October 24, 2011

The Goalie Guru: Keep drills realistic with one puck

By Brion O'Connor

Robert “Cap” Raeder has been around the block. The former University of New Hampshire All-American goaltender (1972-75) from Needham, Mass., followed his Wildcats playing days with a five-year professional career, which included a stint with the original New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association. He’s been an assistant coach and head coach at the collegiate level (notably Clarkson, 1985-89) and an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins, San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning.

So, it’s safe to say, Raeder has just about seen it all on an ice sheet. And when it comes to practice plans for goaltenders, he can boil it down to a simple, over-riding philosophy: One puck.

“That’s all you need,” Raeder said. “And that’s how many they play the game with.”

Obviously, Raeder is speaking figuratively, but his point is clear and important. Hockey coaches need to let go of their outdated love affair with having dozens of pucks in play during any one drill (if the drill includes goaltenders). This is especially true during shooting drills, which many youth hockey coaches like to use as part of their warm-up regimen. Somewhere along the line, the idea of goalies seeing a gazillion shots got ingrained in the game’s coaching psyche. If 15 shots are good, 50 must be better, right?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Think of it in terms of simple math. If you have 20 kids lined up on the boards, racing off on a breakaway or a give-and-go shooting drill, the goalie is going to see 20 shots for each kid. If every kid takes five shots (not many, if you ask them), the goalie sees 100 pucks. And that’s before the practice is 15 minutes deep.

Here’s another favorite: the time-honored three-shot drill, when three kids supposedly loop around three different cones (at varying distances from the goal) to take three quick shots. That looks great on paper, but it falls apart pretty quickly on the ice. Faster kids catch slower kids and shoot simultaneously, often without even looking up. The result is a goalie who, at best, doesn’t know which shot to focus on, and, at worst, risks getting injured by the shot he’s not watching.

Again, these drills simply don’t reflect hockey the way the game is played. They do have some predictable results, few of which are positive.

Rapid-fire shooting drills are a sure-fire way to produce a shell-shocked netminder. And even if your goalie doesn’t develop the yips, he or she is almost certain to develop bad habits. Here’s why: Shooting drills like this are exhausting, which translates to young goalies standing like statues in the middle of their crease. They stop moving. They stop telescoping to challenge the shooter, and stop recoiling properly to play the deke. They don’t drop on low shots, because dropping into the butterfly means having to get back up again (I challenge almost any youth hockey coach to do that 100 times in less than 10 minutes). And they completely stop thinking about rebounds, because all they’re worried about is the next shot (and the next one).

So, in a game, these same goalies aren’t as quick to look for a rebound, or follow it, because it hasn’t become habitual. They’re more likely to stay deep in the net, because that’s what they’ve become accustomed to. They’re as likely to recover on the wrong leg as the correct one because, in practice, they consistently rely on their stronger leg. And if they become puck shy from all the rubber they see in practice, that problem becomes magnified in a game, when the pressure is on.

Now, I understand the benefit for the kids taking a ton of shots. That repetition builds critical muscle memory. But they don’t need a living, breathing target. Get a shooter tutor. They’re cheap, and easy to install. Even better, they don’t lie. Instead of a puck slipping through an exhausted Squirt goalie (who then has to watch the ensuing celebration), kids will find that weak shots get stopped. The same way they get snuffed out in a game, when they’re facing a goalie who hasn’t been run into the ground.

The key is having coaches develop an eye, and some empathy, really, for when a goalie gets tired. You can’t just ask them — most youngsters would rather get grounded for a month than admit they’re tired. But watch their body language. The legs are usually the first to go, and it’s usually pretty obvious. Tired kids simply stop skating.

Even better, think outside the box when it comes to shooting drills. As Raeder says, emphasize drills that focus on one puck at a time, giving the goalies time to follow rebounds and recover correctly.

Here are two favorites that I borrowed from Brian Daccord while working at his Stop It Goaltending camps this past summer:

Two-net drill (any place on the ice, along the boards). Set two nets roughly 12 feet apart, facing each other, with a goalie in each. A single player starts between the goalies. Coach (or another player) tosses puck in, and the “player in the middle” can shoot on either goalie. Rebounds are fair game, but bank shots off the boards aren’t allowed. If the puck goes in, gets covered up or goes out of play, coach yells, “New puck!” First goalie to give up two goals loses (with a time max of 20-30 seconds). Then players rotate.

High-low drill (using the full offensive zone, or one third of a full sheet). The goalie is in the net, which is set up in the crease. The coach has the pucks at one faceoff dot, and the players line up behind the opposite faceoff dot. There are two orange cones on the edge of that second faceoff circle, about 4 feet to either side of the inside hash marks. The coach sends a pass between the cones to the opposite face-off dot, with goalie following the puck. The player receiving the pass must either drive below the lower cone (an in-tight play), or high above the higher cone and across the high slot for a shot. At game speed. The goalie reacts accordingly, protecting the short side on the low drive, and stepping to the top of the crease on the high move. Rebounds are live, and goalies should be encouraged to follow all rebounds, even those that go out of play (Tip: If the player drives high on his backhand, encourage a backhand shot). 

These are just for starters. I can’t see any reason why coaches wouldn’t want to embrace these types of drills, because they’re remarkably beneficial to position players as well. They are battle drills, requiring quick hands, quick feet, and quick decision-making. Every one gets a great workout, while developing essential skills. And since the coaches control feeding the pucks, they control the tempo of the drill. Which is a win-win for everyone, including the goaltenders.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Brion O’Connor is a Boston-based writer and owner of Inspired Ink Communications. He is also a long-time hockey coach and player, specializing in goaltending instruction. Learn more at TheGoalieGuru.com. He can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com