Unlocking your potential as a playmaker may be as simple as adding one new move to your arsenal: picking up your head. After all, much like the old adage suggesting you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take, you’re likely to miss all the playmaking opportunities you don’t see.
“It’s amazing how much easier it is to make a decision when you have your head up,” says Boston University head coach David Quinn.
Quinn, of course, helms one of the NCAA’s most prestigious programs, which also happens to be his alma mater, where he always has his eye on the top talent in the nation.
Including his playing days, which led to his being drafted No. 13 overall in 1984 before his career was cut short by a blood disorder, Quinn has been around the game at some of its highest levels for more than 30 years. He’s seen elite talent at each stop, from BU teammates, to NHL stars such as Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, to recent Terriers who have made it to the NHL, including Jack Eichel. And he’s seen a common thread.
“You look at all great players, and they all have the ability to play with their heads up,” he says. “That’s where playmaking comes in.”
Here are a few of Quinn’s keys to great playmaking.
“It’s really one of the first things we look for: How comfortable is someone playing with his head up?” Quinn says. “At all different levels, whether it be the national program, collegiately, the American Hockey League or the National Hockey League, how many guys spend too much time with their heads down?”
Hockey is, more than ever, a skill game where fun often comes from making plays. Dwindling are the days of rock ‘em, sock ‘em youth hockey, and the joys of moving pucks around, skating and scoring are keys to the new landscape. Some of the greatest joys come when a player is part of a play that involves thinking quickly, zipping the puck quickly and moving quickly.
By looking down, a player is not only taking away his or her vision of the ice, but also taking a little longer to keep in the flow of a game – or, optimally, create the flow of a game.
“That’s where you tend to play slow,” Quinn says. “A lot of fast skaters can’t play fast because, with the puck, they have their heads down. And if you want to make plays, you have to play with your head up.”
But how can a player improve on that skill of playmaking while also learning to keep his or her head up?
“Whatever the situation calls for, you have to pay attention to people on the ice,” Quinn says. “You just have to. That’s a mental alertness. And that goes with not staring the puck down when you don’t have it. You have a responsibility every second you’re on the ice. Too often people think their responsibility starts when they get the puck.”
A great example of this comes on the power play. With the man advantage, Quinn and his staff have players pay attention to the penalty killers – and not just when they have the puck.
“If the puck isn’t on your stick, pay attention,” he says. “Look at where people are. If you want to make a good decision, know where people are instead of just staring at the puck as it's getting moved around. You have to know where people are so that, when the puck is about to come, you can register quickly, ‘Oh, the defenseman is sagging there and I’ll be able to attack or get a shot off.’ Or, ‘If I get the puck here, the defenseman looks like he’s creeping out on me already and I can’t shoot it.’”
Get Comfortable with the Puck in Small-Area Games
One way to improve playmaking is to improve your familiarity with actually making plays. And that doesn’t always mean threading a saucer pass through three sets of legs and on the tape to a teammate. Sometimes it’s as simple as coming up with something better to do with the puck than to dump it in or eat it. Instead, a player can work on making a move or a pass to learn an option outside of the dump-in.
This is where the joy of playmaking comes in, too.
Of course, some of this requires a more advanced comfort level with the puck, but one of the most effective ways to develop that aspect of a player’s game is through small-area games.
“I just love the small-area games,” Quinn says. “We do that a lot here at BU. We’re always playing a small-area game, [working on] under-handling the puck – get it and, without stickhandling, being ready to move it. To me, that’s a big part of the development.”
Moving without the puck is also fundamental when it comes to playing the role of a playmaker. After all, the great majority of moving a player does on the ice is going to be without the puck. And, of course, moving is what creates so much of the positive energy of the game.
“It goes back to having a responsibility to your team,” Quinn says. “All five guys do. The guy with the puck needs options – he needs guys to get open for him, to support him. That’s part of being a playmaker. If you’re not available, how is anyone going to be able to get you the puck? You have to find ways to become available to the guy with the puck, and you have to demand the puck. Not only verbally, but also with the pace of play, your body language and where you stick is. You have to look like you want the puck. If you look like you want the puck, you might just get it.”
Those are the players who make a coach’s life easier. Quinn mentioned that it’s difficult for coaches to make the decisions for players on the ice, but that they can help people make good decisions. Much of that comes through practice at the elite levels – making plays, thinking about what can happen, thinking what you can make happen. How can you affect the game? That’s how a playmaker thinks.
At that level, playmakers may just be the most important players on the ice.
“I think when you have a team full of playmakers, eventually, guys know when to shoot the puck," Quinn says.
And, at the youth levels, those are the kinds of experiences that also keep kids coming back to the rink. With their heads held high.