The front of the net is a high-traffic, high-intensity area that’s crucial to success. What can we do as youth hockey coaches to develop skills, hockey sense and toughness in this space?
USA Hockey caught up with Mike Corbett, head coach of the NCAA Division I University of Alabama Huntsville men’s hockey program, for some answers.
USA Hockey: For those players who are just learning how to play in front of the net in the offensive zone, what are some important principals to teach?
Mike Corbett: You have to get there. You have to have a commitment to getting there before you can play there. For me, watching games, even midget hockey, all the way up to junior hockey, to my level, there are kids who just aren't willing to get there. We can talk about that all day long, but if you're not willing to get there, and you're not committed to getting there, what we talk about is all for naught. I don't know if courage is the right word, but being willing to get there.
Our season is over, and we've reviewed it. Probably over 70 percent of our goals were scored within two stick-lengths of the net. That's just the way goals are primarily being scored. So being able to get there, whether it be taking the puck there yourself, getting there for second chances, moving without the puck, screening the goalie, the biggest thing is players have to understand, 'Hey, we have possession of the puck, I need to be able to get to that area.' I call it action alley, and you have to get to action alley. That's typically right on top of the blue paint. Let's be honest, that's where all the action happens. You want flurries, you want your point shots, even bad-angle shots, and there are a lot of things that happen in action alley, and you have to be able to get to action alley first. You must have the courage, you must have the toughness, and you must have the willingness to do it. Don't just tell me you're going to do it. That’s one of those areas that, you're either there, or you're not. It's pretty black-and-white. That's step one.
USA Hockey: Any good high-level examples of players that have good net-front presence?
Corbett: You see guys like Joe Pavelski, and there’s video of him tipping pucks. You can watch YouTube videos of how good he was in the playoffs last year tipping pucks, and where his position is: right in front of the goalie, not off to the side. If you're going to get to that blue paint, you need to be able to play right in front of the goalie, and be able to take away the goalie's eyes. It's like you're blocking your own team's shot; you need to play on the shot lane, because the goalie is finding that shot lane.
USA Hockey: The front of the net can be intimidating for some players. Any advice?
Corbett: It's tough ice. Once again, you have to be willing and determined to play in that tough ice. In order to do it, one of the key words you hear coaches say nowadays is you have to be “hard.” That's kind of an all-encompassing word – being hard – meaning, one, being able to take body contact. When you get to that area, you have to like body contact, because there's just going to be body contact in that area. To me that’s one of the bigger things is you have to thrive on it, and you have to be hard. You have to come in with two hands on your stick, you have to be willing to take body contact, and like a goalie, you have to be able to track the puck. The goalie is probably tracking the puck right behind you.
I'm from football country, and Nick Saban is all about the ball – it's about the ball, it's about the ball. I'm about the puck; it's all about the puck. At all points and time, you have to know where the puck is, and you have to know where your positioning is. But you have to understand, when you go into that area as a big player or small player, you're going to have body contact, and you have to be strong. You have to be strong and nimble on your skates, and ultimately, you're going to have to have your hands free to possibly get your stick on a shot coming from the point, or a rebound that's going to end up right in front of you.
USA Hockey: With how strong goaltending play is nowadays, how important is it to establish a strong net-front presence?
Corbett: It's imperative. There are very few one-shot goals, and if there are, that goalie is probably on the bench in five minutes. That's one of the bigger keys and one of the bigger indicators when you're evaluating goaltending, is one-shot goals, because there is not a lot of them that happen. There has to be a good net-front presence, and make it tough on the goalie to be able to make a save; make it tough on the goalie to be able to see the puck. Even if it's just skating through his line of vision. Sometimes that's even harder than a guy just standing in front. When you're standing in front, goalies can find ways to look over you or around you depending on how they want to be able to track it. But a lot of times, when the goalie is focused on the puck and then somebody skates through the line of vision that split second is crucial, especially when the puck gets off a defenseman's stick, or a player is shooting from the high slot. You want to be able to impede goalies’ vision in one way, shape or form. They may not be fully ready for the shot to control a rebound, and that's usually when the action starts happening in front of the net.
USA Hockey: Switching to the defensive side, how do you defend in front of the net?
