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.


“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.

Wednesday Drill of the Week: Blackbear Backcheck



Blackbear Backcheck to DZC


A rush drill with backpressure that results in OZ/DZ play. Three X forwards start on the hashmarks of the faceoff circle, two O defensemen start on the blueline. Coach rims a puck around the boards, the forwards pick it up and attack 3v2. As soon as the puck is rimmed, two X defensemen come around the net and activate into the rush, at the same time 3 O forwards come around the net and backcheck to the defensive zone.

Once the rush is played out (a 3v2 with one or two activated D and backcheckers), the teams play 5v5 in zone. This drill works on initial rush concepts, funnelling/backchecking to the defensive zone, and in zone play on both offense and defense. A good drill that allows coaches to install systemic play in zone.

Wednesday Drill of the Week: Forecheck Game

Small Area Game this week:

Forecheck Breakout


Two teams in two different colors. Nets across from each other at the back of the circles (with enough room to skate behind. A puck is dumped in to one corner or the other (behind the net, corner, etc). Three players from each line leave on the dump. Players have to skate behind the OPPOSITE net from where the puck is dumped. Players are trying to score on the net that is CLOSEST to their line (as opposed to the standard far net). In this diagram, the “Os” are attacking the bottom net and the “Xs” are attacking the top net.

The team that retrieves the puck should always be trying to “break out” from their end and attack the far net. The team that has to skate the farthest then is in a “forechecking” situation. This is a great game to work on the basics of your team systems. Three players can execute a simple systemic breakout or a simple forecheck. A competitive way to teach and reinforce systems of play