Moving the Puck the Key to a Defenseman’s Success

Toronto’s Globe and Mail writer Matthew Sekeres posted an article on Sunday, November 29, 2009. With the buildup to the Vancouver Olympics in high gear across Canada, the main focus as always is on the men’s hockey team.

Using insight from world class defenseman Rob Blake, the writer highlights a catch phrase that virtually all coaches try to drill into their defensemen. “Move the puck!”

Chris Pronger, Adam Foote, and Rob Blake have formed the backbone of Canada’s defence through three Olympic Games.

They are the only three defencemen to play on every Canadian Olympic team since NHL players began participating in the Games in 1998, yet only one of them – Pronger – is back in contention for a fourth Olympics this February in Vancouver.

Neither Foote, nor Blake, were invited to Hockey Canada’s summer orientation camp in Calgary, and while Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman has said that non-invitees could play their way onto the team, Blake isn’t kidding himself and said his days of manning the country’s blueline are over.

“I understand the situation,” said Blake, a San Jose Sharks defenceman who turned back the clock in 2008-09 and produced a 45-point season. “If you’re not clearly in the top six, they’re not going to bring you to the orientation camp when you’re almost 40. There’s not much place for an older guy, and it’s not like they’re going to bring you in to get you experience.”

So, given his experience and new-found objectivity, The Globe and Mail asked Blake to pick the Canadian defence for 2010.

He held to one governing principle when making his selections: “You have to have guys who are going to move the puck.”

Blake said the 2006 Olympic team, which finished seventh in Turin, sorely missed Scott Niedermayer, a one-man trap breaker who could skate the puck end-to-end. Barring similarly skilled defencemen, Blake said the next best thing was a player who could move the puck with his stick.

“I really think we missed Niedermayer a lot the last time out,” he said.
“At the Olympics, your forwards are so dominant across all four lines. Because your forwards are so dominant, you just need to get them the puck as quickly as you can. Look at Danny Boyle’s style. That’s what you need.”

Boyle, Blake’s teammate in San Jose, is more noted for his offensive ability than his defensive prowess, but his older teammate said he would be perfect for the Olympic team because “he’s as good as it gets in our league in terms of getting the puck out of your zone.

“He’s a one-man breakout, but he’s not a high-risk guy,” Blake added.
“He has the puck all the time, and when it comes out of our zone, it comes out fast, and it comes out tape-to-tape.”

Blake said that Canada’s management should endeavour to have a puck-moving defenceman on every Olympic pairing, and his selections also suggest that familiarity is important. Blake picked three Calgary Flames rearguards, as well as two Chicago Blackhawks and the defensive pair – Pronger and Niedermayer – who helped the Anaheim Ducks win the Stanley Cup in 2007.

Running drills in practice sessions and constant positive reinforcement quick puck movement should be a daily task for the coach. Getting the puck off your stick an on to the stick of an attacking forward should always be the immediate task of every defenseman.

As repetitive as it may be for coaches to say, and as likely annoying for defensemen to hear, “Move the puck!” will be part of our hockey vocabulary for quite some time to come.

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