Particularly over the past decade, so much of hockey’s evolution, from player development to advanced statistics, has focused on puck possession. Sensibly, USA Hockey’s American Development Model is increasing puck touches for young players, while data sets are crunching numbers on the most effective puck possession.
But considering that a single player, even the very best single player in a given game, is only possessing the puck for a fraction of that game, transition plays a vital role as a matter of generating offense and developing in the sport.
The more quickly a player and his teammates can respond, and the extent to which they can do so in concert, the more quickly that team can change the game in its favor.
“To me, you need to try to think ahead,” said David Quinn, head coach of the Boston University men’s hockey team. “If there’s a scrum or a battle, you have to be in position to do one of two things: play good defense if you lose it or be ready to transition to offense if you win it. The alert player knows that. He’s not staring at the puck, he’s taking inventory of the people around him, which will help him make a decision when the battle is won or lost.”
The questions become: Are you ready to transition immediately? Are you able to make yourself available, physically and mentally, to turn the game in the other direction? Are you ready to be a key cog in the mechanism that leads to offense?
As players enter their teen years, they become more capable of answering those questions on the ice.
“Transition is the ability to go from defense to offense in a hurry,” said Quinn, the Minnesota North Stars’ first pick in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft. “Unequivocally, that’s through puck movement. And the only way to move pucks is for guys to be ready to think quickly. It’s getting the puck back and moving it while the guys without it are moving as well.”
Often, players are simply waiting to charge up the ice once their team takes possession, but hockey isn’t a series of set plays, and transition isn’t about flipping a switch.
In Quinn’s eyes, it’s just as likely to be about defense.
“Transition is, without question, tied to defense,” he says. “The hardest part as a coach is to get players to understand they’re connected. Transition is so connected to defense. The other team has the puck and they’re anticipating creating some offense. All of sudden, you force a turnover. That’s where you can strike and create offense. Sometimes, if you’re in a good position, you don’t have to do much. The other team is going to get impatient and try to force a play, and they’ll give you the puck. If you can have good gaps and good sticks and create a turnover … now, boom.”
And by the time your team has it, you should already have prepared to help your team transition to offense.
“When that puck is turned over, no matter where you are on the ice, yes, the guy who has the puck has to play fast, but the other guys have to play fast, too,” said Quinn. “They have to give him options. Too often, people are out there and they don’t think they have a responsibility because they happen to be 70 feet away from the puck. You have a responsibility every second you’re out there. You have to put yourself in a position to demand the puck. How quickly do you go from defensive mode to offensive mode?”
With each quick, clean pass a team can make after the puck changes hands, the operation becomes more difficult to defend. For the puck carrier, Quinn can boil it down to three quick steps.
“When you get a puck, take three hard strides and, as you’re skating, you’re going to be able to make decisions – maybe you could slow down, for instance, or head-man it,” he said. “But you have to make hockey decisions. Don’t stickhandle it. Get it and move. If you don’t have an opportunity, keep going. It’s not football. It’s in motion, a fluid game. It’s hard to tell people what to do, but the thing you can tell them is to take three strides and find the open man. And if you should keep skating, keep skating. If someone’s open, give it to him.”
One way to begin incorporating some of these good habits is to play small-area games, which help to force quicker decisions and execution while in traffic.
“You get so many opportunities in the small-area games, and there’s a lot of transition within them,” said Quinn. “It’s a shorter version of [the game], but you have to think quicker. I would bet that in 95 percent of our practices we play one of those games.”
Depending on a player’s aspirations, the term “transition” may also take on the meaning of what hockey looks like at the next level – whether that’s moving up to a top line on a team or progressing toward even bigger dreams. And even though very few players make it to the NHL as one-dimensional players, a teen’s hockey skill set is going to be significantly different.
“I don’t know that we’re looking for two-way players, because, at that age, it’s hard to find one,” says Quinn. “I think you’re more looking for attitude, coachability. Are they willing to learn? Are they respectful? And I think sometimes people confuse what coachability is. It’s not saying, ‘Yes, sir.’ It’s when you’re being taught something you can go out and execute it. To me, that’s a huge component of moving up the hockey ladder.”
Being able to ramp up your transition game just might be a key to getting there.