|Hilary Knight, a member of the USA women’s hockey team,|
deflects the puck toward goalie Molly Schaus during a practice
Time to revisit one of my favorite topics -- realistic practices for goalies (and, by extension, the rest of the players). I find that I come back to this topic often, only because I continue to see, year after year, coaches running practices that are nowhere close to reality.
Now, I understand that sometimes coaches will be looking to hone specific skills, and that will require taking some "license" with a drill to address that specific need. But those coaches also need to take care not to accidentally encourage bad goaltending habits (such as telling the goalie to keep the puck moving, instead of tying up the rebound).
Here's my New England Hockey Journal column on the topic. Let me know what you think.
Practice plans, and the concept of living in the real world
Now that the high school season is well under way (I know, I know, most kids have been playing since Labor Day, but that's another column), it's time to revisit practice habits. Bad practice habits. Or, at the very least, unrealistic practice habits.
What this really comes down to, from a goalie's perspective, is shooting drills that don't mirror reality. Long-time readers of this column know how I feel about the typical youth hockey, club hockey, and high school hockey practice, the ones that have the goaltender bombarded by an avalanche of shots. These drills may be great for promoting survival skills, but they won't produce better goaltenders. In fact, I've long believed goaltenders improve in spite of these shooting drills, not because of them.
You can see this at the highest levels of the game. Mike Valley, goalie coach for the Dallas Stars, recently gave a talk – "Practice Shots vs. Game Shots" – during a goaltending symposium in Wisconsin. He wasn't necessarily concerned about the volume of shots, but the drills that create a certain "type" of shot. Namely, drills that funnel players into the slot, on their forehand, with no defensive pressure, allowing them to rip shots at will.
"I would challenge any coach," said Valley. "They say, 'Goaltending equipment has become too big.' They say there's not enough goal scoring.
"But look at how [goalie coaches] study the game, and how we're training. Look at how much that has changed," he said. "Now compare that to how much practices have changed in the last 30 years. We look at how goaltending styles have changed, how everything has evolved. But practices look the same as they did 20 years ago."
The problem with most practices is twofold. We're creating lazy shooters, and terrified goalies. Valley referred to an April, 2015 article by NHL.com correspondent Kevin Woodley, who quoted long-time NHL back-up Jason LaBarbera on the challenges that typical practices present. LaBarbera noted that, in a game, players don't have the same time to make a move, which allows him to play deeper.
"In practice, guys have all day, and you start to get tired as practice goes on," said LaBarbera. "And I found I started to be a little more of a skater, take another step out, just to give myself a better chance to make myself feel a bit better."
"It's hard, because you don't want to get away from who you are and how you want to play in a game. But if you play deep in practice, you are [vulnerable] to a point, especially because coaches are looking at you. You want to make sure you are making saves, and looking like you're playing well."
LaBarbera is absolutely correct. He's not emphasizing "depth" as much as he's talking about stopping pucks, looking good while doing it, and cultivating a self-assured "persona." Bad shooting drills are the antithesis of all three.
This isn't just an NHL problem. It happens at every level. As I write this, I'm sitting in a rink, waiting for my daughter's high school game, watching a youth hockey practice. The "warm up" consisted of players coming right down the center of the ice, sometimes two at a time (each with a puck), winding up and firing away. It's nuts.
"What happens in practice, you're standing there, and you're like, 'OK, I know my game plan, I know how I want to play things, I know the depth,'" said Valley. "Then all of a sudden the guys start coming down the middle and they're just zinging it, bar in. And they have time to skate in, nobody's touching them, and it's just shot after shot after shot. You're managing confidence."
Valley's point is clear. If you want to build your goalie's confidence, you have to create more realistic drills to mirror what they can expect to see in a game. To verify his suspicions, Valley commissioned a quick study that revealed, over 1,150 NHL games, only 4.5 percent of the shots came from the mid- to high-slot area, unimpeded. That's right – only 3,063 of 68,174 total shots came from this prime scoring area.
"So I brought this up to my NHL guys," Valley said. "I said 'Are you going to base your confidence level on something that happens only 4.5 percent of the time? That's 1.5 shots per game. You're much better off focusing on being a smart goalie, how you're going to play when the puck's coming down the wing, or they're throwing pucks in from a bad angle, and trying to jam for rebounds. Don't base your confidence off something that's only going to happen only 1.5 times a game.'
"For me, it was a pretty powerful message. Those numbers are pretty revealing," he said. "And if there's anything we can do as [goalie] coaches, it's maybe to try to get the [head] coach to understand that, if we want to increase goal-scoring in the league, why are we practicing something 98 percent of the time that only happens 4.5 percent of the time (in a game). It's just a different way of looking at things."
Woodley, who is also a correspondent for InGoal magazine, had a similar take.
"A good chunk of practice can be counterproductive to good goaltending, leaving the goalie facing situations that can create bad habits," wrote Woodley. "It is the separate sessions with the goalie coach, before and after practice, that are important. If that sounds like a stretch, consider the fact that a large portion of NHL practice time is spent on line rushes which are only occasionally defended, often in the loosest sense of that term. The result is wave after wave of players skating in with passing options and plenty of time to dish or hold and shoot from close range."
Yeah, that happens all the time in a real game, right? The onus, however, is on the coaches during these youth, club, high school or college levels to understand this distinction, and implement drills that are more realistic. I've seen this with my daughter's team. When we have shooting drills coming out of the corners, along the top of the face-off circles, I tell the girls to shoot while "shielding the puck." In other words, if they come around on their backhands, they need to shoot on their backhand.
More often than not, they look at me like I've got three heads.
"But I can't shoot a backhand," is the typical response.
"Exactly," I'll say. "And you'll never learn if you don't practice."
Backhand shots also happen to be one of the toughest shots for a goalie to read. So, while it may not be the sexiest shot going, learning how to take it, and how to save it, is a real win/win.
The same holds for a variety of shots, from a variety of angles, with defensive pressure forcing quick releases. That's what happens in a game. That's what you ought to be trying to create in your practices. It will benefit your goalies, and your team.
Postscript: I also want to take a second to give a shout-out to the courageous girls who step up to play goalie for their public high school teams. This is a common predicament for girls' teams in the Northeast. Goalies are a hot commodity, and if you have any talent, there's a good chance that you'll be recruited to play prep school or club hockey. Which means the hometown public school team is typically scrambling to find someone brave enough to take up the crease. I see this happening repeatedly.
Given that situation, I have another appeal to the coaches. If you have a beginner goalie, be patient. The position is unlike any other on the ice. It takes time for goaltenders to develop. It won't happen overnight. The position brings enough pressure even for a veteran netminder. If you're lucky enough to have a player willing to take up the challenge for the good of the team, make sure your support her.