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by Rob Barletta  |  Nov 9th, 2016

Managing Your Players’ Shift Lengths is Crucial

Shift Management is Not Just for the NHL
According to Rob Barletta, owner of the Walpole Express, shift management is critical at all but the most novice level. When coaching his Bantam Tier I team, first practice he always puts three lines of players on the goal line and has them skate up and down the ice for 30 seconds. “We repeat this drill until each line goes four times. As the players are gasping for air, I explain they just did four 30-second hockey shifts,” Barletta said.

Shift Time Board“Hockey is game of stops and starts – on offense, moving to the openings and supporting the puck. On defense, constantly moving and picking up players,” Barletta explained. “Taking shifts over 45 seconds really affects a player’s productivity during that shift. If we have a shift that goes 30 seconds and a whistle is blown, more often than not I change players. I would rather have a player take a 30-second ‘all out’ shift rather than getting stuck out there for over a 60 seconds. The longer shift not only leads to decreased productivity, it affects the next shift because the player doesn’t have time to fully recover.”

This past weekend I was able to take some of my players to the Chicago Blackhawks game. The Blackhawks one of the top NHL teams realized how important shift length is. Each Hawks shift length is posted on the scoreboard. It was a very helpful in coaching to be able to show my players how quickly top NHL players get on and off the ice.

“When the players come off the ice after taking a shift of longer than a minute, I explain that they are not playing the game correctly,” Barletta said. The takeaway? Heed shift management if you want to excel. In today’s hockey world “managing my player’s minutes” is a common phrase used by many coaches. With all kinds of new technology and data available to help coaches gain an edge on their opponents, shift lengths is something that is strategically planned and monitored by coaches at most levels.

Terry Watt former Pro player now full time director with RB Hockey
During my playing time with Beibarys Atyrau (Eastern Europe), our daily practices consisted of being strapped up so our coaches could monitor our heart rates throughout the practices during various game-like situations. There was one designated coach who would write down our heart rates after each simulation.

This data was essential because players are used in games not only based on skill and talent but also based on how long they can compete at a sustained high tempo. Hockey players these days are in better physical condition now than in the past. The ability to manipulate and track each individual’s shift length can give a team the upper hand in the late minutes of a game or throughout the grind of a full season. Plus, it helps coaches assure players can compete at their maximum potential until the end of the game.

Players BenchShift Length Can Determine the Winner
“I believe that the length of the shift can win or lose a game at the junior hockey level,” said Walpole Express Head Coach Jon Lounsbury. “Players have to be disciplined or it could result in a goal. Our ultimate focus is to always change while we have possession of the puck. We want to take advantage of having fresh legs and keeping the opposing players hemmed in their defensive zone.”

Stanley Cup winner Mike Babcock, Team Canada’s head coach at the last two winter Olympics and recent World Cup of Hockey (and arguably the best coach in hockey today), is a big believer in shift length and conditioning management. So much that he has his own theories on it. He likes to max his forwards out at 40 sec, but is much more forgiving with his defenseman at 42.5 sec.

Babcock’s players on a whole see significantly less ice time than the players I mentioned earlier. For Babcock, it seems to be more of a marathon than a sprint for this soon to be hall-of-famer. According to sportingcharts.com, last season the average shift length for an NHL forward was 45.4 seconds.

Be Like Datsyuk
Having coached Pavel Datsyuk for nearly a decade in Detroit, Babcock refers to his star player as a model every forward should strive to be like. He’s a top-level point producer each NHL season and is also one of game’s best two-way forwards. And, he has the hardware to prove it: three Selke trophies, which are awarded to the NHL’s best defensive forward.

Datsyuk credits his individual accolades to Babcock’s shift management protocol, and for keeping him fresh enough to play both ends of the ice at a high tempo for an entire game.

Under Babcock’s tenure with the Detroit Red Wings, the team made the playoffs every single season, won the Stanley Cup in 2008 and made two other appearances in the Stanley Cup finals and western conference finals.

Shift Management Pays off for Team Canada
Babcock continued testing his theories while coaching Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey Championship in Toronto this past September. Coaching a team full of superstars is a challenge all on its own. But what about telling a star like Sidney Crosby -- who averages 47.4 sec a shift with his team in Pittsburg -- to trim his ice time?

With team Canada, Crosby is not only getting fewer shifts but also less on-ice time. It’s about the team and buying into your coach’s systems. That’s what most of Canada’s elite say when asked about ice time.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the system seems to be working. Team Canada won the entire tournament. And Crosby led the tournament in points and won the tournament MVP, despite his reduced ice time. Shorter shifts allowed him to maximize his energy and focus -- and produce more.

Whatever Babcock is doing seems to be working. Everywhere he goes he wins. The real test will be with his current team, the Toronto Maple leafs. This team is still young and in the rebuilding stages. It will be interesting to see whether Babcock can once again turn a franchise into a contender for years to come – no doubt by including shift management in the mix.