The fundamental skill of passing the puck effectively, with purpose, and also with pace, is a lost art in hockey.
Being in my third season of my post-playing career, I have seen it way too often, from numerous vantage points. As a scout, an advisor, a coach, a skills coach, you name it.
It starts in minor hockey.
But before we get in to that, why is it that so many coaches want to dissect their systems before looking at the essential skills amongst those systems? Why is it that skills coaches in today’s game want players to be able to flip pucks over obstacles, while those same players some of the time, can not consistently catch a pass on their backhands?
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No system or set play in the world will ever work without players being able to give or receive a pass effortlessly and with control.
X’s and O’s will only take you so far
Being the owner/founder of the hockey development company CrossIce Developments, we get approached by minor hockey teams as far down as Atom. When we initially consult with the coach, it’s like clock work.
“We can’t break the puck out” is the phrase I hear over and over. Another frequent issue is zone entries.
I proceed to ask the coach if they have honestly worked on developing their passing skills, and broke it down by positions (splitting up the forwards and defence) to work on situational passing. Generally, the answer is ‘no.’
X’s and O’s only go so far if the fundamental skill of passing is limited.
Even at the Junior A level where I presently coach, I see players from teams all over struggle with passing the puck. I am a firm believer in the fact that the habit of gathering information before a player receives the puck, or arrives at the puck, will make the pass much easier. It can be argued that being good at passing is a mental skill, or a choice. While valid, it is also a technical skill that must be developed.
The good news is with passing drills there are so many other aspects that can be taught to players. Proper passing angles, coming underneath pucks, timing, and spacing are just a few of them. We all talk about that illusive hockey sense skill that I believe can be taught.
A good start is working on passing.
Passing is not only the most important skill in hockey other than skating, it is a great teacher of decision making, execution, communication, and so much more. Players need to recognize what way the passing receiver shoots, times the pass, executes proper puck skills to make sure the pass arrives with purpose, etc. I guarantee you that if your team could pass more efficiently and with more confidence, your breakout would improve immediately.
Start with the basics
Before you get into systems or positioning, start with the basics. Teach your players to not pass the puck by reaching out in front of them. Load that puck and pass it crisp. When they receive a pass, the big cushioning of a pass that is often taught, is actually partially false believe it or not. Instead, allow the puck to travel to you. The puck will arrive where you want it to a lot faster than it will with your stick pulling it back. Mirror the puck with your blade, yes, but allow the puck to travel to the spot you want it, before you catch it.
How fast players can handle a puck and get it to their forehands so they can make a good pass, is crucial. Work on getting a pass on their backhands, moving it to their forehands, and passing. Getting passes in their skates. Picking up pucks off the boards and getting it to their forehands. If a player has to stickhandle it eight times before passing, options are closed and time and space is fading rapidly.
As we all know, passes in a game are by no means all perfect. Work on players adapting, and eliminating or minimizing these hurdles that will work against the team’s passing. How often are these areas worked on? Ask yourself that honestly.
Part of the battle of effective passing after learning the fundamentals, is decision making. Are players analyzing options before they get the puck, so their passes can be quicker? Are players getting to pucks fast, so they have more time when they get the puck? Are players away from the puck putting in the work to make sure they are in a good spot, and good position to receive the puck? If options are too late, the puck is not moving north, meaning we are not getting to the offensive zone. Transition speed is 90% on the players away from the puck!
Make passing a priority
I challenge coaches to make passing a priority in practices. Break it down. Develop it. Challenge players to pass pucks under stress, or after receiving the puck in a poor spot. Challenge players to work away from the puck, present targets, and communicate.
When we focus more on developing these skills and improving players’ passing, we are checking a crucial box off for our players to be able to make the jump up to the next level, which should be every coach’s goal as far as I am concerned.
If players can’t execute fundamentals at a high pace, that jump will be difficult. If players can’t execute the fundamental skill of passing, coaches, your breakouts and zone entries will always struggle — no matter how cute the play you have drawn up is, or how many times you practice it.