Puck Handling ... what to do, what not to do ...
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 Boston Bruin David Pastrnak, the Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane, or Columbus Blue Jackets John Gaudreau, or for the old guys and gals reading this, ex-Detroit Red Wing Pavel Datsyuk hypnotize defensemen with their elite puck-handling skills. When used properly, deft puck handling is one of the best assets in a player's toolbox. However, nowadays, too many players get caught up in the hype of "over-dangling" the puck to the detriment of themselves and their team. Players often overhandle the puck to show off for their peers or create a YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok viral video moment. Look at any of these platforms; they are littered with videos of players showing off their stickhandling. The only problem is that most of these players are practicing techniques that, over the long run, are detrimental to their development. The biggest infraction by far is ... you guessed it ... keeping their heads down. Players need to keep their heads up to make plays. In the image below, note the head position and eyes of Detroit Red Wing star Dylan Larkin, both up, giving himself full vision to assess his options and as well as see potential body checkers.
In contrast (as seen in the video below), we look at how not to do things by watching Chicago's Patrick Kane, arguably the NHL's best puck handler. However, 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 not to do this in a game. While his dexterity is impressive, 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 safety and visibility. Players can get away with keeping their heads down at younger ages when there is no contact. However, once contact enters the game, players that keep their heads down while handling the puck open themselves up to a world of hurt. Additionally, 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 their teammates to be effective. They become less impactful if their heads are down and they can't see the ice or find teammates. As a parent and/or 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. Players may not even realize how often their heads are down until they see it with their own eyes. Remember, most kids are also visual learners, so the videos help. Below we put together a list of puck handling do's and don't ... DO
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 time a player has his head down, the better off!
Only do what you're capable of - Just like some players are better skaters than others, some players 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 is available. In fact, the whole point of puck handling is to get a defender off balance by using the puck (and your body positioning or edge work) to get a defender to lean one way, so you can quickly reverse direction while the defender's momentum carries them in another direction. 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 split-second opportunity to slip past them.
Handle the puck to buy time and space from defenders - This is one of the main uses of puck handling and puck protection. Since it's hard to beat better players one on one at older levels, the ability to possess the puck (with puckhandling and good edge work) to create time and space to set up opportunities for teammates is crucial.
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 (which is top speed). Only do the things you can do with a puck while going full-tilt. If you can only toe drag or do "fancier moves" by stopping or slowing down, then don't do them, as you won't get away with that in older levels of play.
Don't overhandle 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 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 your head down when carrying the puck - Re-read point 1 in Do!
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 backward toward 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 team's overall goals.
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