Arguably the nicest goal of Sam Bennett’s career came this past November. In a game against Pittsburgh, the Calgary Flames rookie faked as if to cut outside before dropping his shoulder, pulling the puck around Penguins defenseman Ian Cole and spinning him into the ground before using a few quick dekes to fool goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
For as good as Bennett’s goal was, it may not have been possible without time and effort put into developing the exact moves utilized to score that highlight-reel tally. The toe-drag, the deke and the patience with the puck, all executed at full flight, were the result of dedication to the skill development that separates him from his peers. It’s something he’s been doing since before he was drafted, and he continues to spend chunks of his off-seasons working on it with SK8ON’s Jari Byrski.
“That shows the type of confidence I have with the puck to make plays like that,” Bennett said. “It’s thanks to my work with Jari in the summer.”
The kind of skill development Byrski provides isn’t entirely new, but the emphasis players have put on developing individual puck skills has increased over the past several years. Skills coaches have popped up throughout the sport, and even notable names, such as Hockey Hall of Famer and ex-Capitals and Devils bench boss Adam Oates, are starting to share their knowledge. Byrski, 54, is one of the pre-eminent names in the business.
But skill development isn’t a one-size-fits-all practice. Byrski’s methods have had to change over the years to adapt to each specific player as well as the overall increasing ability of players – “individualization of the skill set,” as Byrski calls it. One major adaptation over the past several seasons has been adapting drills to match the increase in speed the game sees seemingly each year. That’s something Byrski focuses on and something helped by taking cues from overseas.
“The European system was emphasizing not just sheer power and strength but adding a bit of finesse to the play as well,” Byrski said. “Growing a player’s skill set as far as agility and being able to maneuver with the puck and stickhandling ability…I started to see the effect that training this way had on some of my students playing the games, and that started to dictate how we trained.”
Bennett, who worked with Byrski throughout his time with the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs, isn’t the only notable player Byrski has trained. Since his school opened in 1993, he has become a sensei to some of the game’s most talented puck handlers, passers and shooters. Jason Spezza worked with Byrski as a pre-teen and still returns to his camps in the off-season. Steven Stamkos is a regular attendee, as is Jeff Skinner. Brent Burns and Byrski have also worked together for many years, including during Burns’ transition from right winger to a Norris Trophy-contending defenseman. All this is to say Byrski is a well-respected voice in the skill development community.
Byrski’s drills, which Bennett said can be extremely difficult, range from simple stickhandling to maneuvering between and slipping the puck through obstacles. And everything is done with speed. The purpose behind the drills is to focus on the fine skills. But when it comes to getting the most out of progressing an individual skill set, it has to be the player who commits to the training.
Jimmy Roy, the Winnipeg Jets’ co-ordinator of player development, said building the necessary puck skills is player-dependent and specific to each individual, but there has to be “ownership” from each player. “If the players care as much about their career as we do as an organization, and we take ownership of the things that we’re trying to teach them and get them better at, that’s the best thing for a player. But realistically, the players are the ones who are going to get themselves to the NHL.”
Byrski understands that, too. He’ll be approached by agents and players about off-season training, and, on occasion, teams will step in and look into getting a player the help to take the next step. “It will sometimes happen that when I have a player from an organization come to me in the summer, the organization is going to call me and address that they’ve seen this or that, but usually the player knows that from the exit meetings, especially the young players,” Byrski said. “They know what the team is seeing, what they would like them to work on or progress.”
Working on puck skills isn’t something that ends, either. Each season, a player has to work on making progress. Byrski worked with Daniel Alfredsson late in his career and recalled how impressive the then-Senators captain’s ability to control the puck was. Alfredsson told Byrski it was because of the work put in to sustain those abilities. “You learn how to maintain a skill set, how to nourish it, how to cherish it,” Byrski said. “When you’re young, you don’t appreciate the opportunities. But as you mature, you start to realize the potential that you have can be utilized in a greater way. Which means training. A lot of training.”
Continued training can breed confidence, which is backed up by Bennett’s belief that each off-season he’s worked on skill development has made him a better player. Byrski, who has formal education as a children’s psychologist, said confidence, or a lack thereof, can have the greatest effect on a player’s game, especially in a league that has become so obsessed with numbers – those that appear on the scoresheet and those underlying advanced statistics that don’t. But over the course of an off-season, a player’s confidence can grow and his game can become much better. Byrski compares it to adjusting a television set to get the clearest look at their game. “The first day they come in, they even tell me after 40 minutes, they feel sluggish, so the picture is faded,” Byrski said. “They already know and they’ll tell me they need to focus on something. As the off-season progresses – dryland, off-ice, on-ice – you can see the brightness, you can see the colors coming in. By the time a player leaves, you can see that it’s a much sharper picture.”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the Future Watch edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.