Watch a replay of an NHL game from a generation ago and you are likely to find a whole lot of dumping the puck and an equal amount of chasing the puck.
Watch a game this season and you’re likely to find much less of the old “dump and chase” strategy for a good reason: advanced analytics and simple logic have arrived at the same conclusion – it’s a bad idea to give up the puck.
An increased emphasis on puck possession has changed the mindset of teams on offense. Likewise, a team on defense that is no longer merely gifted the puck by an opponent dumping it in must learn a new art: how to steal the puck back.
Joe Bonnett, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, has tips on how to create turnovers at the 14U level – something he calls “a fabulous topic for where we’re at and something that needs to get out to our coaches and players.”
What makes a player good at stealing the puck? Well, the first thing is wanting to steal the puck and having the anticipation skills to pull it off.
“A good puck stealer has unbelievable hockey sense and awareness of where the puck is going and ability to get there first,” said Bonnett, a former college hockey coach and player.
Some of that comes from changing priorities – from trying to “knock someone’s head off their shoulders” to the new goal of creating a turnover.
“You want to take away time and space, take away passing lanes, play body on body, and take away the puck,” Bonnett said. “Playing in a puck possession environment, which we are, the more players you have that can do what I just said are going to be the studs.”
Still, trying to steal pucks away is what Bonnett calls a “new skill that maybe just came on the horizon for us,” and therefore requires a shift in mindset.
Some of what they do is subtle. Some of it is stick work, but it’s almost always with a mentality of going and getting the puck.
“The number one thing is mindset. Being a good puck stealer like Hossa and Datsyuk made them unbelievable teammates and hockey players,” Bonnett said. “As youth hockey coaches, our job is to prepare for the game of tomorrow.”
Body checks can fire up a crowd, but being good at cutting off opponents by taking proper angles is a more important trait, even if body checking is allowed at 14U/16U.
“It is so important to have angling techniques and fundamentals down,” Bonnett said. “Angling is really the precursor to body checking, but really it’s the number one skill to stealing the puck.”
Taking good angles has a number of desired effects that lead to turnovers.
“You’re taking away time and space, forcing opponents to areas where they feel uncomfortable and taking away passing lanes,” Bonnett said. “It allows you to create puck pressure with the stick while making the opponent uncomfortable in spaces.”
Bonnett stresses that a good puck thief will anticipate a play without guessing and putting their team in a vulnerable defensive position.
“Through angling and pursuit, you’re putting them in uncomfortable positions. When they are uncomfortable, then you make your move,” he said. “You want to be patient with good technique. When I think of stealing the puck, it doesn’t work if you’re out of control. You want to hunt the puck, but you have to be patient.”
When that moment comes, having stick strength and stick skills are critical.
“Having the ability to hit the puck out of the air, having a sneaky quick stick, being able to stick-check and stick lift an opponent – those are keys,” Bonnett said. “Have good stick strength through your core and forearms. You want to be sure your stick has the ability to stay in the battle. You have to angle and anticipate, but if you don’t have a strong stick you won’t have the last stick in the battle.”
And after you steal the puck? Go, go, go.
“What is a good system? Play, turn, make a play, never give the puck away,” Bonnett said. “Treat the puck like a piece of gold. We’re going to score goals if we have the puck. Don’t give it away. Puck protect. Steal and go.”