnovers even before he gets to execute his decision, then there’s a good chance time is the limiting factor. If the player is too slow in his decision making, then you can try and increase the predictability. Give him some easy options, that he doesn’t have to think about.
If time isn’t a limiting factor, then you will need to find out what is. Maybe the player isn’t shooting enough. In that case the typical approach would be to practice shooting. However, it may not be the execution that’s the limiting factor. More likely it’s the decision making without the puck.
This article was written from a coaching perspective, but maybe you could combine some of the thoughts with a statistical analysis. I haven’t really looked into micro stats yet, but I would imagine you could use micro stats to answer some of the questions above.
Anyway, this was a very different article from me. I will try and write coaching pieces from time to time. Just to mix things up a bit.