It’s got to be engrained, and that goes into when the kids go home, stickhandling and reps and having a stick in their hands and a puck – the better off they’ll be when they get on the ice for handling the puck without looking at it.
USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program assistant coach Greg Moore knows a little something about puck possession. The University of Maine product put up 45 points his senior year with the Black Bears. After a 10-year pro career, Moore returned to the NTDP – a program he played for from 2000-2002 – as an intern assistant coach before earning full-time status last summer.
He talked to USA Hockey about puck possession and how to coach it in today’s game.
USA Hockey: How important is puck possession and what is its place in the game?
Greg Moore: Through the 1990s and early 2000s, there was more of the mindset of just chipping in and supporting and dumping in and going back after it. Giving away possession, but going to get it back in a more offensive area of the ice. The game has transitioned quite a bit in the last five, seven years with puck possession. I think Chicago probably led that route in the Stanley Cups that they won and the style they played. They would even drag a puck all the way back to their defensive zone faceoff dot and just wait for their forwards to come back and then come back up together and if it didn’t work out, they would just do it all over again. That was kind of a mindset I remember in the early 2000s of, you would look at European hockey and the Finns would just curl back and get possession and you almost looked at it like, ‘really?’ but the game is definitely going in that direction.
With how much more skilled the next generation of player is, I think that’s happening because the game’s going in that direction. Everything is kind of moving together and it can be very frustrating for a team to just be chasing the whole game and not have the puck, so the more time you can have the puck, enter the offensive zone with the puck, the better. I know 60 to 70 percent of our practices are built around line rushes with the puck, not dumping it in and chasing, but coming through the neutral zone with the puck and keeping the puck.
USA Hockey: How do you teach that?
Moore: Games in which players have to support the puck carrier, small-area games like cross-ice small games, they force kids to think about how they’re supporting the puck carrier. In the past there’s been a mindset of when you’re away from the puck and your teammate has it you’re banging your stick and saying ‘Hey, I’m over here, you work for me,’ rather than ‘I’m away from the puck, how can I go work for the puck carrier?’ How can I help him? How can I create space for him, how can I make his life easier?
I know that’s something we try to drill into the psyche of our kids – you have to think about how you’re going to work away from the puck and support your teammate. Obviously every scenario is going be different in how they do that, but that’s how the good players move up. They can problem-solve those things. In that turn, you’re thinking about, say a neutral zone regroup, how are you supporting the teammate that’s carrying the puck. Are you staying 10 feet behind him so there’s a drop option? Are you on his right side and another teammate to the other, so when he comes up, he has two options? Then, primarily line-rush stuff, as you’re carrying over the blue line, you want to attack with the outside walls. It’s hard to attack to the middle of the ice, defensive teams come through and clog the middle of the ice. We use a term ‘ladder option,’ when you get to the blue line, you kick it out wide to the guy standing flat-footed on the wall and then you grab depth. Entering the zone has become a prime skill, and how to create that time and space and how to do that with your teammates is very important.
USA Hockey: When you lose the puck, you have to get it back. How do you suggest a youth coach goes about cultivating that hunger?
Moore: I would say youth coaches need to just simply the concept for the kids. I think a lot of people, when the team doesn’t have the puck, they talk about a 1-2-2 or a 1-3-1 and it’s teaching kids how to stand on an X or an X and take up a space on the ice, instead of organically, ‘OK, if I’m on the ice as the defender, and I’m the closest teammate to that puck, I need to go attack that guy as quickly as I can.’ Force him to be uncomfortable and force him to move the puck faster than he wants to. Everybody else behind him, the other two forwards and the D, think, ‘OK, where are the passing options for that puck carrier? I’m going to go gap down on them or take away time and space on that player.’ When we talk about hockey IQ, it’s not thinking about, ‘OK I have to stand in this space on the ice because I was told it’s OK. Every play is different, there’s a puck carrier there, my teammate is going after him, I’m going to sit on this guy and gap from the middle of the ice and play an angle to take away.’ More freelance thinking for themselves. If I’m close to the puck, I’m going to attack him, everyone else get to the middle of the ice and start sitting on his passing options. It should be as simple as that. Obviously with younger and younger kids, that’s a very difficult thing to achieve, but that’s why you create drills in games that put kids in organic spots where they’re thinking for themselves naturally, and then you have those teaching times where you can stop the drill and explain the situation. Try to get them thinking for themselves more.
USA Hockey: Does the American Development Model, small-area games and cross-ice hockey play right into that?
Moore: Absolutely. It’s all on par with what we’re trying to teach here with our program and a lot of coaches at this level who are getting their players to play a certain way. There’s always communication with them, and I think they’re doing a great job of implementing things to put kids in those spots.
USA Hockey: How important is it for a player to get comfortable with body contact when it comes to puck possession?
Moore: It’s a part of the game. I know for us, we talk to our kids that when you’re going to hit somebody with the puck, it’s for two reasons: to separate the player from the puck so you can get the puck back, and to create body position. So, if you’re on the forecheck, and even if he gets rid of the puck and in that split second you finish your check and then you come off and separate and you head to the net, you may have just created five seconds of separation for that scoring chance. If you don’t finish it and you curl and he doesn’t get stuck on the wall, he’s then on the other side of you and he’s boxing you out as you go to the net.
When you’re carrying the puck, to be able to lean on a guy, you watch (NTDP Under-17 Team forward) Alex Turcotte, how he leans on a guy, he gets inside a guy, reverse-checks a guy, all hugely important when you’re talking about puck possession and where the game’s going, you need some abrasiveness when you have the puck.
USA Hockey: What do you want a player working on to develop puck possession skills?
Moore: They have to, at the earliest age possible, learn how to handle the puck without looking at it. Obviously more difficult when they have a cage on and stuff, but I think there isn’t enough of a premium put on communicating to the kids and stopping them when they’re in the habit of looking down at the puck. You cannot play at the next level looking at the puck. You have to be able to handle the puck and skate, seeing the ice without looking at the puck. That, in my opinion, should be the biggest focus, even at a youth level. It’s got to be engrained, and that goes into when the kids go home, stickhandling and reps and having a stick in their hands and a puck – the better off they’ll be when they get on the ice for handling the puck without looking at it.