By Jeff Ulmer; father, husband, & hockey player (@JeffUlmer44)
Having played in every top league in the World and having been coached by over 30 professional coaches along the way, taking personal experiences and conversations with some bright minds in hockey, I’ve decided to write down some good tips for coaches (and players) to help with how hockey has evolved and where it is headed.
By keeping some of these tips in mind it will help you as a coach/player to break some old habits and have you/your players think quicker/smarter in important situations. By no means is it a Hockey Bible, but as the years go by and the game slows down a bit in my mind, these are some things that have helped me along the way and I hope they can help others.
As I have played my career as a forward, I will have mostly tips for centremen/wingers but include a few for defensemen as well. Here is the first installment of my 10 ProTips.
Rarely does a linesman or referee drop the puck correctly. For the most part as a centre, you can eliminate the half of the face-off furthest from the referee. Concentrate on your footing being strong, your bottom hand low and strong and getting the jump on your opponent. Watch the bottom of the referee’s hand (instead of the puck) and time your swipe from there. His wrist will twitch as he raises it in the dropping motion. Almost all centres are stronger on their backhand, including myself, so I try to win both sides on my backhand.
***A tip passed on from Adam Oates at one point that I had heard and stuck with me*** On your forehand side you may need to ask the linesman (politely) to move his foot, if he can, so your foot closest to him has enough leverage to support your weight on the drop.
As a winger, or a centre playing behind the net in the defensive/offensive zone, or even a defenceman trying to shield the puck from a forechecking forward, it is important to be far enough from the boards that you can still turn either way.
Obviously, you have to be aware of who is coming to hit you or take the puck from you, but creating space between yourself and the boards allows you to protect the puck more efficiently.
A good example is when a defenceman rims the puck behind the opposing net to a forward. Catching the puck with one hand while using your other arm to ward off the defenceman while staying off of the wall enables you to gain an extra second to look where teammates or opponents are and decide your play.
Sidney Crosby is the best example of this. Being slightly bow-legged and being able to turn his skates almost 90 degrees while remaining at nearly full speed and low to the ice also makes him almost impossible (unfair) to defend. Stick length (forwards usually will have slightly shorter sticks) enables forwards to do this more effectively as they are able to stickhandle in front of themselves facing the boards, or protect the puck with their stick not reaching outside of the width of their leg-span. (A stick-length tip that Theo Fleury mentioned to me that has stuck with me for 17 years).
One definite exception to the stick-length rule is Mats Zuccarello. I had the chance to play with him in Sweden and still have no idea how he is able to control his stick so well with it being taller than he is…Having a wide base will obviously make you more difficult to knock off the puck, so as the puck is coming around the wall, or upon receiving a pass, create a wide base to make yourself difficult to push off of the puck.
If you are against the boards with your feet close together, you are an easy target. On the same team that had Zuccarello (and Victor Hedman) in Sweden, playing 3 on 3 against Peter Forsberg (he joined us in a comeback attempt for a month or so) made me appreciate having a lower base (Forsberg was built like a bull) and made me cut a bit off of the length off of my stick. He helped with advice to use as short of a stick that I could still shoot as hard with, and anything he said I was eager to try. Truly a great guy and an unbelievable talent. Even on one foot in his comeback attempt.
3. Odd-Man Rushes:
As a forward, my eyes light up on a 2-on-1 or even sometimes on a clear 3-on-2. A defenceman that stays just outside the line of the post (slightly farther away from the puck carrier) and doesn’t allow a pass while sliding with his stick extended once he is at the hash-marks has played the 2-on-1 rush effectively. He has eliminated “beware of the back-door pass” from the goalie’s mind and allowed him to focus solely on the shooter.
However, most odd-man rushes aren’t from a stopped position as they are in practice and most defenceman aren’t Nicklas Lidstrom. The puck carrier should be wary of the defenceman’s stick and time their pass or shot with the point at which he knows the defenceman will make his lunge for the puck. Being able to get as close to the middle of the ice as possible is a huge factor. This brings “backhand deke” into the goalie’s head as well as improving the odds to score on a shot without the pass.
Most younger players will not match their speed with the back-checker and will skate themselves into a corner to just get a shot on goal. “Get to the middle” is a good thought to have on a 2-on-1, and if that brings the defenceman’s stick to you earlier, then make an early pass. Most goalies won’t be perfectly set to face the shooter on a hard, early pass.
