Study the NHL before prioritizing your offseason training
Posted by Dean Holden at April 21st, 2013
by Jack Blatherwick, 16 April 2013
Strength-conditioning gurus must not have seen a Chicago Blackhawks game in person or noticed the dramatic difference in the Minnesota Wild from last year to this. It is not simply a matter of muscle mass. The reasons the Wild are a legitimate playoff contender now and the Blackhawks are the best team in the NHL are obvious: speed, agility, skill and puck protection.
Puck protection? The Blackhawks play keepaway, individually and collectively, like the old Soviet teams did for decades. They pass brilliantly and receive passes as if it’s simple. It’s not. They incorporate their defensemen on practically every offensive play instead of looking only north and dumping the puck deep. Their forwards routinely escape: stop quickly, spin out, turn and find the D coming up quickly to be part of the rush. This makes them much harder to defend, because they control the puck twice as much as their opponents.
The Wild have become a much better team, partly because newly arrived forwards have added passionate, non-stop hustle, as well as stick skills and puck protection. But another huge change is that they now have defensemen who initiate most rushes with direct passes to the sticks of forwards, so they don’t have to wait on the boards as the puck is rung around to them. Three Wild forwards and the second flow of D stepping up make their attack much more potent than it was a year ago.
But I do not write to describe a winning strategy in the NHL. Heck, when the playoffs start and the officials stop calling penalties, perhaps the big tough teams will knock out the pint-sized, skillful geniuses. That’s the way the old guard wants it. “Let the players decide in the playoffs; don’t call penalties.” So team defense gains two more players as the refs with orange bands on their sweaters join the effort to stop all that artistic speed and skill.
This is not about a team strategy, but individual development. My advice to every young player is to study the skillful, fast players because you’ll learn what needs to be done in the offseason to advance in hockey. It doesn’t take size and football strength.
Notice the dominant smaller players in the league and the size of their paychecks. It is not easy to dance through traffic with magic hands like Patrick Kane, or for defensemen to spin on a dime, avoid the forecheck, control the puck and make a great outlet pass like Ryan Suter, Nick Leddy or Jared Spurgeon. It takes years, so these difficult skills should be your highest priorities for the summer – every summer until you hang up the skates for good.
There is a skill that doesn’t take years. Puck protection will set you apart right away if you work on it individually and play keepaway with a partner. Watch closely, and you’ll see that getting body position and protecting the puck is one of the trademarks of every great NHL player, and it is a skill that could dominate at lower levels because it is the easiest to acquire. But at every level below the NHL, this skill is rarely seen.
Michael Nylander, a star for the New York Rangers a few years ago, believes that part of the problem at minor levels is that coaches are always shouting, “Move the puck.” He learned a career-building lesson from his PeeWee coach in Sweden to protect the puck and hold it until he had a good play in mind.
It’s interesting that the Blackhawks, the team that “moves the puck” better than the rest of the NHL, is also the team which holds (protects) the puck better than others. Keepaway. It’s an easy skill to master, but you’ll have to practice and get good at it in the offseason because coaches aren’t promoting it in the winter.
One last thought from watching Chicago play with speed and agility: Strength training is important, but not for the reasons it’s important in football – throwing bodies around.
For young hockey players who want to advance to higher levels, the most valuable strength is that which promotes skating speed and agility. Therefore, your offseason training should include many creative ways to combine explosiveness (sprinting and jumping) with strength – all in the same workout. Much of that strength can be gained outside the weightroom, and you don’t need elaborate facilities, just sand bags for weighted jumps, dumbbells for versatile strength training, and a good place for short accelerations (sprints, hills and sleds).