PostHeaderIcon The Three Levels of Puck Control

A New Hockey Concept

By Paul O’Donnell

If your thirst for hockey knowledge is anything like my own, you’re probably as unimpressed by the lack of pertinent coaching information available to the average coaching Joe. While part of my purpose for writing this column is to emphasize the importance of the mental game of hockey, the other reason is to share helpful, but more importantly, useful information with my readers.

Every now and then, you come across a tidbit of hockey knowledge that peaks your interest. This was my experience after reading an obscure passage about forechecking in Red Gendron’s book “Coaching Hockey Successfully” several years ago. To help reinforce his explanation for the proper reading and reacting technique on the forecheck Coach Gendron included are obscure hockey concept called “The Three Principles of Puck Possession”.

Since initially finding this little hockey coaching gem I have made significant additions to the basic principles, customizing and tweaking the original concept considerably. During a phone conversation with Coach Gendron I explained my revamped version with him and, with his blessing, I would like to share it with all of you for the very first-time. I call it “The Three Levels of Control” and I hope you will find it as useful as I have in communicating to players how to effectively read the play while on defense.

The three levels of a control revolve around the following hypothesis:

Any player whose stick, skate or body is in physical contact with the puck or by his actions directs or redirects the puck to an area of the ice surface with a reasonable expectation of maintaining control, is considered to be in one of three basic levels of possession.

These levels of control act as a checklist that quickly and simply assists the defensive player to help decide when a puck carrier is more or less vulnerable to attack. For the puck carrier, this knowledge is of little or no consequence; but for the opposing forechecker or defender this knowledge can be crucial in deciding when to be active or passive.

Knowing when to be active (aggressive) or passive is an essential aspect of the defensive game, because it will “always” be the first decision a player will make during any defensive read. The lower the level (levels 1-3), the more vulnerable the puck carrier becomes to attacks by his opponents. Conversely, a puck carrier moving with purpose up the middle of the ice surface, with multiple passing options and significant time and space should be a signal to a would-be forechecker to be extremely passive and restrained in his tactics.

Which level of control the puck carrier is in will depend on the following three objective factors at the time of the read:

  • The location, movement and direction of the puck.
  • The location movement and direction of the actual or potential puck carrier.
  • The time and space between the combatants.

The First Level of Puck Control

The lowest level of puck control and the most vulnerable for any puck carrier is Level 1. A player is considered to be in level 1 possession when the following criteria exist at the time of the read:

  • The player is in contact with the puck, but does not have firm control of it.
  • While the player may or may not be in motion, the puck carrier will have little or no view of the ice surface or his teammates.
  • He will have limited or no passing options.

The typical puck carrier in level 1 control will be attempting to gain control of a puck that is tight against the Boards, usually facing the glass or moving along the wall attempting to corral an uncooperative puck. Puck carriers in this situation will have virtually no offensive options and are at their most vulnerable during this time.

Opponents who recognize this and believe they can close the gap before the opponent can move into a higher level of puck control should take advantage of these situations when the opportunity presents itself. The most useful application for this read is on the forecheck, during a dump and chase situation.

Level Two Puck Control

As in level one, the puck carrier may or may not be moving and will have a poor view of the ice surface as well as passing options. The only real difference between levels 1 and 2 puck control is that the puck carrier is in firm control the puck. But, just the fact that the puckcarrier is in solid control of the puck, makes level 2 the most subjective and difficult of the three basic principles to read.This is because intangible factors such as the opposing puck carrier’s physical hockey skills, quickness and visual acuity all need to be factored before a proper read can be taken.

I will discuss  the complexities of level 2 puck control, later on in this article. I think this radically new  hockey concept can be more easily understood by delving into the simpler upper range of The Three Levels of Puck Control, Level 3, first.

Level Three Puck Control

A player is considered to be in level 3 puck control when the defender witnesses the following during their reading process:

  1. 1. The player is moving with purpose up the middle of the ice, either in his own zone or the neutral zone.
  2. 2. The puck carrier has an excellent view of the ice surface, with multiple passing options, to his right or left side of the ice.
  3. 3. He has more than adequate time and space to move freely or pass the puck.

For the “hockey smart” player (especially, with respect to the lead forechecker) the logical read would be to slow down their pace. The lead forechecker should begin to adjust his attack on the puck carrier to an inside-out angle and begin steering him to a weaker passing position on the outside of the ice surface while his teammates attempt to take away potential passing outlets. While it may seem obvious that level 3 puck control has limited uses, its importance to the overall concept cannot be ignored.

This is because levels 1 and 3 puck control, set a measurable upper and lower range for the defensive player to reference during the reading process. It is these two simple aspects to the overall concept that makes The Three Levels of Puck Control so useful as a coaching tool and easy to learn.

