“As kids get older now, the game is becoming more and more position-less.”
Why isn’t the U.S. – including Minnesota – producing more elite scorers at the NHL level?
Kenny Rausch gathers data and conducts presentations assessing how the U.S. is doing as a nation in many different areas of the game. One area of concern is the lack of high-end offensive talent produced locally.
The number of American NHL players has grown significantly. There are roughly 890 skaters – not counting goalies – that play at least one game per year in the NHL. There are now approximately 245 Americans in that pool. But only four or five of them are in the top 25; just eight or nine in the top 50; and roughly 20 in the top 100 in terms of NHL scoring production.
Rausch turns to the youth hockey culture.
“When Pee Wee and Bantam and Squirt games are 2-1, we can’t expect college or pro games to be 8-7. We can’t expect to develop offensive superstars,” said Rausch, youth ice hockey director at USA Hockey. “We need to encourage more goal-scoring and playmaking at the younger ages instead of winning.”
By making alterations – big and small – in ordinary youth hockey practices or by self-imposing rules that force development, we can change that, Rausch says. He offered several ideas for adoption.
Move Icing to the Far Blue Line
Have you ever seen a kid playing pond hockey trying to find a line on the ice, cross that line, and then just fire the puck away?
“No – because it doesn’t happen,” said Rausch, who has coached 8U, 10U, 12U, 14U, high school and Division I college hockey. “Kids inherently want to play with the puck. So why do we hear Peewee coaches and parents screaming, ‘Get it out! Get it in!’ every time we walk into a rink?
“In youth hockey, it drives me nuts. That doesn’t translate into scoring.”
So a few years ago, Rausch helped institute a new rule at the annual Western Regional High Performance Camp for 14-year-olds:
Move the icing line to the far blue line to discourage dumping the puck, and encourage more playmaking, zone entries and creativity. Players must enter the offensive zone with possession.
“And it was amazing,” Rausch said. “The kids figure it out so quickly.”
So when a player doesn’t have a good option coming through the neutral zone, they would regroup, find a defenseman, go D-to-D, try to make a play and enter the zone in another way.
Opposing defensemen benefit from it as well.
“They don’t have to think about retreating to go back to get a dump,” Rausch said. “They can gap up much more confidently and not have to worry about going back for a dump-in. You can use the blue line as your friend. Force a good gap, the player panics and dumps it in – that’s an icing. So there’s a little bit of both sides here.”
And the kids? They loved it.
“One kid said, ‘Wait, I don’t have a coach screaming at me to dump it?’ ” Rausch laughed.
Ditch the Positions
Last year, Rausch was a part of a presentation to about 200 people, which included Martin Dahlin, father of eventual first-overall 2018 NHL draft pick and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.
“He was talking about the Swedish path and what they grow up doing,” Rausch said. “He did not mention his son by name to the group of people he was talking to. They play cross-ice hockey until 12 years old over there. They use the blue puck until they are 12 years old. They don’t start keeping standings until they are 13 or 14 years old. And then they start learning to play specific positions.”
Rausch then asked: “Martin, just out of curiosity, when did your son become a full-time defenseman? He looks at me, and said, ‘Last year.’”
The No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft, Rasmus Dahlin, only spent one season as a full-time defenseman. All youth hockey players must play different positions, Rausch says.
“As kids get older now, the game is becoming more and more position-less,” Rausch said. “When you have the puck, you have five players on offense. When the other team has the puck, all five of your players are defending. When you watch the highlights of Rasmus, who can really tell what position he plays? He lines up on D for the faceoffs – that’s about it.
“Some college coaches are preaching position-less hockey now, too. You line up at a certain position for the faceoff, but that doesn’t have to mean what you are or who you are as a player.”
No Icing While Shorthanded – At All Levels
Icing is no longer allowed for shorthanded teams at 14U and below. We must encourage playmaking to get the puck out of trouble. Rausch thinks that will eventually become the law of the land at every level.
“College hockey almost did it a couple of years ago,” Rausch said. “I really think we’re going to see the NHL do that within the next five years.”
This Ends 1 of 3 Ways
Drills/games in his practices must end one of three ways, Rausch says.
“Let’s say we’re doing station-based drills or a battle drill or whatever it is,” he said. “Drills end one of three ways now: you score a goal, the goalie covers it, or the defensive player skates it out of harm’s way. Not clears it out, but skates it out.”
Don’t Throw the Puck Away
When Rausch coached 14U, he had a new rule:
“You were not allowed to throw the puck away,” he said. “You can place the puck in areas for your teammates, but you couldn’t blindly just throw it away, panic, dump it, whatever.
“I don’t care if they turned it over and got a goal scored on them. That was fine. I don’t care.”
Shrink the Rink
USA Hockey was ahead of the game when it came to cross-ice hockey at 8U. Rausch wants to push it even further.
“We have some places in the country playing half-ice at 10U. That’s a big one,” he said. “It’s not something on the immediate horizon, but we’re encouraging as many people as possible to do it.”
Another thing Rausch is pushing, which has been met with early opposition: an intermediate-sized puck for 10U and 12U.
“We go right from blue puck to black puck at 10 years old,” Rausch said. “So when you think about it, a 10-year-old hockey player is shooting the same puck as Alex Ovechkin. When you look at other sports – even from college to pro – basketball and football have different ball sizes. It hit me over the head in the NFL preseason this year when Andrew Luck was coming back from his shoulder surgery, and they had video of him talking about the fact that he threw the ball for the first time in a year, but it was a college ball because it was smaller and lighter.”
Rausch strongly encourages these types of reforms, and any new ideas that spur skill development and enjoyment.
“Youth hockey is about fun, development and all those things,” he said. “It’s not college hockey. It’s not the National Hockey League. It’s OK to have different rules for children than for adults.”