Systems vs Style

People in hockey talk a lot about the “systems” that a team plays. Phrases like – “I don’t think their systems fit their personnel” or “Their systems aren’t effective” or “We play an up-tempo and offensive system”.

I think too often people use systems as a catch-all buzzword to describe a teams play. What people really should be talking about is a teams style of play. Are they aggressive or passive? Attacking or defensive? Do they like to play a grinding game? A transition/rush game? Are they skilled and fast? Big and strong?

A team’s systems will then make up part of their style. What their forecheck, dzone coverage, etc is composed of helps to ingrain a style of play into a players mind.

Players make decisions on the ice more under the umbrella of a team’s style than their x’s & o’s systems. Aggressive teams will have players who step up more often in 50/50 situations. Defensive or passive teams will tend to back off and protect the middle of the ice through the dot lines. These are stylistic decisions, not systems decisions.

Coaches establish the system a team will play, but more importantly they establish the style that will guide the individual decisions that players will make all over the ice.

Systems vs Players

Do you build a system to fit your players or do you get players to fit your system? Sounds a little like chicken vs egg to me.

When building a system of play for your team, it is critical that the players on your roster have an ability to play that system. For example, don’t play a system predicated on a high level of hockey sense if you have very little hockey sense on your roster. Similar ideas with other systems as well – don’t utilize a speed based, north/south system with a slow roster, etc.

At the same time, you should have a system of play that you believe is more successful than others and you should attempt to build your roster to fit this system. If you like to play an offensive cycle game, you should build your roster with big and strong forwards who can use their body to possess the puck down low. If your breakout is based upon defensemen who can skate and make quick puck decisions, you should have those types of players on your team.

The bottom line is that you need to use a little of both when determining what type of system to play. Figure out what you like and how you want to play the game and then tweak it to fit your personnel. The best coaches are the ones who can adapt their system to fit the team they have while at the same time trying to build the team they want.

Knowing vs Doing

A fantastic read on the Oakland A’s and what makes them successful year after year. A great lesson to be learned here: determine what it is that wins and stick to it despite all distractions and gut reactions. The game isn’t any different for anyone, but those that stick to their principles and build teams in the correct model will have continued success.


“There is more than one way to skin a cat” – old English proverb

Much like anything in life, there is more than one way to play the game of hockey. Different methods to teach the game, different styles of play, different theories on success. Is there one right way? Is one system better than others?

The answer is yes, there is one system that is better than others. That system is the one that everyone on the team buys into, believes in, and executes to the best of their abilities. The X’s and O’s of the system aren’t important, it is the buy-in and commitment that matters.

There is also a system that better fits your personnel. It is hard to say what that system is without knowing your personnel, but there are better ways to play the game based upon the players that you have.

Good coaches have a belief in the way that they play the game and the ability to get their players to buy in to that system. Good coaches recruit players that fit their system and style of play. Is there one system that wins every hockey game? No, but there is a system that is right for certain teams and players. Programs that find the right mix of systems and personnel are usually the ones lifting trophies at the end of the year.

Daily Planning

There are a number of daily activities that I find vital to my success as a coach. One of them is planning and itemizing my day. Every night before I go home I complete a “To Do” list for the next day. It lists the tasks I have to complete, the phone calls I have to make, and any other items of note. The first thing I do when I arrive at the office in the morning is review my “To Do” list to see if there are any items I left off or that were added overnight. Then I spend a few minutes to think about the timeline of my day and what order I am going to get things done in. I strategize and organize my day based around activities I know that I have to get done and when would be the most productive time to do them.

Completing my “To Do” list and organizing my day is a relatively short and simple task that makes me infinitely more productive. As a coach, it helps to keep me on task and focused on what I have to do next. Without this organization and planning it would be very easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the never-ending work. It is the difference between the quality and the quantity of my work

“Never mistake activity for productivity”