The thought process needed for the correct reads are very straightforward and objective. For this reason, both levels 1 and 3 can be taught to a wide variety hockey ages and skill groups. If introduced correctly, I am confident that some aspects of this concept could be taught to players as young as peewee or even squirt age groups.

In situations such as zone defense, for example, where it is very easy for young players to become confused about whether to be aggressive and pursue puck carriers in the corner and along the boards, or whether to contain and hold the ground. Just by telling young players to be more aggressive when the opposing puck carrier is facing the boards and less aggressive when the puck carrier faces them, sets a foundation for the player to build on while they begin to understand the reading and reacting process.

The three levels of puck control is like a “tell” used by poker players to outguess their opponents. By observing their opponents body language correctly a good poker player can properly gauge whether the other player has a good hand or is bluffing. Their success will depend on their knowledge and understanding of the game, as well as their experience -not unlike hockey players.

In part one, while referring to the basic concept, the only difference between levels 1 and 2 is that a player in level 2 puck control has firm control of the puck, while the level 1 puckhandler, does not. While this may seem insignificant, for the defensive player, at the time of the read, this will change a purely objective read into a more subjective read, with varying degrees of difficulty.

By objective and subjective I am referring to the type of input the player is viewing at the time of the defensive read. The objective read is simply observing what the opposing puckhandler is physically doing at the time of the read, while the subjective view is how the upcoming battle will be affected by the opposition’s movement and location on the ice at the time of the read; but more importantly, the puckcarrier’s individual skill level.

Level 2 Puck Control

A player is considered to be in level 2 or the second level of puck control when the following conditions exist or are observed by the opposing defense player at the time of the read:

  • The puck carrier must have solid control of the puck on their hockey stick or directing it with their skate or body to a location on the ice surface with a reasonable expectation of maintaining control.
  • The puck handler may or may not be in motion at the time of the read.
  • The puck carrier may or may not have multiple passing options or have an adequate view of the ice surface.

Due to the wide range and sheer volume of level 2 puck handling situations which could arise during the average hockey game, I have divided this level in the two subcategories: level 2(high) and level 2(low).This was necessary because: just because a player is in control of the puck doesn’t necessarily mean – they’re a threat! It’s the level of threat that is present when a player is in level 2 puck control, which is so often misread by the average young or inexperienced player.

How active or passive a defender should be, will depend on the following factors:

The Objective Read

  • Location- At the time of the read, where is the puck carrier located on the ice surface?
  • Momentum – How fast is the opponent moving at that time? Is he accelerating to maximum    speed, slowing down or maintaining speed?
  • Direction – which way is the puck carrier traveling; towards you, away from you, horizontally or diagonally?
  • Time and space – how close are you or your teammates to the puck carrier at that point in the read?
  • Forehand vs. backhand – Is the puck carrier on their forehand or backhand at that time?

Location

The first read during a defenders check-down should be the location of the puck handler at that time. Opposition puckhandlers in the middle of the ice are in a much stronger position than those closer to the boards. This is because, a puckcarrier in the middle of the ice, has 360° of possible passing options, while the player along the half wall or in the corner have their available passing range restricted to a mere 180° and 90°, respectively.

Momentum

Speed kills in ice hockey; and nothing will kill your chances of winning faster, than a couple of opposing players with speed-to-burn. Whether it’s the gazelle like defenseman with end to end speed or the short stocky grinder with explosive speed from a dead-start, not knowing who you’re defending against can be disastrous.

Another thing to keep in mind is, just because a puckcarrier is standing still, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not dangerous. Nothing is more embarrassing for a defender than being fooled by a puckhandler, standing in the corner, who appears to be easy-pickings, but whom  in reality, is just waiting to suck their opponent in, close enough, before making a strong move to the net while blowing the defender’s doors-off in an explosive burst of speed.

Finally, remember that a puck carrier’s momentum can shift from low to high, or high to low speeds, in the blink of an eye.  While it’s important to properly gauge the opponents speed at the time of the initial read, it’s more important to continuously anticipate their momentum as the defender closes the gap between them and their prey.

Direction

Generally, puckhandlers moving up-ice, toward their opposition, are usually more of a threat than a players moving away laterally or towards their own net. Vision and passing options are very important when you’re talking about a puckhandler’s direction.  Players retreating away from the play will have a poor view of available passing outlets. But don’t be fooled into thinking that these puckhandlers are helpless. More than once, I have seen overaggressive forechecker’s, left searching for their cup, after a wily defenseman deked their opponent one-way while escaping in the other direction, leaving them in the dust!

Another thing to remember is that puckhandlers who are moving horizontally or diagonally on the ice will always be more dangerous when they’re on their forehand than on their backhand. Remember that the active and passive rules change depending upon the location and zone of the puckhandler at the time.