4. Puck Receiving:
How you receive a pass, unless it’s into an open net without a defender nearby, will be the difference between getting a quality shot away or having it blocked. On an odd-man rush it is beneficial to be on your shooting foot (my right foot as I am a right-shooter) when you receive the pass. This is more-so for players not playing their off-wings.
Receiving a puck with your weight on your shooting foot eliminates the split-second of shifting your weight to get enough velocity on the shot to score. If on a rush on your off-wing, the ability to one-time the puck is even better. Timing your turn into a one-timer position by noting the speed of the back-checker is crucial.
Hockey in 2017 is so fast and players switch sides so much now, so learning a quick release from both sides is important. It used to be that wingers would prefer to play their off-wing side because they wanted the one-timer upon zone entry, but in my experience it is easier defensively on your strong-side wing and 50% of the time I cross the ice in the neutral zone anyways. Being prepared to receive a pass and get it away as fast as possible on the right foot is something that no coaches teach, but shot timing is as important as shot location.
Goalie equipment is huge. Goalies are big and athletic. To score on a slapshot from anywhere outside the top of the circles without a teammate standing in front of the goalie is tough to do. The ability to one-time a pass gives the shooter an edge by getting the shot off sooner and harder.
Using a stiffer stick (most forwards use about an 85 flex while defenceman are generally a bit stiffer, up to 110 on a standard Easton stick) helps with a one-timer’s velocity, but one-timing with a wrist shot is done easier with a whippier flex. It’s personal preference and a player just has to experiment.
A good thought for a shooter is to “get through quickly”, meaning make your weight transfer early and have your weight on the front side even before you shoot. This increases leverage and allows you to get the most velocity. I like to favour the toe of my blade rather than the heel upon contact and (as in golf with the grass) hit the ice first, before the puck. The ability to shoot while looking at the target is tough to do, so if you have a mental snapshot of where the players were in front of the net as the pass came, you may want to shoot for a teammate’s stick blade or aim for the goalie’s pad at the side where your teammates were to create a rebound opportunity for them.
If on the powerplay, or from a spot that you are trying to score, I like to judge where I will shoot with the speed of the pass. If it is a hard pass I will shoot short-side and if it is a softer pass I will shoot back to the side that the pass came from. This comes from experience in knowing that most goalies are able to track a softer pass much easier, and when playing at a high level they are able to guess where players will tend to shoot. If I am closer to the net and trying to score, then it’s just picking a corner and letting it rip. “Get through early” and hope it hits the water bottle up in the air that was resting in the top shelf…
6. Shrink the Zone:
Playing in North America versus playing on a European or Olympic-sized ice surface is a huge difference. In the NHL, players can step off of the half-wall on the power play, take two strides and create a scoring opportunity. In Europe, due to the extra width of the ice surface, that is an easy save for the goalie, a whistle and probably a line change. Not ideal when on the powerplay.
By playing mostly defence on a power play, I have been able to see a huge difference also in a shot from the blue line versus a shot from closer to the top of the circles. In North America a shot from the blue line with a few bodies sprinkled around the net can create a scoring chance or a direct goal. In European hockey, the player either has to one-time a pass or do his best to shrink the zone and shoot from closer in.
Rarely are goals scored from above the face-off dot or along the boards. It’s just too far from the net. Those positions are for defenceman to give the forwards a passing outlet or for a defenceman to look for a “shot-pass”, meaning shooting with the intention of a forward redirecting the puck to the net.
On the powerplay, it is crucial for a shooter at the top of the zone to get as close to the middle (or at least in line with the face-off dot at which side he is on) and inch as close to the top of the circles as possible without being close enough to the penalty killer that his stick will be in the shooting radius. By being closer to the middle, you bring more traffic that the goalie has to deal with.
Unless you’re Alex Ovechkin and everyone knows your spot on the other side of the dot and you can score anyway. His curve is built for a one-timer, with the toe helping him get the puck up quickly. Not so much for passing, but with a shot like that, I think the Capitals would rather him shoot.
In a conversation with Peter Bondra (at an NHL Alumni event), he mentioned that Ovie just has a knack for one-timing any pass and the Caps’ power play is set up perfectly with the correct-shooting personnel. Their goal is to create a shot within the first 10 seconds and then set up from there. A good idea. Shrinking the zone is not as important in the NHL but for European hockey it is key.
