Three ways to better hockey from one of the NHL’s greats
By Brian Keane
This article originally appears on the Prodigy Hockey website, the #1 source for hockey drills, on- and off-line skill development, and game video analysis.
We’re excited to welcome back Ed Olczyk, Jr. to Prodigy Hockey. Eddie is a former pro player and currently coaching college hockey at Niagara University. In his own words, here are the 3 ways to better hockey habits and more success on the ice:
I believe the one thing that has the ability to separate good players from great players is attention to detail. As a player moves on throughout their hockey career their goal should be to have aspirations of playing at the highest level possible. The players who are able to climb the ladder more quickly and attain those goals are usually the players who have built upon the strengths of their game, pinpointed their weaknesses, and then have gone on to develop those weaknesses into strengths. Taking pride in attention to detail will undoubtedly help a player form better habits, and give them an opportunity to earn more recognition for their efforts. Below, I will discuss a few things that I believe are some of the most important details that all players should focus on in hopes of taking their game to the next level. link
Communication is such a big part of the game of hockey. If you want to truly be engaged on a game-to-game basis, you have to talk. One of the biggest questions players should ask themselves is, “Am I talking on the bench?” Bench talk has so many positives, and many of them have the ability to benefit their teammates, as well as their team’s overall in-game performance. A bench that has lots of positive chatter can help boost team morale and energy, and this shouldn’t just happen when your team is down a few goals. Bench talk needs to be consistent every single game, because teams that find success consistently are usually the teams that are unphased regardless of the time or score.
Talking on the bench allows your teammates to create plays through what you see, become more aware of the time and space that they have, as well the ability to take advantage of the opponent. A great of example of this is letting a winger in the defensive zone know to move the puck quickly or chip it to space if a defenseman is coming down the wall to hold the puck in your defensive zone. Off a quick transition, a player who receives a pass from their own defenseman in the neutral zone may not be aware that they have time and space to enter the offensive zone, make a play, or get the puck deep. Players on the bench—and players on the ice who do not have the puck—have the ability to influence the amount of successful plays that are created. All of these factors contribute to playing better hockey.
Call for passes. If you want the puck you have to talk. I’ve come across so many players and former teammates who refuse to call for pucks in practice, and it translates into games. If you really want to improve your communication habits in-game, then you need to call for every puck you might receive in practice. Everyone who plays the game of hockey wants to be able to possess the puck. A player who possesses the puck at any point during a game is the number-one target of the opposing team. That being said, their ability to see time and space is less than the players who do not have the puck. By talking to a teammate who has the puck you have the opportunity to be their extra set of eyes, and to help them see things that they cannot: opposing players; an open man on your team; getting the puck out off the boards on the penalty kill; capitalizing on a bad line change by the other team; etc.
Finally, this leads me to the subject of face offs. Every time you step onto the ice before a face off—offensive- and defensive-zone draws are probably where this will occur the most—you and your teammates should come together quickly as a 5-man unit. This ensures that everybody knows their role for that specific situation within the team system, and that everyone is on the same page.
Get your stick on the ice! There are obviously times and situations in the game of hockey where you will have your stick in the air, but this is one of the most common bad habits that so many hockey players have. Think of it this way: any time your stick is in the air you’re either preventing a potential puck touch for yourself, or allowing a defender to move the puck through you. It has been said that the most dangerous player on the ice is the one who does not have the puck. I firmly believe in this idea for a number of reasons.
Let’s take the defensive zone, for example. A puck gets dumped into the corner and a forward beats a defenseman to the puck. The defenseman goes to initiate contact by throwing a check to separate the man from the puck along the boards. If you look closely at a lot of players—or maybe even your own game—an extremely large number of those players will have their stick on the glass and their hands on the opposing player’s back. This is a prime example of working hard but not smart. So many defensemen and down-low forwards believe that by throwing a check they are going to prevent that offensive player from creating a play or scoring chance. If your stick is in the air during a battle, there’s a good chance that other player is trying to keep his stick on the ice, control the puck, and move the puck through you to another player or on your net.