For the opposing puckhandler breaking out of his own zone while on his forehand, the defender will want to be more passive. When that defender is playing defense in their own zone, and that same player comes out of the cycle at the half wall on his forehand, attempting to make a strong move towards the deep slot, the defender must challenge him aggressively to prevent him from reaching his objective.

Time and Space

There are two important decisions that will factor in to the defenders calculations on whether to be active or passive; (1) is there enough time and space to close the gap on the puck carrier before they can move from a low level of puck control to a high level of puck control; (2) can the closest forechecker and his teammates close off the passing lanes before the puckcarrier and his support can position themselves for a successful play up the ice.

Unfortunately, all of this information will be meaningless if the first defender doesn’t have the hockey-sense to know when to attack and when to retreat. During any forecheck, the key player is always the closest defender to the puck. All of the other defenders should be taking their cues from this forechecker.

Forehand vs. Backhand

One of the most important factors that many defenders fail to take in consideration during their read check-down is whether the puckcarrier is on his forehand or backhand. This is crucial, not only because, stickhandlers on their backhands are always less accurate than when they’re on their forehands; but just as important, is that their vision more limited as well. This makes the puck carrier more vulnerable to attack when the forechecker or defender has the knowledge and wherewithal to recognize weakness in that instant.

Anytime a puck carrier is moving up-ice tight against the wall, with his backhand facing the middle of the ice surface he should be considered to be in a level 2 (low) puckhandling situation. They become even more vulnerable when they’re moving back towards their own goal line.  These carriers are only left with a backhand passing option and an inability to escape their defenders, due to their proximity of the boards; these puckcarriers are perfectly suited for aggressive action.

Conversely, any puckcarrier moving up-ice along the along the boards, with his forehand facing the middle of the ice surface, should be respected and considered to be in the strongest level 2 (high) stickhandling position. This is true for two reasons; (1) being on the forehand in this situation, gives puckhandlers a much better view of the ice surface, than on their backhand; (2) players are always more confident and have better range and accuracy passing on their forehands, opposed to their backhands. Defenders should consider being much more passive in the situation. Even players moving toward their own goal lines, while on their forehands, should be considered somewhat dangerous. If stickhandlers are allowed to wheel towards the middle of the ice surface, on their forehands, they can be very dangerous.

Again, how active or passive you’ll need to be, will be affected by the zone you’re defending as well as other factors, such as penalty and power play situations, score differential, clock time and the skills of the combatants at that time.

The Subjective Read

  • How skilled is the puck handler?
  • Knowing your own strengths and limitations as well as knowing the correct course of action to win this particular battle?

Acquiring the subjective awareness to gain proficiency will only come with experience. With every new practice drill or game situation, knowledge and experience will grow. This information is only a template to help establish a knowledge base, which hopefully, young players will build on, to better understand the mental side of hockey.

Whether it’s a dump and chase situation or a zone defense, the ability to gain proficiency on the defensive concepts of the hockey will be a major factor for all young and inexperienced hockey players to confront, if they hope to reach their full potential.

8 Responses to “The Three Levels of Puck Control”

  • TIM says:

    Great article. Something that I as a defenseman always struggle with- when to pressure the puck carrier and when to back off especially when you have a fast skater who likes to dangle the puck. You want to play agressive but you don’t want to get burned either – always a delima. Looking forward to part 2.

  • Enio says:

    Very innovative way of thinking about puck control. The concept is great to teach players about checking and what key points or cues to look for. Very interesting and useful article for all levels of hockey and for both players and coaches!

    Enio http://www.coachenio.com

  • Thanks Tim. I’m glad you’re enjoying it so far. I’ve found that my new concept can be extremely useful to help players, better understand the read and react process; not just for older and more skills levels but for players as young as squirt level as well. While the more advanced level II probably wouldn’t be useful until the bantam level, high-level peewees may be able to grasp the complexities and nuances depending upon their understanding of the game at that time.

    I believe, one of the hardest skills to grasp, in all of hockey, is the ability to effectively put hockey thought into action. Which is, in a nutshell, what the process of read and react is, for the most part. In my 42 year involvement with hockey, as a player or coach, I’ve come to the belief that coaches will usually tend to leave, this crucial aspect of a player’s learning curve, up to the individual players themselves; to figure it out on their own. On the other hand, there are those in our hockey community who will lump the reading and reacting process in with this all-encompassing, vague notion, we know as hockey sense.

    I am definitely not one of those people. While I do believe that some athletes are gifted with more fast twitch white muscle, better visual acuity and hand-eye coordination, the idea that, you either have it or you don’t is utter nonsense!

    I’ll be posting second-half shortly. Stay tuned I would greatly appreciate your input and suggestions. Thanks for finding my blog.

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