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Playing the System: How Puck Management Drives Possession

We know the importance of positive puck possession, but what's often overlooked are the factors that lead to good teams spending more time with the puck.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

After two straight games that were less than stellar from a puck possession standpoint for our beloved Minnesota Wild, the concept of proper puck management is worthy of some examination. As fans, we should care about puck management because good puck management leads to positive puck possession, and positive puck possession generally means wins. Not exactly a revolutionary concept, but there is a need to delve deeper into factors like puck management that contribute to possession in order to better understand the game.

Most fans hear about puck management and immediately think about plays like Mathew Dumba's turnover that led to a goal against the Anaheim Ducks, or Vladimir Tarasenko's blunder that led to a Kyle Brodziak goal last Saturday. While those were both egregious turnovers and obviously poor plays, when we talk about puck management it is more so a commentary on the decisions players were making with the puck. Were they making the best efforts and choices while possessing the puck in order to continue possessing the puck without risking turning it over to the opposition? For example, throwing the puck off the glass and out of the defensive zone is an acceptable play in certain instances, but if there's no immediate pressure on the player flipping the puck out of the zone, that wouldn't be the best choice.

The following play against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday illustrates how a single poor decision with the puck can lead to negative results in a hurry.

Nate Prosser does a great job to win a puck battle in the corner, gathers the puck and looks to turn it up ice. He has two very good options here: throw the puck back behind the net where there is no pressure, or make a crisp pass up to Bergenheim, who could then get it to a supporting Niederreiter. Instead, Prosser chooses option three and decides that relieving pressure by sending the puck into the neutral zone is the best course of action. Prosser flubs the backhand, and the puck is intercepted by the Blues defenseman. One solid pass from the boards and the Blues have an odd-man situation going against the Wild.

The biggest issue with that play is not the flubbed backhand, that happens, just bad luck mostly. The problem with the play was that Prosser had time to move the puck to a teammate, but instead chose an option where the best case scenario was turning the puck over to the opposition in the neutral zone.

On the other side of the coin, we have this play made by Charlie Coyle against the Anaheim Ducks--an extremely aggressive team on the forecheck--that illustrates how patience, support and good decision making can turn a difficult zone exit into an odd-man rush for the good guys.

Coyle gathers the puck after a rebound and looks to turn the puck up ice. As soon as he turns with the puck, he is pressured by Froncois Beauchemin who has pinched down from the point. The easy button play here would have left nearly everybody satisfied. Chip the puck out of the zone off of the glass, relieve the pressure, live to fight another day. Coyle though, smartly circles back to buy himself some more time. Leopold sees Coyle turn back and immediately opens up behind the net as a passing option. Just like that, Leopold has the puck with time to make an accurate pass up the ice with four Ducks caught deep and the Wild are heading into the offensive zone with a numbers advantage.

Not all puck management mistakes are as glaringly obvious as the one committed by Prosser. Simple things like dumping a puck into the offensive zone when a player isn't being pressured, defenseman rimming the puck around the boards instead of taking the extra stride around the net to make a tape-to-tape pass to a winger, or wingers holding the puck along the wall in the defensive zone instead of moving it up ice, all qualify as poor puck management. It's often times easy to ignore these poor puck decisions because they don't always lead to immediate negative results, and that is how the eye test often fails. When watching players we put too much emphasis on "splash" plays when forming an opinion because quantifying every decision/play that every player makes in a game is impossible, even after watching the same game multiple times. This is why we have to rely on shot attempts in a lot of cases to paint a more accurate picture of a player's overall contribution to the team.

As we continue to discover more ways to break down the game into smaller, more measurable parts, it's important to be able to identify plays throughout a game that are causing the measurable events (ie. shot attempts). Recognizing the small factors that drive play will result in smarter fans and a greater appreciation for the players making the right decisions.