The puck moves from right to left, then left to right in the offensive zone. Players are trying to be patient, but the reception from the crowd is anything but that. “Shoooooot,” the crowd bellows.
Really, what are these players waiting for?
Well, actually, it could be a lot of things. It could be a better angle. It could be a screen. Or it could be that they are actually missing opportunities right in front of them and the frustrated patrons are correct.
Whatever the case, shot selection is a huge part of scoring in hockey, particularly at the 14U and 16U levels. It’s something that can be worked on, and should be worked on, says Mike MacMillan, USA Hockey’s national coach-in-chief – a role that makes MacMillan one of the organization’s leading coach educators.
Here are a few of the tips he offers:
One of the biggest problems when it comes to shot selection is a simple one: Players often lack awareness of where they are in relation to the net because they aren’t playing with their heads up. They go to unload the puck and find out they don’t have much to look at.
“A lot of players have their heads down and then shoot and it’s too late,” MacMillan said. “They aren’t trying to shoot into a goalie’s chest, but that’s what happens. I think they have to learn to see other options.”
The way to eliminate that problem – at least the second time? Teaching.
“As coaches, we need to put them in those situations and emphasize attacking with their heads up so they have a better understanding of where the net is, which is going to help with shot selection,” MacMillan said.
Go small to win big
To do that, it’s all about small-area games and innovative concepts. MacMillan, who is also an assistant coach at Hamline (Minn.) University, teaches some of the same things at both the youth and college levels.
“Some of the techniques we teach are about small areas, net-front presence, and the necessity of having their heads up more during practice situations during all the drills,” he said. “I just had a conference call this afternoon. We’re putting nets in different places so the athlete has a better understanding of finding where that net is. I think that makes a difference.”
Working on shot selection in practice has various benefits.
“What happens in the small-area games and situational drills is you’re going to take them through those options and raise their IQ as well as working on those shots,” MacMillan said. “That helps put them in situations where they can succeed on gameday. If you’re a righthanded shot coming down right side, you probably don’t have much of a chance to score. So go far side for a rebound or cut to the middle. Stay calm, keep your head up and create a good shot opportunity.”
Goalies have an edge
Scorers have to work particularly hard these days, MacMillan says, because goalies have gained the upper hand.
“Earlier training for goalies and better youth coaching have made a difference,” MacMillan said. “I think it’s made a difference at upper levels for a long time, and now, as the game progresses, we’re seeing more improvment at the youth level. Goalies today are so much better and the equipment is so much better that it becomes harder and harder to score. Knowing where you are on the rink relating to angle – which goes back to awareness at the blue line and keeping their head up – is so important.”
So what does it take to beat today's goalies? Begin with camouflage. Too often, players stop moving, then shoot. A key skill to develop is the ability to shoot in-stride. Another important element is deception, e.g., looking off and then releasing a quick, surprising shot, or changing the angle by pulling the puck a bit tighter or pushing it slightly farther away in preparation to shoot. Using opposing defenders as screens to shoot through can also add a bit of deception.
Want to take it a step farther? Ask goalies what gives them difficulty and incorporate it into your own tactics. Goalies know things. For instance, they know that the "glove hole" (slightly above the crook of their catching-glove elbow) is a difficult spot for them to defend. They also know that most right-hand shooters like to shoot high to the glove side. As a shooter, you should take that knowledge and cross them up. Don't be predictable.
Adapt to the situation
The tricks of where and when to shoot are often predicated on the situation and tendencies of a goalie. For instance, MacMillan’s teams always practice shooting low for the far pad, especially from bad angles, in the hopes of scoring a goal off a rebound instead of an initial shot. Or, if a goalie is in tight in the crease, a player is going to have to spend an extra split-second making sure to get the puck elevated.
“If a goalie comes out, you might have to make a move and make a play,” MacMillan said. “At younger ages, kids might take too long to shoot and then they have nothing when they get to the net.”
MacMillan encourages coaches to create practices that teach scoring and shooting concepts, which are a big part of the USA Hockey curriculum. Players, too, need to put in the time to succeed.
“You hear ‘that guy is a natural goal scorer,’ but then you find out that some elite-level athletes spend so much time honing that skill that people just assume it’s natural,” MacMillan added. “There are tendencies that 14- and 16-year-olds have, and they can be accentuated with practice. You have to put in the time, and everyone can get better at it.”