Not all shots in hockey are created equal – nor are all shot-takers.
It takes years of practice to gain the skills necessary to shoot and score at a high level, and many of those skills are prime for development at the 12U age level.
Kenny Rausch, the youth ice hockey director for USA Hockey, has some tips on how players at that level can improve their shooting and scoring today – and more importantly, how that improvement can translate into better odds of success down the road.
Catch and release
One point of emphasis Rausch returned to throughout the conversation was how important it is to under-handle the puck. Stickhandling for the sake of stickhandling won’t get you far as you get older. Learning to shoot quickly will.
“Do they catch and shoot quickly or do they dust it off a few times – because that doesn’t translate as you get older,” Rausch said. “If you want to score goals, it has to be one-touch or two-touch with the puck. Two-touch is basically you’re receiving the pass, maybe stop it with your stick or skate, and then the next touch is the shot.”
He says 12U skaters might be able to get away with scoring off slower-developing shots, but the habit will catch up to them at 14U and beyond.
“12U kids are starting to be able to comprehend more. They can understand why you want to do this,” Rausch said. “If you start a habit early, it’s going to follow you as you get older. We see it at older camps. If they have bad habits at an older age, it’s tough to break them.”
Look and be deceiving
In terms of shot delivery, there are two keys to scoring against top goalies, Rausch says.
“The first is being able to shoot with your eyes up – not just putting your head down and hoping,” Rausch said. “The second is being able to change the angle and release of where you are shooting from.”
Rausch points to prolific 21-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs scorer Auston Matthews, who had 40 goals as an NHL rookie in 2016-17, as an example of a player who does both things extremely well. Few players can match Matthews’ skill, but they can learn from his technique.
“That can be deceptive for defenders trying to block shots or goalies trying to make saves,” Rausch says. “It’s important for a player to understand at an early age how to change the relationship of the puck and where it’s going.”
Snap don’t slap
Rausch played at Boston University in the early-to-mid-1990s, and the game he remembers as a young player is much different than the one today.
“When we were growing up, we saw 70-foot slap shots going in,” Rausch said. “Goalies were smaller and there was different equipment. But it’s a dying art, and young kids really aren’t strong enough to properly take a slap shot anyway.”
So Rausch says the focus on shot selection should be on wrist shots and snap shots. He cites a telling stat: Over the last five years in the NHL, slap shots account for fewer than 7 percent of all goals.
“Unless you’re Alex Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos, you’re better off with a snap shot,” Rausch said. “At 12U, I would stay away from slap shots. Even when you take a one-timer, it’s just about being strong with the bottom hand. That’s a key part of being a goal scorer is having a strong bottom hand. And you absolutely want to be moving your feet as you are shooting.”
Find the royal road
The best scoring chances come not just from prime areas on the ice but from moving the puck – either via skating or passing – across the center of the ice below the tops of the circles. That imaginary center line, called the royal road, helps unlock a lot of scoring keys, Rausch says.
“If you can make the puck cross the crease, the royal road, from low to high or high to low, chances of scoring go up 60-70 percent,” Rausch said. “The overall theme is to learn the royal road and learn the value of underhandling and goal-scoring will go up dramatically.”
And, of course: practice, practice, practice.
“Shoot a lot,” Rausch said. “In order to score, you want to shoot.”