Puck Handling ... keep your head up and don't over do it!
Outside of a spectacular save by a goalie, the most exciting plays in hockey tend to come from players making that little rubber disk dance as if it were being controlled by a magician.
We've all seen the Bruin's David Pastrnak, the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane or Calgary's John Gaudreau, or for the old guys, ex Red Wing Pavel Datsyuk hypnotize defensemen with their memorizing puck handling tricks while slithering through the tiniest of seams. When used properly deft puck handling is an asset in any players toolbox. However, nowadays too many players get caught up in the hype of "dangling" with the puck to the detriment of their game and their team. All too often players over handle the puck in an attempt to show off for their peers or create a YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok video moment. Go look at any of these platforms and they are littered with videos of players showing off their dangles and moves. The only problem is most of these players are practicing techniques that over the long run are detrimental to their development as players. The biggest infraction by far is ... you guessed it keeping their head down and staring at the puck. In the image below note the head and eyes of Detroit Red Wing star Dylan Larkin, head up and eyes up, giving himself full vision and options.
Now (in the video below) we will take a look at how not to do things by watching Chicago's Patrick Kane, arguably the NHL's best puck handler. Note Kane is doing what Dylan Larking didn't do ... keeping his head down. Granted this video was a marketing campaign created for Bauer's Vapor line of sticks, and certainly Patrick Kane is smart enough to not do this in a game, and while his dexterity is impressive, again note Kane's head in this video, it barely comes up as he navigates the puck maze. This is not how you want to handle a puck in a game. It may look cool on video, but it won't help you in the real world!
The obvious reasons players want their heads up are two fold, safety and visibility. At younger ages, where there is no contact, players can get away with keeping their head down. However, once contact enters the game, players that keep their head down while handling the puck open themselves up to a world of hurt. Secondarily, players with the head down have decreased vision and don't see plays developing, open teammates or opportunities. Dancing through less skilled players at a young age is one thing, but as the skills gap narrows with age, players who used to be able to skate through a whole team quickly learn they need to play with and off their teammates to be effective. If their heads are down and they can't see the ice or find teammates, they become less valuable. As a parent and a coach it is important to continue to stress to players to keep their heads up. Sometimes capturing a snippet of a game or practice on video and reviewing it with your player can be invaluable as players may not even realize how often their heads are down until they see it with their own eyes. Additionally, kids are visual learners so the videos help. Below we put together a list of puck handling do's and don't ... DO's
Focus on keeping your head up - Obviously players can't have their heads up all the time as after all the puck is at their feet and they do need to look down on occasion to locate it. However, the less the time a player has his head down the better off they will be!
Only do what your capable of - Just like some players are better skaters than others there are some players that are better puck handlers than others. Not every player will have "magic hands." Players should concentrate on what they are comfortable doing with the puck (with their heads up) and do that really effectively.
Use the puck as a deception technique - This applies mostly to one on one situations. When confronted with a defender and no pass option, the whole point of puck handling is to get a defender off balance ... using the puck (and your body/edge work) to get a defender to lean one way, so you can quickly reverse direction while their momentum carries them in another. It's really that simple. When moving at top speed, even the slightest lean by a defender in the wrong direction gives the oncoming forward a decisive edge.
Handle the puck to buy time for teammates - This is one of the main uses of puck handling and puck protection in the offensive zone. The ability to possess the puck to set up opportunities for teammates in the offensive zone.
Do what you can do at top speed - As players get to higher levels they need to be proficient at what they do and they need to play at game speed (top speed). Only do the things with a puck that you can do while going full tilt. If you can only toe drag or do "fancier moves" by stopping or slowing down then don't do them. you won't get away with that in older levels of play.
Don't over handle the puck - The puck moves up the ice fastest when passed. Players today all too often think they can dance through a whole team with their deft puck handling (a theory perpetuated by social media videos). As I always tell my players, you may get by one of two players, but you're not getting by five players consistently. There is nothing more infuriating to a coach or a teammate than to watch a you (over and over and over) not give up the puck. It makes the player and the team less effective and leads to resentment from fellow players. After all they didn't come to the game to watch you be a "puck hog"
Don't keep you head down when carrying the puck - Re-read point 1 in Do's!
Don't be fancy - Like in life, the old tried and true KISS Method (Keep It Simple Stupid) tends to be the most effective. This ties into point 1 above. Players need to concentrate on making the easy play. Hockey is not a complicated game ... advance the puck, play in straight lines (don't zig zag all over the ice carrying the puck) and take open ice if you have it. Finally, and as a general rule never go backwards towards your own end of the ice with the puck.
Clearly there are nuisances to all the rules above depending on skill level and level of play. However, as a general rule, if your player can learn to follow the Do's and Don't above they will not only be a better overall player, but they will also learn to use their teammates more and advance the overall goals of the team.