The Hawks, the Kings, and success built on little things

May 21, 9:58 AM

I’ve had two coaches in the past say something similar that I agree with: “There are only seven or eight moments in a game that make the difference between winning and losing, only you never know when you’re in them, so play like you always are.”

Skill is irreplaceable. When you find yourself on a bad roster, and your team periodically beats a few good teams (as bad teams do), it’s delusional to believe you’ll win consistently. Regardless of your team’s work ethic and commitment, you’re still losing most of the time to Kane, Toews, Hossa, Sharp, Keith and Seabrook. The same goes for Kopitar, Gaborik, Carter, Doughty, Williams and crew.

Teams with names like those above are more likely to create a few more of those “moments” my coaches were talking about, and they do it with raw skill. That’s going to translate to more wins.

That said, no hockey team is built entirely of elite, best-of-the-best players. With 18 skaters on any given team, you can’t rely on four or five guys to create enough moments to win consistently, because all legitimate contenders have at least a few guys like that.

And so, “limiting moments” (or at least “winning those moments”) becomes integral to success, and that’s something both the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks do particularly well. Their commitment to getting the small things right is a big reason for their success over opposing rosters with plenty of their own sparkly pieces.

Coaches preach this in a variety of ways (inevitably referred to as “the right way to play” or the eye-roll-worthy “honest hockey”),  and it makes it easier to teach when they have leaders who are on the same page. Guys like Selke Trophy nominees Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar, who set a great example for the rest of the team.

Here’s a quick list of a few of the little things Toews and Kopitar do well that has trickled down through their rosters either by example, coaching, or roster construction. (It’s best to mix the three in a bowl and whisk.)

Puck Management

This refers to what you do with possession in the offensive zone once you win it (which is a huge part of the battle). The temptation for some players is to force an offensive attempt, which can mean a low percentage pass or taking a guy on 1-on-1, which usually results in a turnover.

It can also go too far the other way. For years, players mindlessly cycled the puck in the corner without pushing it to the net.

Smart teams are patient, but still look to strike. While you’re playing offense you’re not playing defense, so good coaches encourage players to take what’s available instead of trying to force plays through people.

Chip outs vs. breakouts, dump-ins versus carries

There’s a time and a place for all of the above, which is why you want to avoid an old school mindset (get it out, get it in!). But you also don’t want to tell players to never chip or dump in lieu of trying to dangle. If you don’t have time to gather possession and look around before taking a hit, firing it off the glass and out is okay. If you do have a second, well, don’t just give the puck to your opponent for free.

Avoid puck-staring (hockey IQ)

It’s really tough to convince players that they’re more likely to end up with the puck by not pursuing it, but rather finding a guy to defend...until they see that it works. Bad teams are full of puck-chasers with good intentions, who just want to get the thing back and go score. Once you’ve had enough success doing things “the right way,” you come to realize that doing what gets your team the puck more quickly will get you the puck more quickly. This is where the whole “culture of winning” concept comes from - until you win, it’s hard to truly understand the difference.

Stop on pucks (and killing your id)

Some players are obsessed with their own offensive ability, because they have ungodly amounts of it. They want to skate fast and score goals, so they like to keep their speed up without getting tired (in case they need that burst!) by looping around instead of doing stops and starts. This results in lost checks, over-skated pucks, and the general type of play that makes coaches go grey.

***

None of these things make for particularly exciting hockey. Teams who do it well- the St. Louis Blues come to mind - don’t necessarily play with the most white knuckle-thrill ride style. But they do win an awful lot.

The Blues are an example of a team who do these things well (most Ken Hitchcock teams do), but they lack the guys to create those few extra moments that tend to tip the scales.

The Kings and Blackhawks have those guys in spades, and they’ve managed to convince not just their stars, but their whole rosters that these little things can make the difference. If you can get everyone to buy in, like Chicago and Los Angeles have, you become awfully tough to beat.