7. Possession Dumps:
“Dump it in!” Coaches (especially North Americans) love to preach it. It got me benched when playing in Russia…but a dump-in for possession is a very effective play. Teaching players to keep the puck away from the opposing goalie, or at least make him skate into a corner to get it (no Trapezoid rule in Europe) is a great way to keep possession. A hard rim on the glass will eventually come to your winger but even better is a cross-corner dump to his forehand or a soft dump to a centre, or even yourself, with speed.
Watching the Sedin brothers mastery at cycles and even dump-ins is an example. Rarely will they ever have to give up possession, unless it’s after a shot attempt. Always knowing which way your teammates shoot and angling your dump-ins and cycles in the offensive (or defensive) zone to be received on the forehand is a tough but important part of hockey. Daniel and Henrik are obviously very skilled and experienced, but also their calmness with the puck is evident. Being able to retrieve a teammate’s dump-in or even your own dump-in can result in the difference between a few minutes of zone time in your team’s end or the opponent’s.
Possibly just as important as a good dump-in is a well-timed dump-in. Knowing when your teammates are about to hit the blue line at full speed and keeping the play onside is important. This comes with experience, but having the inner clock in your head going and knowing when a teammate will arrive at either the blue line or to retrieve your dump-in, as well as the “hockey-moxie” to place a dump on his forehand is important.
8. Scoring Chances:
Hockey has changed. My favourite spots to shoot have had to change with it. Gone are the days of the hard-shooting right-handed winger scoring low on the blocker side from down the wing, like Rick Vaive (a great guy to listen to talk about goal scoring) or Mike Gartner.
Butterfly goalies, and athletic butterfly goalies, that study the opposing shooters’ habits have become the norm. To be a goal scorer you have to think like a goalie and alter your shots accordingly. I used to never shoot high on the blocker side. Now, almost half of my shots are probably directed there and I have had success with it. Short-side has become the best place to shoot.
Goalie equipment is just too big and the goalie’s legs/pads are too long to hit the far side with regularity. If it’s open I will shoot there, or if I am too far out to score and have a teammate driving the net for a rebound, but generally I am shooting where the goalie is. If he thinks I will shoot there, then I’m not about to make a goalie look brilliant.
Most goalies have their weight placed on the short side, against the post. So as he flinches for a shot, he is usually thinking the shooter will shoot for the open side and as he reaches his mammoth equipment over, it has to be absolutely labeled to score a goal. More and more we are seeing the top snipers score on the short-side…check out Patrick Laine’s highlights from this NHL season. For a left-handed example, it’s Evgeni Malkin.
9. Change the Angle:
Ever wonder why most players that shoot in a shoot-out are right-handed? Most goalies catch with their left hand, thus giving us right-handers an advantage in the ability to “change the angle” of a goalie to the blocker side. Lefties also can do it effectively and then shoot blocker side but it is just so much easier as a right-handed player.
A goalie’s glove-hand will move up faster than his blocker-hand (try it yourself in the air). Changing the shooting angle means pulling the toe of your blade in while in your shooting motion, towards yourself and firing a snapshot. It makes the goalie readjust, giving you a slight advantage, which may be the difference. It is a perfect play on a 1 on 1 on a defender and also on a breakaway or shoot-out attempt. By pulling the toe of your stick in you have given yourself a fraction more to shoot at on the blocker side that the goalie hadn’t factored in. Ovechkin, Laine, Stamkos, James Neal and Mike Cammalleri are a few examples of who does this effectively.
Add in a short stick and the ability to shoot from the span between his legs without a defender being able to poke the puck away and you can see why smaller players like Cammalleri score so many goals. Joe Sakic was probably the best at changing the angle and shooting from between his feet with a quick release, before Ovechkin and the others. This shooting motion can easily be taught and is the most effective shot for a quick release that is harder than an ordinary wrist shot.
10. Constant Movement:
When playing on the wing, there is nothing worse than having to cover a mobile defenceman in the defensive zone that never stops moving. You can have the best shot in the league but if you stand on the blue line and stare at the puck, you make it easy on the winger that is covering you. Always being on your edges, giving you the bounce in your step to go either way, and even small movements will allow you to shoot harder, catch a pass on either side of you and jump down into the play or across the blue line.
The defenceman that can be mobile and confuse the winger by bringing him up farther to the blue line is giving his forwards more room to create offense lower in the offensive zone as well. Hockey in 2017 sees the short-side winger sink into the slot to help out more on defence. If he does this then have the defenceman be ready to one-time a puck, shrink the zone and even switch sides with his partner. Truly a winger’s nightmare.