I reposted one of my blogs from a few years ago about creativity and the Russian national team of the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s this past week. The post was about an Igor Larionov article (The Beautiful Game) where he talked about his unit’s creativity - that unit being the best unit, maybe ever put together, in the history of hockey (the KLM line - Krutov, Larionov, Makarov along with defencemen Fetisov and Kasatonov). Larinov’s article came on the heels of a terrific documentary called Red Army, a true portrait of Soviet hockey during their dominance of the international game pre-Glasnost. Watching clips of their play is utterly amazing in the way they just “knew” where each other were at all times on the ice.
I date myself when I say I remember the 1972 Canada-Russia series. Although I was only seven years old, I remember that series as such an important part of our lives for four weeks (the first game was on September 2, the final on September 30). Eight years later, the Miracle on Ice became the classic meeting between the Russians and the USA - only because the USA won the game. Although it doesn’t have the caché of the other two events, the 1987 Canada Cup might have been the quintessential, all-time best-on-best match pitting the KLM line against Gretzky, Lemieux, Messier, et al. The best of three series was a 6-5, 5-6, 6-5 barn burner that saw Mario Lemieux score in the dying minutes of game three to win the cup for Canada.
One of the things I remember most about the play of the Soviets was that they didn’t seem to shoot the puck as much, or at the same times we might have here in North America. They held on to the puck more, they looked for better scoring chances, they managed the puck (a new term) more and better than the Canadians did. At the end of the day, they simply had better shot selection. Watching highlights today of the Russian’s play 30 and 40 years ago, you would rarely see them step over the blue line and let a slap shot fly at the net. Their MO was to get the puck deep, delay to get some help, find a seam in the defence, and set up a prime scoring opportunity. Back in 1972, both Tony Esposito and Ken Dryden had to make numerous unbelievable saves on excellent scoring chances throughout the series - as did Jim Craig for the USA in 1980.
As a player who finished his career at the university level in the late 1980’s, I grew up with the notion that if we were scoring on 10% of our shots then we simply needed to shoot more to score more goals. We would have a target of getting 30 or more shots on net in a game as a measure of being successful and we rarely talked about what those shots looked like, we just played the percentages and fired away. As coaches, we need to be more clear about expectations when it comes to shot section and shooting with purpose - which all ties into managing the puck effectively. As a starting point, statistically during the 2016 NHL season (click here), 55% of all goals were scored from inside 20 feet from the net (20 feet is the distance from the net to the hash marks in the slot). This is in a league where, arguably, they have the hardest shots in the game. Only 5% of goals were scored from a distance of 10 feet from the blue line or more. This is an astoundingly low number! Now, I am not saying NOT to shoot from the point but clearly, shots from the point need to be more purposeful in order to generate scoring chances in and around the net on tip in’s, deflections and rebounds. (As an aside, goaltending today is WAY more sophisticated and much better than it was 30 years ago. Watch these clips of Toronto Maple Leaf Mike Palmateer to illustrate my point.)
Here is what we need to be telling our players on a regular basis to improve their shot selection and ultimately, create more goals:
1) Under no circumstances should you shoot the puck at the goalie’s belly button. It is a black hole and you will never see the puck again!
2) Unless you are in close and going top shelf, do not shoot the puck at the top half of the net. Shoot low! You have a better chance to score and a much higher percentage of creating a secondary scoring chance.
3) If there is nowhere to shoot to score, look to pass the puck to a teammate or manage the puck to find a better chance. Any kind of puck movement will undoubtedly make the goalie move and create an opportunity for them to make a mistake. Shooting for the sake of getting a shot on net rarely scores a goal.
4) When in doubt, throw the puck into the goalie’s feet. Just fire it along the ice on net. Good things will happen.
5) In an era when it seems like there are six goalies on the ice (everyone blocks shots), make sure the puck finds a way through to the net. Players should practice shooting around obstacles. Shots don’t have to be bullets to get through and create scoring chances.
6) Find the back door! There is no easier goal than the tap in on the far post. Be there and be an option for your teammates.
Larionov writes “We had a saying in the Soviet days that I wish more coaches and scouts would adopt today: It’s not how fast you skate, it’s how fast you think.” Help your players think the game better with good puck management and shot selection decisions. It will pay off in the win column.