I watched a team yesterday run a great, simple drill in their practice. Two players started in the endzone faceoff circle, battled and played keep away for about 15 seconds, when the coach blew the whistle they skated to neutral ice around a dot and back 1v1 on a rush. Again, it was a simple drill but with good value and all players had to play both offence and defence in the battle and the 1v1.
What struck me was how poorly the forwards were able to play a 1v1 on the defensive side – and frankly, how poorly the defencemen created shots on net on the offensive side. In particular, the forwards had poor gap control on the rushes and tended to back in well past the tops of the circles. The defencemen, on the other hand, had difficulty through the whole drill protecting the puck and not evading a stick check.
The bottom line is that we do far too much separate skill development for defencemen and forwards and not enough development of skills that create versatile hockey players. How many times in a season will a coach put his forwards on defence to play 1v1 rushes? Maybe not ever! But forwards should understand about gap control, keeping the shooter to the outside, challenging early. Just as defencemen should be able to shoot in close and quickly, protect the puck and screen the goalie.
One strategy I often employ in practice is to simply split all players into two colours instead of D in one colour and each forward line in separate colours. Then, I run practice with everyone participating at whatever position they find themselves at. I will even run power play and penalty kill drills and scrimmage, and let players play any position. But, they are expected to practice everything that is being taught. Further, I make sure there is a good chunk of teaching in the practice so that everyone learns the same things regardless of their usual position.
This accomplishes two things. First, players will develop different skills e.g. forwards will be playing 1v1 on the defensive side. Second, it gives players great insight in the “whole game”. Defencemen might learn a defensive tactic on 2v1 rushes by actually playing a forward position on a 2v1 rush, just as a forward might learn something new about scoring from playing D on the same rush.
(As an aside, I think at the youngest age groups, we should all be forcing players to play all positions and not labelling players as forwards and defencemen too early in their hockey “careers”.)
I don’t think any coach would argue that developing versatile players is a good thing. What we tend not to do is spend any time actually developing versatile players in practice. At the end of the day, your team is going to be more skilled, more knowledgeable, and more versatile. That can only translate into more success for your players and for your team.