Use your edges, speed, and/or strength to protect the puck!
Every forward lives to make a fancy toe drag, or lag the puck behind them and then pulling it through their legs as the defenseman helplessly makes an ill timed poke check, only to realize the players body (and now the puck)i s already past them. It's the stuff of legend. It's the stuff that makes fans jump out of their seat and say, "Oh my god did you just see that!?!?"
Guys like David Pastrnak of your hometown Boston Bruins, Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, and Calgary's Johnny Gaudrea aka "Johnny Hockey" make these highlight reel type of plays almost every game. However, for the rest of the mere mortals in the NHL and amateur hockey players all over the globe those kind of puck tricks are rarely successful. Thank goodness to be successful you don't have to be able to "stick handle in a phone booth" as they use to say when I was a kid, but you do need to learn how to protect and shield the puck.
There are two main ways to be really good at puck possession in my opinion, power or agility. Power players such as the Bruins Charlie Coyle use their large frames to protect the puck from opposing players, whereas as agile players like Brad Marchand uses their agility, edge work and skating to protect the puck. While both are very different approaches they are both very effective.
In figure 1, we take a look at Charlie Coyle and how he utilizes his size and body positioning to protect the puck. Note how Coyle does nothing fancy, but simply places his body between the defender and the puck, making it virtually impossible for the
defender to get the puck. Note, Coyle also brings his front knee forward (ahead of the opposing player) to gain a lead and also provide an additional layer of puck protection from the pending stick check. Beyond the obvious puck protection benefits this image also showcases that Coyle provided himself a few other options, all of which are positive.
First, with his body protecting the puck and his lead knee out ahead of the opposing player, Coyle could simply keep angling toward the net and use his momentum and body positioning to drive hard to the goal. Additionally, with the puck out of reach of the defender Coyle is in a great position to fire a high quality backhand shot or provide a shot/rebound sequence for a teammate. One other possibility here is Coyle forces the defender to haul him down, drawing a penalty and giving his team a power play opportunity.
Last but certainly not least, Coyle could realize he may not be able to beat the defender in a foot race to the net, so he could simply carve a sharp turn away from the defender (shake him off if you will) and look to pass to a trailing teammate creating a good scoring opportunity for the team.
The next puck possession technique we'll look at is edge setting and agility. In this technique you also keep the puck away from the opponent (a central tenet to puck protection) however, the player relies less on strength/size to shield the puck and more on their skating agility. In my opinion, no one does this better than Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins. Marchand is the master of edge setting, tight turns and rabbit like agility that allows him to shake defenders and protect the puck.
As illustrated in the figure 2 to the right, we see Brad Marchand losing his defender with a razor sharp cut, relying on his excellent edge work and ability to be agile and move his feet in tight spaces. If you have ever watched a Bruins game you will often see Marchand in the offensive zone, (defender in hot pursuit), make sharp, hard cuts to protect the puck. Sometimes Marchand doesn't lose the player on the first turn or cutback, but it is very rare for him to not shake a player by the second third serpentine move. Similar to Coyle, Marchand isn't doing all this for show, he is trying to create "time and space" for either himself or for a teammate. He's typically looking for a seam to create a higher percentage scoring chance, or just looking to protect the puck long enough for a teammate to get into a good scoring position.
So as we see above. two totally different styles of puck protection, one based on size and strength, the other based on speed and agility. Both are very effective. As a player you have to find which style complements your game and skill set.