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Class with Cappy: New York Islanders coach talks breakouts, forechecking and defense at USA Hockey Symposium

And a little Battle Level for good measure.

Last month, Islanders coach Jack Capuano was one of the featured guests at the 2014 Hockey Coaches Symposium, sponsored by USA Hockey. Current and former NHL coaches gathered in Las Vegas (in August? Really, guys?) to break down their systems and methods for youth hockey coaches who wanted to compare notes with the kids at the head of the class.

One of those youth hockey coaches in attendance was Lighthouse Hockey community member and commenter Torgo, who has uploaded his videos of Capuano's lessons for mass consumption. Whether you're an Islanders fan, a coaching student or just plain curious of the man's methods, Capuano's demos are an interesting glimpse inside the inner workings of an NHL team.

In the first video above, Capuano starts with a long intro before getting into breakout tactics, complete with video of the way he prefers a team to corral and bring up the puck.

Video No. 2 covers forechecking, in which Capuano stresses working as a "unit of five" at all times.

Next, Capuano talks about defensive zone coverage, again working as a unit of five. He says the Islanders run the same system as the Boston Bruins, and calls out Brock Nelson and Frans Nielsen as being particularly deft at keeping themselves between the net and the puck. And if you were looking for the "Battle Level" mention, it's here as a key component. Capuano is upfront about the system allowing the other team more offensive zone time by design, but that the plan is to keep a body in front of the shooter or puck carrier at all times.

Finally, Capuano focuses on the neutral zone and discusses forechecking and transitions:

Here are Torgo's notes on his experience in Vegas, starting with the keynote speech from Los Angeles Kings GM Deam Lombardi.

For several years, USA Hockey's Coaching Education has held clinics nationwide in attempt to create better youth hockey coaches. There are 4 basic levels of certification, then a 5th level advanced certification. After several years being out of organized coaching, but wanting to get back into it a few years before my son starts to play, I decided to go to this year's National Coaching Symposium in Las Vegas to earn my Level 5 certification with a concentration in 8 and under.

USA Hockey has worked with other national organizations, and developed what they call the 'American Development Model', which stresses overall athletic development for children under 12, with age appropriate training.

The ADM uses cross-ice training for young children. There has been some resistance to this, as adults sometimes have a hard time seeing that scaled-down hockey is still hockey. To help people understand how an 8 year old experiences an NHL sized rink, USA Hockey scaled a traditional rink up to 310 x 130 feet this past winter, and let the adults skate on it.

The symposium was held over 4 days, leading off with the keynote speech by LA Kings GM Dean Lombardi, who talked about hockey from the GM's perspective and how it related to coaching and player development. In his talk, Lombardi compared establishing a successful sports team with establishing a military force, using Klaus' pyramid.

At the bottom level are manpower and material, or in hockey's case, equipment. The second level is systems, training and strategy, which is where coaches have a lot of influence.

At the 3rd level, it's about the players' "compete" or "Battle Level"... what is that player willing to do to win the game or to improve themselves.

At the 4th level, it's the players' willingness to compete for the team. One area scouts look for is a player's reaction to game events while on the bench. Players invested in the team will be more active when it comes to congratulating their teammates and celebrating the success of the team, even if they weren't directly involved in the play that resulted in success. These are things that happen in the spur of the moment and reveal the true character of a player.

As much as I had not been a great fan of Capuano before this, hearing Lombardi describe this with a passion so great he actually knocked his own microphone off made me realize that in hearing how Islander players talk about the team and organization, Islander management has truly succeeded in building a team of guys that are all about the team.

Lombardi's keynote speech can be heard here:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

On Friday's program of youth sports and Capuano's presentation

morning kicked off with Dr. Stephen Norris, Canadian Olympic advisor, talking about development of young athletes. While I found it very engaging from a coaching standpoint, it was much more relevant from a parenting standpoint. Hundreds of studies have been done worldwide on both physical and mental development in kids. They've taken the best of these studies and come up with models that show the prime times to develop certain physical and mental skills.

For kids 4-8 years old, this is their first window for developing speed and quickness, training both gross and fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination and reaction times. Studies show that children at this age need to be bombarded with as much opportunity for physical development as possible, from running and jumping to gymnastics, soccer, swimming, martial arts, playing catch, yoga and even skating. This is the time frame to develop habits that will last a lifetime. Kids are encouraged to get up and get moving. The skills they develop at this age are the platform upon which any other athletic skills will grow. All practice activities need to be disguised as fun, and physical activity should never be used as a punishment.

