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P: Puck Possession

Here's a question we are sometimes asked: "When watching hockey on TV, the announcers often discuss the value of 'puck possession.' Why is puck possession so valuable?"

Here's a discussion of why:

In football, Vince Lombardi emphasized ball control as a path to victory. Why? Because if his team had the ball, the other team couldn’t score.

This may sound overly simplistic, but it rings true in football. Substitute a puck for the ball and the same truism applies to hockey. Teams that own the puck not only gain a puck-possession time advantage, they’re also more likely to score, forge a territorial advantage and prevent goals.

Over the last 20 years, hockey has undergone an identity transformation. Historically, North American hockey emphasized physical size advantages. For years, hockey teams were built with big players who executed an aggressive forecheck off a dump-and-chase mindset. They were encouraged to get the puck deep and finish checks.

There’s still a place for this strategy and its “get-the-puck-deep” cousin, but it’s a lesser place. Today it’s reserved more for game-management scenarios (e.g., the end of a long shift or when the puck carrier is overwhelmingly outnumbered at the offensive blue line).

One reason dump-and-chase has diminished is the increased creative opportunity for offensive players in today’s game (less hooking, holding and obstruction). Another is that teams have simply become more effective as defenders in terms of getting to the dump-ins, gaining possession and turning them into a transition attacks in the other direction.

Today, an unconditional mindset of dump-and-chase is detrimental to the team game, and more specifically, it’s detrimental to the individual skill development of the player. The hockey culture has changed, especially with the way new defensemen are taught to retrieve the puck, skate and initiate the breakout. Winning teams that have success today are built around keeping the puck – puck possession – rather than giving it away and chasing it.

Look at the Tampa Bay Lightning, Detroit Red Wings or Chicago Blackhawks. Players like Tyler Johnson, Pavel Datsyuk and Patrick Kane are catalysts for the style of their team. These are not physically big players, but they are players who can hold onto the puck, think, see and distribute it appropriately. The same goes for the NCAA. Teams that have enjoyed sustained success over the last 10 years are teams like St. Cloud State, Boston College, Minnesota and Michigan – teams that promote puck possession. These teams are difficult to play against because of their desire to own the puck and keep it away from their opponents.

Puck possession is positive for a team because it allows creativity for the players. Confidence rises within your team when you have the puck. Teams with the puck have the initiative; they dictate the pace. Teams with the puck have the opportunity to attack. Teams with the puck have the ability to play collectively as five-player units. Teams that play as five-player units are tough to defend against.

On the flip side, when a team does not have the puck, frustration rises within the team, which leads to bad penalties and negative thoughts. They are chasing the game, and teams without the puck fatigue mentally if they have to chase the puck constantly. Moving from the philosophical to the actual, the youth team that I coach cheers when the opponent dumps the puck. They know it’s another opportunity to go on the offensive and attack.

So my question is, if it’s so hard to get the puck, why would you give it away?

U.S. Olympian Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild discussed it last fall.

“It’s a possession game,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I read a study that showed shots generated off carrying the puck in as opposed to dumping it in, and it’s like 4-to-1. It’s not even close. I just found it so interesting because everyone’s like, ‘forecheck, forecheck, forecheck.’

“I get it, but when you dump the puck, you have to get it back. All you’re doing is giving the puck away. I mean, it’s so hard to get it, why would you give it away?”

The analytics support puck possession. Statistics prove that teams that skate the puck into the offensive zone generate more scoring chances than teams that dump the puck in. At the 2013 Memorial Cup, the London Knights had 132 skate-ins generating 43 scoring chances. Compare that to the 11 scoring chances they generated on the 93 dump-ins.  

The final factor for me is the fun factor. As a longtime coach, it’s always more fun and meaningful to encourage kids to “make plays” with the puck. I want to develop their skills and help them reach their full potential. Dumping the puck is a no-skill maneuver that gives all the fun to the opponent.

In 8U hockey, we've heard a popular mantra that goes like this: “Tight turn, make a play, never give the puck away.” It’s a great mindset for coaches to instill in players at any age level.