Every forward lives to make a fancy toe drag or lag the puck behind them and then pull it through their legs as the defenseman helplessly makes an ill-timed poke check, only to realize the player's body (and now the puck) is already past them. It's the stuff of legend. The plays make fans jump out of their seats and say, "Oh my god, did you just see that!?!?"
Players like Boston Bruin David Pastrnak, Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, and Columbus Blue Jacket forward Johnny Gaudreau, aka "Johnny Hockey," make these highlight reel type of plays almost every game. However, these deft puck tricks are rarely achievable for the rest of the mortals in the NHL and amateur hockey players. Thank goodness to be successful in hockey, you do not need to be a puck wizard like the aforementioned players, and you don't have to be able to "stick handle in a phone booth," as they used to say when I was a kid; however, you do need to learn how to protect and shield the puck from defenders.
In my opinion, there are two main ways to be really good at puck possession: power or agility. Players such as the Bruins' Charlie Coyle use their large frames to protect the puck from opposing players with power, whereas more agile players like Brad Marchand use their agility (edge work and skating) to protect the puck. While both are different approaches, they are both very effective.
In the image below, we take a look at Boston Bruin center Charlie Coyle and how he utilizes his size and body positioning to protect the puck. Note how Coyle does nothing fancy but 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 with a few other positive options.
First, with his body protecting the puck and his lead knee out ahead of the opposing player, Coyle could 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 that 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 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, allowing him to shake defenders and protect the puck.
As illustrated in the image 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), making 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 not to shake a player by the second or third serpentine move. Like Coyle, Marchand isn't doing all this for the show; he is trying to create "time and space" for himself or 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 illustrated above, two different players employ two different (but effective) styles of puck protection, one based on size and strength and the other based on speed and agility. Both are equally effective; however, as a player, you have to find which style complements your game and skill set.
We discuss the latter point, playing to your strengths, in our article entitled, Play your best game by playing to your strengths! it's a short but insightful read we think you'll enjoy as every player needs to leverage the unique aspects of their game that they do well.
To tie it all together, we have presented this great YouTube clip below of Sidney Crosby, where he displays all of the various ways one can protect the puck, whether it be with great edgework and counter-directional turns, agility, or strength .. enjoy.
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