Corbett: It's tough right now, with the way the game is being called with net-front presence. You have a lot of teams that will just put their defensemen at the posts, or a lot of them are playing in front of the offensive team and telling the goaltender, 'You need to track that puck; that's going to be on you.' We're going to block more shots in front of you. That's where a lot of it is, because a lot of the physical play, a lot of what's being taught, is once your player moves the puck from low-to-high out of the corner, you need to bump him then. You can't necessarily stand in front of the net and wait for him to come and then get physical, because that's going to be an interference penalty. You're bumping that player outside, so you can gain body position, and you can eliminate the quick shot. You’re trying to prevent them from even getting to that blue area or that action alley to impede the vision of your goaltender. That's where we're pushing. We're making the physical plays probably more outside of the net-front than we are in front of the net right now.
I'm more of a guy to take away sticks. Sometimes you have to find the puck through a mass of humanity. There might be four-to-six players standing in that alley with multiple layers of shot blockers. You have to be able to, one, control sticks more than anything, and then wait for that shot to come and get physical. Right now, if you get physical before the puck is on its way, you're going to get a penalty. That's just typically, especially at the college level, the way things are going to be called right now. You have your ice, and you have to defend your ice as a defenseman or forward down low, but you can’t impede the offensive player’s progress on the way to the front of the net because, with the emphasis on creating more scoring opportunities and scoring more goals, that's what people want to see. It kind of eliminates a little bit of that being physical in front of the net, especially when the puck is on its way.
USA Hockey: How important is it to teach playing out the full sequence, and attacking or protecting against second-chance opportunities?
Corbett: It's like the forecheck when we talk about finishing routes. I worked with Al Bloomer when I was a young, young guy, and Al called the net the hub of the wheel. We're always going there. Everyone is on the spokes of the wheel, and they're all going to the net. I use that analogy with my guys. No matter what's happening, everything is ending up there. The destination is never the corner, it's the hub, and everybody wants to get to the hub.
When you're defending, you've got one team defending the hub, and you've got one team trying to put the puck there. The way the game is played right now, it's as quickly as possible. We do things as quickly as possible because speed is such a big thing in our game. You have to be able to defend that hub, and that's typically where everybody is going to end up. If you get beat, where do you race back to? You race back to the hub, and the near post or the far post. If you have the puck, and you beat a guy, where are you going? You're taking it to the hub. That's where the action is, and for the little guys, that's where the glory is. Skate to glory. Al taught me that a long time ago, and it's a great analogy to use.
But now you're teaching kids the details of getting there. They all know where they have to go. They all know that end result. It's the process we have to teach, and the details in that process it takes right now to get those goals. Having your stick on the ice – you have to fight through sticks, you have to track the puck off a goalie's pads on a pad pass, you have to decide whether you have a good shooting angle to score, or do you have to put the puck in the goalie's pads for a secondary opportunity. Those are all decisions that we're trying to help kids with moving forward.
It's the decisions USA Hockey is trying to put kids in position to make and make effectively. That's where small games are big, because you're playing in tight, you're playing in traffic, and you say, 'They all know where to go; it's the process from the top of the circles to the top of the blue.' Or from the blue line to the top of the crease. Sometimes you go all the way out to the red line in transition to the top of the blue. It's that process that we're trying to teach American players and make them more skilled and better able to make good decisions so we're not turning pucks over. We're making positive things happen versus negative things. A lot of it is, it's not necessarily a one-on-one play anymore, because guys are so strong, and they're so physical. And the American player right now, the talent level is just better. You have so many good players right now that know how to play in one-on-one situations defensively and offensively, you have to be able to work the process. You have to use your options to get the puck to the hub, and once you get it there, the old saying goes, 'We know good things are going to happen from an offensive standpoint.'
A lot of it is hard work, and sometimes you're telling your players to work smart, too. Slowing things down at certain times, and what we primarily focus on here, is preparing yourself for what happens next. That's where we see it at the college level, where guys are in such a hurry sometimes to be able to get the puck to the net. It's not a million options, but play the percentages, and understand what can happen next based on where people are. We focus on that a lot: What happens next? We want to put them in positions to make good defensive plays and good offensive plays.