Tucson Roadrunners

The importance of mastering the possession game

The Tucson Roadrunners have now been outshot in every game they have played this season. When a team gets outshot in a game, it is usually the result of being dominated by the other team in puck possession. Playing a great possession game, not only denies the other team the ability to make plays, it makes sure that your team is always ready to go on the offensive. To show everyone what the domination of puck possession looks like and the success that comes from it, we will examine the play of NHL legend Pavel Datsyuk.


#13 Pavel Datsyuk celebrates a goal in 2013

Holding onto the puck

One of the greatest all-around hockey players to ever live; Pavel Datsyuk, was the best player in the world in his prime. Committed to playing a 200 foot, 2-way game he was among a select few offensive players in hockey history who was as good in his zone as he was in the offensive zone (Wayne Gretzky for comparison, was benched at one point in his career for poor play in his defensive zone).

In his 14-year NHL career, Datsyuk won the Frank J. Selke Trophy three times (in three straight seasons), as the NHL’s best defensive forward, while also posting consecutive 97-point seasons in that same period. He was a two-time Stanley Cup Champion and not one of Datsyuk’s Red Wings teams failed to qualify for the playoffs. Pavel Datsyuk is everything a hockey player should strive to be.

I have watched a lot of hockey in my life and have seen a lot of great players, and none of them have been able to take over and control a game the way Pavel Datsyuk could. Datsyuk’s dominance didn’t come from having the hardest shot, being the fastest player or laying the hardest checks, it came from his brilliant stick-handling, which let him constantly control the puck.

Here’s an example of that (not a short video but you’ll enjoy it).

I know its easy to pay attention to some of the best goals and dekes you’ll ever see, but watch for when his dekes in the corners in the offensive zone and the neutral zone (especially at 2:23-2:39 and 9:47-10:19). It was this calm and focused play that made him the best possession player of his era. The Roadrunners need to emulate that patience and control in their game. This will result in fewer turnovers and lead to fewer defensive zone breakouts for opposing teams, which will, in turn, lead to less shots against for the Roadrunners.

Intelligence was also the name of the game for Pavel Datsyuk; he was the hockey equivalent of the quarterback that always seems to find the time and space to make the right play. A few clips show below during a pregame tribute honoring his 600th assist, show some of these smart passes.

Learning to make the right pass at the right time and doing a better job keeping possession in the offensive zone; like Datsyuk does will keep other teams from transitioning to offense to quickly. This will  also lower the number of scoring chances given by the Roadrunners to opposing teams.

Smart play in the offensive zone, however, only solves half of the problem. To entirely fix the problem, the Roadrunners will need to improve defensive play in the neutral zone and their defensive zone.

Datsyuk didn’t win the Selke trophy three times by making nice passes and scoring a lot of pretty goals. He won by being the greatest shut-down center the game has ever seen. A game against Ottawa last season highlights Datsyuk’s defensive awareness.

Defending your zone is a five-man effort and Datsyuk understood that. Notice how when his team wasn’t on the offensive, he broke plays up in the neutral zone and that in the defensive zone, Datsyuk was constantly looking to intercept a pass, establishing possession for his team, and working hard at both ends of the ice.

His incredible defensive play was rewarded with an outstanding career shot suppression statistic of 42.6 shots attempts allowed per 60 minutes, higher that the same career stat of any forward Datsyuk faced in his entire career.


I hope that now after showing the outstanding play of one of the greatest athletes of the 21st century, you understand exactly what the possession game in hockey is all about. Pavel Datsyuk always held the puck for as long as he needed to, made the right pass and when he didn’t have it; Datsyuk did everything he could to get the puck back. If the Roadrunners play the game like Datsyuk did, it will go a long way towards evening out those negative shot differentials that have plagued them for the first three games of the season.

The Roadrunners home-opener is today, Friday, October 28th at 7:05 pm against the Stockton Heat.


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