SANTA CRUZ, January 24, 2014 — There is an old sentiment that the path eventually narrows. Nothing could be more true for the pure goal scorer in hockey. The team which scores the most goals wins. A team’s abundance or paucity of goals will ultimately decide its fate, as well as that of its coaching staff. That being said, even the most gifted forward only has the puck on their stick for a few precious minutes during an average game.
Players who manage to stay in the NHL are the ones who have figured out how to play away from the puck. Often, it is the lesser skilled player, who has had to foster a spartan attention to detail in all three zones simply to stay on the roster, that eventually finds a scoring touch, or discovers the right combination of anticipation and timing to place themselves in high percentage scoring areas. For these players, scoring success is a byproduct of learning the rest of the game and perfecting their ability to read the ice.
Then there are the players who are just born with it. Their hands were ordained from an early age to bury the puck with regularity and minimal effort. During the earliest years of their development, these players are able to dominate games at will and score every goal for their team. Some of these players are able to coast like this through their junior or college careers, seducing scouts with their slick hands and highlight reel goals.
Many of these players have serious issues with their skating, their play in the defensive zone, their ability to distribute the puck and utilize their teammates, or all of the above. Because of how many goals they score, their coaches have historically forgiven these deficiencies. These players get all the ice time they want and are seldom benched or disciplined for mistakes. Coaches realize that if they sit their star, they will lose games. It is when a coach’s self-preservation trumps their ultimate duty to develop the player.
Goal scoring in the NHL is different than at any other level. Nobody can coast, or get by without a more complete skill set. Even in the best of times, elite pro scorers go through slumps or droughts when the puck is not going in for them. The way they comport themselves and play during these stretches separates the great players from the one dimensional types.
Once the goals dry up, for whatever reason, a player who has never learned to play away from the puck begins to panic. All they have ever done is score goals. Their shifts become exercises in frustration, often ending in penalties, giveaways or both. They begin to believe they will never score again and, at the professional level, a coach will sit them in a heartbeat.
Great players know that goals come and go. They have learned how to play defense, how to battle, how to win face offs, and provide quality with their speed and smarts on the penalty kill. They have done the work necessary to be able to contribute to their team even when the goals are not coming. Players like Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise, and Dustin Brown can all score goals, but when they are not scoring, they are doing something positive every shift. That is why they are every night players in the best league in the world.
Young goal scorers, who have been given a pass throughout their development, would do well to seek the counsel of a veteran teammate who has been through the inevitable goal scoring droughts, and apply themselves accordingly to fine tuning the numerous other facets of their game. The goals will come but, unless these players can learn to play effectively away from the puck, the ice time will not.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.