Coaching the elements of puck protection
Posted by Dean Holden at November 10th, 2012
By Ted Belisle, Bemidji State University
This week’s guest writer is Ted Belisle, assistant coach at Bemidji State University. Ted played at BSU from 1997-2001 (captain in 2001) then worked in the USHL for two years before joining his alma mater as an assistant coach in 2007. He is also the BSU recruiting coordinator.
During the Edmonton Oilers’ 2006 run to the Stanley Cup, a question was posed to then-head coach Craig McTavish about his definition of the perfect player. His answer was, “My definition of the perfect player is one whom the play never dies with….” His answer made so much sense to me and is a great mindset leading into the topic of teaching puck protection.
When I watch youth and high school players doing puck protection drills during practice, the most popular drill I see is a player with the puck standing on a faceoff dot, fending off an opposing player by standing still. While the drill does allow a player to learn how to fend off a defender, it ignores the single most important element of puck protection – creating time and space! There are more elements of puck protection that a player must understand in order to become one of those players “whom the play never dies with.”
To teach puck protection properly, we must understand the main reason as to why we protect the puck! A player protects the puck to create enough time and space from the defender in order to make the next play. In order to create time and space, I believe that there are five elements of puck protection that enable a player to become a very good puck protector.
1. Teaching the “puck safe zone”
The first element that must be taught is recognition of the “puck safe zone.” My definition of the puck safe zone is: any area in which the defender cannot reach the puck!
A great puck protector always understands that the odds of losing possession of the puck increase substantially when the puck is fronted or exposed to the reach of the defender’s stick.
The “puck safe zone” changes constantly, depending on body position, reach of the defender and placement of the puck. Being able to handle the puck quickly into the safe zone (away from the defender’s reach) will help maintain puck possession and the ability to make the next play.
A phrase I use a lot to our players is, “Don’t front the puck.” When a player fronts the puck, they are immediately exposing themselves and are at greater risk of losing possession of the puck within the reach of the defender.
2. How to create a body shield
With the days of “hitting and pinning” behind us, the puck carrier has more ability to maintain a safe zone that creates more possession time. The most efficient way to create a safe zone is to create a “body shield” between you and the defender.
Creating the “body shield” is quite simply putting your body between the defender and the puck. The easiest way to create a body shield is to pivot your backside into the defender. This will prevent the defender from being able to enter the player’s safe zone. The puck possessor has now created separation from the defender and should be able to keep their head up and look for the next play.
3. Fending off the defender
After creating a “puck safe zone” with a “body shield,” we must be able to prevent the defender from gaining access to the “puck safe zone.” The puck carrier must learn the element of how to fend off a defender’s attempt to gain possession of our puck.
The puck protector can fend off a defender by using their body to prevent access of the defenders stick into the “puck safe zone.” Focus on teaching the player how to use their own arms and legs to fend off advances by the defender. It is important to create this habit in a player for successful puck protection.
In order for the puck protector to successfully use arms and legs to fend of defenders, it is very important to teach players the skill of handling the puck with one hand. As coaches, we must incorporate drills in which a player handles the puck while using only their top hand or bottom hand.
4. Leveraging the wall
There are times when defenders still find a way to get an opposing player pinned or pinched along the boards. To develop an excellent puck protector, we must teach them how to use the wall (boards) to their advantage. We do this by using the wall as leverage.
The best way to use the wall as leverage is by using both of your hands to push off the wall. This is very much like a push-up or a bench press motion. While we push away from the wall we must also simultaneously push our backside into the defender to create more time and space from the wall to make the next play. By leveraging the wall, we can create enough time and space along the wall to make the next play and keep possession of the puck.
I believe the “cut-back” is the most important element of puck protection we can teach. The “cut-back” incorporates using legs and speed to help create more time and space in order to make the next play. The use of “cut-backs” enables the puck protector to create ice behind them to escape into by turning away from the defender while not fronting the puck. “Cut-backs” use misdirection by quickly utilizing a “C” cut in the ice to change direction away from the defender to create more time and space.
To successfully use the “cut-back,” we must teach the proper elements. The puck carrier must use deception in order to get the opposing player committed to defending a certain area. I call this “selling the cutback.”
We must bait the defender into thinking we are attacking the ice in a certain direction. We accomplish this by “staying busy” and attacking an area while keeping the puck in the safe zone, using our body as a shield and fending off the defender’s advances. By attacking a certain area, we are forcing the defender to protect the area that we are skating into. As such, we have sold the defender on protecting that area.
When the defender commits to that area, we have created ice behind us to cut-back into. When the puck protector decides to cut-back, it is very important to teach them to stay busy and attack the other direction.
While attacking the other direction, they have created enough time and space to make the next play while continuing to use the other elements to maintain the possession of the puck. A player can use many “cut-backs” in a single possession of the puck until the next play is available.
The best way to teach these habits is by using resistance drills with space to roam. Allow your players to use these habits all together while moving their feet, thus creating more time and space.
You can use one-on-one drills, but some of the best ways to teach puck possession is by creating outnumbered situations. For example have a 1vs2 drill in a corner or a 2vs3 drill low, in which there are more defenders than puck protectors. These drills isolate the emphasis on puck protection and force the puck carrier to have tough odds in maintaining possession of the puck.