We see it night after night in the NHL: The attacking team works the puck into the corner in order to set in motion the most commonly used offensive tactic in the game today -- the cycle.
So it should come as little surprise that as the Stanley Cup Final begins, we will get to see two of the players considered by many to be the very best at it.
That would be Henrik and Daniel Sedin
of the Vancouver Canucks
"A good cycling team is usually a highly skilled team," New Jersey Devils
assistant coach and Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson
told NHL.com. "The Sedins probably cycle the puck as well as anybody. They have good size, good skill and they know where each other is at all times."
When Robinson was a youngster growing up on a dairy farm outside Ottawa, he was an excellent basketball player in addition to his obvious abilities on a hockey rink. That's why it's no surprise to see Robinson use a basketball analogy to explain why cycling the puck is such an effective offensive strategy in hockey today.
"What you're trying to do is keep possession of the puck, because that is key in the offensive zone, but you're also trying to get the other team to start running around," Robinson said. "You can almost create a pick situation because the defense is running around so much. It's like a set play in basketball where you're trying to create an open shot."
"A good cycling team is usually a highly skilled team. The Sedins probably cycle the puck as well as anybody. They have good size, good skill and they know where each other is at all times."
-- New Jersey Devils assistant coach and Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson
Robinson's NHL playing and coaching career has spanned nearly 40 years, allowing him to watch the development of the cycle game from an era where it wasn't particularly given much thought, to one where the way the game was played made it almost useless, to the one today where the NHL's crackdown on obstruction has not only made the cycle useful, it's made it essential.
"You can cycle today because there's no grabbing and no interference," Robinson said. "Before you didn't do it because you had two guys hanging off of you, and also you could practically intentionally pick a guy, so you didn't really need to cycle."
Unlike shooting and passing, the ability to put together an effective cycle is more of a team ability than an individual one. While players with size and skill will excel in a cycle, as Robinson pointed out is the case with the Sedin twins, the members of an offensive line need to become accustomed to each other's tendencies in a variety of situations. If a winger tends to break toward the net once his defender overplays the cycle, it won't do much good unless his center carrying the puck knows to hit him with a pass when that happens.
Similarly, defending the cycle is also based on an ability to anticipate a play happening before it actually happens.
In a word, for both the offensive and defensive players, the cycle is all about reading the play.
"You have to be in a position where you can react to the other player, it's a read," Robinson said. "It's a very instinctive game."
Robinson says the Devils conduct a cycle drill at nearly every practice, thereby developing those instincts for players to use in game situations. He says to keep things fresh the Devils mix it up with 2-on-2, 3-on-3 and finally 5-on-5 drills for 45 seconds or a minute at a time, the length of a typical NHL shift.
Aside from the benefits of getting the players ready for game situations, Robinson says the added bonus is that the players really enjoy it. And he sees no reason why the same thing shouldn't be done at the minor hockey level.
"At the younger levels it's great," Robinson said. "You can't practice it enough because it not only develops skills, it also develops reads and it's also great for conditioning. So it's a great drill."
Robinson says that cycling drills should be conducted in a very confined area of the ice, like one corner for example, and that getting the players to buy in to the competitiveness of the drill is important. Equally important, he says, is the coach doing a read of his own on how tired his team is and "where its compete level is at," because the drills are very taxing and may not even be necessary if a coach feels his players have been playing with a lot of intensity.
But considering how integral the cycle game has become in hockey, throwing it into a young team's practice routine as often as possible would not be a bad idea.