The majority of the game – at any level – is played in small spaces. Along the boards, in the corners, in front of the net, on the breakout – it’s all in tight areas with limited time and space.
Nashville Predators forward Craig Smith knows that area well. The Wisconsin native has become a connoisseur of small spaces. Now in his seventh season with the Predators, recently hitting the 500-NHL game and 250-point markers, Smith continues to use that knowledge to hunt the puck and generate offense.
“It’s like the little things in life, all those little things matter,” said Smith, who spent three years developing with the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks before starring for the University of Wisconsin. “One of the key points in today’s game is being able to manage the small space – those little areas that add up.
“Those tight spaces are huge in the game today. If you don’t learn them when you’re younger, it’s tough to teach as you get older.”
It’s especially important to learn at 10U, when kids are entering the Golden Age of Skill Development.
Here are Smith’s tips for learning to navigate small areas.
At 10U, players should be incorporating hockey sense into their game. Smith says that awareness and “hockey smarts” is a big part of what can help in those tight spaces.
“It’s a lot of body awareness; knowing where you are,” he said. “It’s not just getting in it and winning the battle. It’s also knowing, when you get the puck, how are you going to get away? What are you going to do next? You want to always be thinking one, two, three steps ahead of the play, even when you’re in the heat of the battle.”
Smith says 10U players will become better, quicker decision-makers and develop more spatial awareness with small-area games.
Stick work and body positioning
Stick work and body positioning are key skills to winning corner battles.
“One of the best guys I’ve seen do it is [San Jose Sharks captain and two-time U.S. Olympian] Joe Pavelski,” said Smith. “When he’s in corners, his stick checks in the battle will get him a foot or two of space with the puck, and I think that’s a huge advantage.”
Smith said working on stick work and body positioning in tight spaces is easy and can be fun and competitive.
“Playing one-on-one with a buddy, where basically you leave the puck in the middle of your skates and you battle for possession,” he said. “Basically you have to keep his stick away from the puck. Just work on small stuff like that. It builds memory and how to do it and how it feels. Eventually you’ll be better and better at it.”
Practice makes perfect
Smith’s final bit of advice to master puck possession in tight spaces is a simple one:
“You have to put in the work,” said Smith. “If you don’t practice those battles, those puck-possession drills and skating in and out of those tight spaces, if you don’t get the reps in and you don’t see it, then you’re not going to be able to see it when you’re in a game situation.”
Repetition is the best way a 10U player is going to learn and retain all aspects of the game. It’s a big part of what small-area hockey promotes, providing more reps, more decision-making opportunities and, as a result, more efficient skill development. And the more times a player can work on his or her game in the small areas, the better they can become in those crucial sequences as they move up the ranks.
Plus they’ll be getting more puck touches, which always equals more development, more engagement and more fun.