In more than 30 years of coaching, including 20 seasons at the University of Minnesota, Mike Guentzel has seen many great playmakers. Those players weren’t born with the ability to see the ice, pass pucks, and communicate with teammates. They worked hard, putting in extra time to improve their skills and develop good habits.
“The more skills you have in your back pocket as hockey player, the better the opportunities are going to be for you to get to the next level,” Guentzel said.
Here are some tips from the former Gophers associate head coach for improving as a playmaker:
Build the foundation
Whether it’s on the ice, in the garage, or in the basement, working on stickhandling alone or playing catch with a partner is helpful. Guentzel suggests using balls and weighted pucks.
“Play catch back and forth,” he said. “Concentrate on catching the puck around the heel of the stick where it’s stronger, not off the tip of the stick. … Use a soft grip. Make sure you’re not squeezing the stick too tight and you’re not too stiff through the upper body. Have a good elbow bend and be able give a puck with nice, soft hands.”
Eyes on the prize
Make sure you’re seeing your target when you’re passing and know where the puck is going. The same goes for receiving the puck. Start with stationary passing drills, then add movement, eventually building to full speed.
“Build forehand to forehand, forehand to backhand,” Guentzel said. “Catch the puck on your backhand and roll to the forehand. Catch the puck with your skate and bump it to your stick. Widen your range for catching a pass. Not everything is going to be tape to tape.”
Small-area games are a great way to work on passing and playmaking, Guentzel says. They help develop quick thinking and the ability to find space and create angles.
“Small-area games encourage give-and-go, they encourage puck support, and they encourage tight plays,” he said. “The game is played in tight spaces, tight areas. We emphasize play behind the net; it’s a great way to create offense.”
One-touch passing is another way to encourage fast play. “The longer it takes for plays to evolve, the more difficult it is to create offense,” he said.
Communication is key
Talking to your teammates is important, but it doesn’t always come naturally. Communication is a habit, Guentzel says, players need to develop at an early age. Don’t just wait for games to call out to teammates, either.
“When you give a pass, call for it back,” he said. “Call out, “Hey!” or your teammate’s name, or “Puck!” Get in the habit. When I go to a game and I hear communication on the ice, it tells me there’s some hockey intelligence out there. During practice, when communication is good, I know we got something out of a practice. You know your team is dialed in.”