Skill development is a buzzword of late. When you break down skill development as a whole, you can look at the four major skills: skating, passing, shooting and stickhandling. When we look at skill drills specifically, there are some areas that really can be focused on. I would really like to get you thinking about a part of development that is really never looked at and yet rarely ever taught.
When I first started with pros, I remember running through drills focusing on the skill portion and making a good pass to the player before he got a shot on net. I remember making a bad pass and yet the player was able to dig the puck out of his feet and finish with a good shot. It struck me then that good players not only can catch bad passes, but that is the reality of the game. Pucks bounce, roll, go in your feet or go backhand when you expect forehand or forehand when you expect backhand.
When watching younger players in practice, most times if a pass is not right on the tape, the player continues to skate like another puck will just fall from the sky. Better players that have developed good habits jump on loose pucks or are able to get control of the puck wherever the pass may be.
If you can envision an imaginary bubble around a skater. Anytime a puck is in that area, it is the recipient’s job to be able to find a way to corral the puck. Yes, it is a skill that can be worked on, but more than anything, it is a habit. Making sure a skater finishes the drill as if he or she were in a game.
Consider this: A team is forechecking, a forward has a split second to move the puck to the D and the puck is in his feet. As a fan watching, does it matter to you if the puck isn’t exactly at the target on the D’s tape? No! It is the player’s job to find a way to control and corral the puck. The more the skater has practiced this, the more the player is equipped to be successful in this situation.
Another one of the best skill tips I have received was when Zach Parise was a senior at Shattuck-St. Mary’s. I noticed after every drill, he finished by always putting the puck in the net. Whether it was a line rush or an individual skill drill, he would shoot, follow his shot and make sure the puck finished in the net. Later he told me it is a habit that his father taught him at a young age to always follow your shot. To this day, if you get to watch practice, you would see him do the exact same. It doesn’t matter if his teammate shoots the puck wide off the end wall, he will jump on the loose puck and finish. The same effort always applies whether the goalie is playing the rebound or not. The puck ALWAYS ends up in the back of the net.
That leads me to some of the younger skaters I see. I can count endless times when a skater finishes the drill with a good shot, the puck kicks right out in front and the skater proceeds to skate right by it and finish back in line. It happens ALL THE TIME. Again, whether the goalie even moves with you on the rebound, follow the shot and put it in. Jump on the rebound like a game. To follow your shot up takes an extra split-second and a little extra effort, but it is the habit that is being developed.
As much as I love hockey and the fantastic tape-to-tape goals, the reality is that most of the game is made up of broken plays. Goals go off of shin pads, skates or breezers. Pucks roll and bounce. This IS a part of skill development. It is a skill to be able to knock the puck out of the air. For elite players, it isn’t an accident. The elite players have better skill because they have created better practice habits. They don’t complain about bad passes, they just find a way to get the job done.
Andy Ness is the head skating and skill coach for the Minnesota Wild. He has also been an assistant skating instructor for the New Jersey Devils, the University of Minnesota men’s and women’s hockey teams and the U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey Team.