The solution to this is by always going stick on puck first. If you watch some of the best defensive defensemen in the NHL, they always go stick on puck, and in a situation where they need to be physical that is usually always secondary. Going stick on puck creates an obstacle and challenge for the opposing player to make a play, and it also allows you to more quickly recover on a puck that went through you because your stick was on the ice.
From an offensive standpoint, keeping your stick on the ice gives you the opportunity to increase the amount of puck touches you get in practice and in games. How many times can you remember where a pass came to you in a prime scoring area that you weren’t ready for? Maybe the reason was because your stick was in the air, and by the time it got to you the opportunity to possess the puck and make a play had passed you by. Or maybe you have found yourself crossing over or pivoting in the neutral zone and the defenseman had already zipped a pass to your tape before you had fully repositioned yourself up ice, and the puck had already changed hands into a player of the opposing team. Forming the habit of getting your stick on the ice can be hard to do if you aren’t constantly attempting to make the adjustment in practice. I guarantee if you watch video of your team’s or your own play throughout the course of an entire game, you would see areas where you could make huge improvements with your stick positioning. By making this adjustment you will be giving yourself a greater opportunity to attain more offensive chances, minimize the amount of plays that go through you, and the total amount of time you possess the puck in a game.
Go To the Net
If you want to score goals you have to get to the net. Too many players have the tendency of planting their feet and just watching plays develop. In certain situations the greatest way to defeat this from happening is by moving yourself after you move the puck; move the puck, move yourself. A great example of this is an offensive forward that picks up a puck in the opposing team’s corner. His defenseman is open at the offensive blue line, so he passes him the puck. The defenseman has a wide-open shooting lane and puts the puck on net. If you watch a lot of young or beginner players, they will watch their pass and then stand still along the boards and wait to see what happens next. In this situation there needs to be a sense of urgency to get to the net. If the puck ends up getting through to the goal you might have the opportunity to tip the puck or create a screen by taking away the goalie’s eyes, or find a rebound that is loose in a prime scoring area. And if the puck doesn’t get through you will be in a better position to get back on a turnover.
Now let’s look at an offensive-zone rush. A golden rule in hockey is that somebody (usually this is F2) needs to drive to the net to create a passing lane, or push back the opposing team’s defensemen. If the puck carrier is able to put the puck on goal, many of those same puck carriers have the habit of staying on the perimeter, or even worse, circling behind the net. When you do one of those two things you immediately take yourself out of the play. Say the puck kicks off the goalie’s pad and bounces out on the opposite side of the crease, and then hits off of a skate or stick back to the same side you entered the zone on. If you don’t move your feet and go to the net, you will be missing out on potential puck touches that are just out of reach. If you circle behind the net you take yourself out of the play entirely, and put yourself in a poor spot positionally from a defensive standpoint. You also limit the amount of prime scoring chances that may occur from a rebound, or even a secondary pass that would have come to you from another teammate.
Going to the net on a consistent basis is not an easy thing to do. It requires hard work, grit, attitude, and a mentality that is only developed through practice. Certain long-time NHL players, who weren’t the greatest skaters but were able to find so much success producing, understood the value of getting to the net night in and night out. When you go to the top of the crease you also become a target of opposing players; it’s an all out war. You have to constantly deal with being moved, receiving several hacks and whacks on the backside, as well as dealing with a puck that is moving at a high rate of speed which has the potential to hit you. Some players have the ability and determination to get to the net knowing that they will be paying a price, but many players do not because of the potential physical consequences.
If you’re a player who finds yourself shying away from the net and missing out on prime scoring opportunities, and you seriously want to play better hockey, then what do you think you should start doing? Go to the net! This isn’t playing on the outside of the pile though. This is playing on your toes, anticipating the puck getting to the net, willing yourself with your stick on the ice to win battles, and being strong on your skates and not allowing anybody else to out-muscle you in that area. Only good things can happen when you go to the net, so embrace the challenge, and I guarantee you will find more success in your game.
Brian Keane is the founder of Prodigy Hockey, a website dedicated to help educate players, coaches and parents on the great game of hockey. Reproduced with permission of Prodigy Hockey.
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