For 6 - 10 year olds, it will be their first experience with team sports. These are life lessons that will be used constantly, especially outside of sport. For most of us, having played a team sport of some sort, we understand the concept of team. From personal experience, having coached adult women, many of whom had never played a team sport before, it's exceptionally easy to take that experience for granted. Once they learned it, though, it's like they became a brand new person. As Lombardi mentioned in his talk, there is no high like being part of a team that completes a grand accomplishment.

Capuano's talk was the next presentation on Friday morning. He talked about the foundation of systems, using NHL broadcasts to show how different systems look. There is no one correct system except the system that best fits the skillsets of the available players. He focused on breakouts, neutral zone play, defensive coverage and forechecking.

For the first afternoon session, Mike Boyle of Boston University (and many pro and college teams) talked about designing an off ice program for a team. He focused on being able to do it on a budget, and talked about a 1 dumbbell system, where a player could work several areas of their body using just 1 dumbbell. As they progressed, they'd continue doing the same exercises with a heavier weight. He used video to show off his work with the US Women's Olympic Team, who even in a multi-million dollar facility were not doing much more than could be accomplished with a single weight.

In the second afternoon system, John Hynes, head coach of the Penguins AHL team, talked about manufacturing goals, focusing primarily on offense.

Saturday brought Lightning head coach John Cooper and Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL affiliate of the Red Wings) coach Jeff Blashill:

On Saturday, Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning head coach, talked about practicing to move the puck 200 feet with drills for all zones.

Jeff Blashill, head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins, followed with a talk on creating habits for individual and team success. He used a lot of his experience working with the Red Wings in their development camp on what they need to do with young professional players to make sure they are ready for the NHL, and how it's a continual quest for improvement, not just a few weeks of trying to break a bad habit.

Tommi Niemela, head coach of Pelicans Lahti U20 and the Finnish national goaltending coach, talked about developing goaltenders, something Finland is known for. In Finland, they use a club system to develop players, and have a very developed, organized hierarchy of coaches. Coaches from upper level mentor developing coaches. Their goaltenders aren't considered fully developed until they reach their mid 20s. They also have several tools they use to track training and development. Once 'advanced stats' model they use is tracking shots and goals allowed from all areas of the ice, and weighting the results based on what a goaltender should be expected to stop.

Saves from in close count more, goals allowed from in close count for less, and the converse is true on shots from the outside. Goalies in Finland are considered part of the team when it comes to the mundane drills the rest of the team does. They skate with the rest of the team, stickhandle with the rest of the team and don't separate from the rest of the team until it's time for their specialized training. Finnish goaltenders are expected to be the best skaters on the team, not the afterthought 'Goldberg' that tends to happen in North American organizations.

Also, in Finland, there is no national championship tournament until players are 16, as opposed to North America where 'nationals' begin for 10 year olds.

Mike Sullivan, former NHL player and coach, rounded out the afternoon with a talk on special teams.

On Sunday, it was Dan Bylsma's turn [enter joke about lots of free time here]

Sunday morning's presentation was by former Penguin coach Dan Bylsma, who focuses on 1-on-1 battles and drills. He showed a lot of video from Penguins' development camp where he had his own 15 year old son working drills against Matt Niskanen and other Penguins. He also talked about the alarming lack of true fundamentals that many of the young pros today lack. He used video of NHLers making the wrong choices in skating (crossing over when they shouldn't, pivoting the wrong direction, etc) in actual game situations to reinforce that the habits developed as a child will carry over to every level of progression, and being able to do things the correct way will put them far ahead of the competition.

In between sessions, there were also breakout sessions geared towards specific age ranges. On the 8U track, I met in a small group with Kevin Reiter (goaltending coach of the US NTDP), Scott Paluch (2 seasons with the Blues, former head coach at Bowling Green, current regional manager for the ADM), Ken Martel (USA Hockey juniors coach, now technical director for the ADM), Matt Herr (drafted by the Braves and the Capitals in 1994), Guy Gosselin (1988 and 1992 Olympian and collegiate coach), and Kenny Rausch (BU player and collegiate coach).

The breakout sessions focused on small area games, off-ice development, goaltending, team building and overall athletic development.

The overarching theme of the weekend was that there should be no 12 year old hockey players (children committed to being hockey players above all other endeavors), but every 12 year old should be a developing athlete with hockey skills. Specialization should not occur until well into the teenage years. The star players now in the NHL were all invariably multi-sport stars as children. The Sedin twins chose hockey from the 3 sports for which they could have forged professional careers (soccer and handball being the other two).

Thanks very much to Torgo for posting the videos as well as Capuano and the other coaches and presenters for attending the symposium and helping foster the coaches of the future.