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Learning from the pros: 3 things beer-leaguers should copy from NHLers

We don't have the same skill level as Auston Matthews and his peers. But that doesn't mean we can't be smart hockey players.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Scouting for Future Considerations changed the way I watch hockey. Gone are the days of pure excitement about goals and fancy plays. In fact, I miss a lot of goals because I have my eyes on someone far away from the play. Like the defenceman on the bench, who is still visibly mad about that turnover he created. Or the winger who's filling in for his defenceman at the blue line, while said defenceman sets up the goal from behind the net.

But as much as it's changed the way I watch hockey, it's also changed the way I play hockey.

Beer-league players will know this feeling: With every deke, every spin move, and every between-the-legs pass we see on TV, there's a little bit of sadness because we can't pull it off ourselves. So the next time we go out to the rink, we try to copy the pros and... fail. And even when we do manage to pull off those dirty dangles, we quickly realise they aren't all that helpful in actual game situations.

This is even worse for beginners. I have a lot of beginners on my team, and in Germany, “beginner” means someone who's actually never played hockey before, not someone who grew up skating but hasn't played in an organised league. Like more advanced players, they all came to the sport because they watched professionals and thought it was exciting. So, to no-one's surprise, they also want to learn how to dangle and have a heavy slap shot before anything else.

Instead, let's take a look at three things recreational hockey players—beginners or advanced—can easily copy from NHL stars. More importantly, these simple things will also elevate your game.

1. Use your eyes

Let's play a little game. Here's a clip from a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Los Angeles Kings. There is one especially simple thing a player does that beer-league players frequently forget to do. Watch the sequence and guess what I mean.

Many things happen simultaneously in that clip, but the important one is what Drew Doughty does without the puck. Most beer-leaguers in Doughty's situation would care about just one thing after Nikita Zaitsev's pass attempt: Getting to the puck first. They will skate as quickly as they can and lock their eyes on the black rubber disk. And when they're there—well, f*ck.

What many don't realise is that defenders in his situation usually have a lot of time. Enough time to look over your right shoulder, then over your left. Scan the ice, know where the pressure is, and know where your teammates are.

There is a forechecker behind Doughty, so he chooses to skate around the net. Auston Matthews comes in to pressure from the weak side, but Doughty knows that his centre is swinging around in front of the net, giving him options for the breakout. From there, it's an easy pass despite being pressured from behind the net.

Whether you skate like Connor McDavid or John Scott's ungifted brother, a quick look over both shoulders will allow you to break out of the D-zone like Doughty.

2. Forget what they tell you about positions

Newbies on my team often complain because they don't know where to be on the ice and when, and different people tell them different things. So they often just stick to their exact position. For example, a left winger will just move straight up and down the ice along the boards. Whatever you do, don't do that. (Sticking to positions actually makes a lot of sense on defence, but we'll get to that.)

Implementing systems in beer-league teams can be difficult to impossible, especially with beginners. But there are things you can do individually that make scoring easier for everyone. Like this:

In this sequence, the Senators play the simplest of defensive systems. The defencemen and wingers build a box, and only the player closest to the puck applies pressure. The centre hovers around the centre of the box, closing the gap left by the player who pressures. This is the easiest way to play defence, but it's also very effective and therefore exactly what you want to be doing on the average beer-league team. So far, so good.

Eventually, Mark Stone gets control of the puck and skates it out into the neutral zone. Now what?

What I see often in beer league is this: The right winger sticks to the right side, the centre goes to the net, and the left winger sticks to the left wing. It sounds easy, so that's what they tell beginners to do. But, again, don't do that—forget everything they told you.

There has been a shift in how coaches design offensive plays, whether it's a simple rush and quick shot or a more complicated, set play. Instead of thinking in positions, start thinking about who gets to the offensive zone first. The first forward there becomes F1, the second becomes F2, and the third becomes F3. Easy, right?

Now, in the sequence above, Stone plays the puck to the left wing. The puck-carrier skates into the offensive zone and becomes F1, followed by Stone, who becomes F2. Centre Kyle Turris follows last, making him F3.

From there, you can follow a very easy rule: F2 takes the direct route to the net and F3 supports the puck-carrier. That way, F2 forces the defence to communicate and coordinate their coverage—which is extremely difficult for most recreational players—and the goalie needs to keep an eye on them as well. F1 can, depending on the situation, fire a shot at the net, play a pass to the front of the net, or, like in the Ottawa Senators sequence, make use of the supporting player.

Why should you follow this rule if your teammates don't do the same? Because no matter if you're F2 or F3, the puck-carrier will appreciate you being in the right place at the right time. And if everything goes well, that will lead to more goals for you and your teammates.

3. Get moving

Okay, so you drive to the net but your team can't capitalise on the scoring chance. You're still standing in front of the net and think “I'll just wait here to get a pass, so I can score a tip-in.” That's a solid idea, but no matter your skill level, you can do better. Let Vancouver Canucks forward Markus Granlund show you how:

I often see rec-hockey players getting open perfectly in front of the net. But when they don't get the pass, they'll stay there and battle a defenceman to stay in position. Now watch what Granlund does. He gets wide open in the slot and scores an easy goal, without even touching a defender at any point during the sequence.

Granlund does an excellent job moving back and forth in a circle to avoid coverage and get open again and again. Once you settle in in front of the goaltender, you'll get punished by defencemen—in any league—and it will be extremely difficult for passes to find you. Instead, try to lose your coverage by moving out of the slot when the passing option isn't there, and back in when a teammate has it behind the net.

Granlund does this perfectly here, which stood out even at the NHL level.

And it's so simple.