In the game of hockey, it is basically always the case that what one team wants to happen is the opposite of what the other team wants. There are many examples, but lets take some obvious ones. We want scoring chances. They want to limit our scoring chances. We want to limit their scoring chances. They want scoring chances. We want puck possession. They want puck possession. Both teams can’t simultaneously possess the puck.
Because of this, we can often understand what they will do to counter us by asking what we would do in the same situation. Maybe it would be more accurate to phrase it as asking, “What we would do if the situation were reversed?”
As hockey has been played and thought about for more than a century now, most of the ideas we will find when we analyze the game in this way are not groundbreaking. Instead, what we tend to discover is what a lot of coaches already teach along with ideas that are already part of the common wisdom about the strategy and tactics of the game. Even so, thinking about the game this way helps us much more clearly understand the reasons why these strategies and tactics are the way they are.
Our relationship to the "territory" on the ice sheet can be understood in this way. We want to earn shooting opportunities in the slot and we would like them to be uncontested shots. When shots are uncontested, we can focus on beating the goalie instead of just working the puck around a defender just to get the shot off. If we want that, we know the other team wants it too and that tells us we need to work to not let them have these opportunities in our end. Well, that was sort of obvous!
We use our bodies and sticks to both make it difficult to get into a shooting position with the puck in the slot and to ensure that if that does happen, we have a player between that shooter and our net and close enough to affect the shot. From our perspective when we are on defense, the shooter's attention has to be on finding a way to create the shot against our resistance instead of picking a spot on the goalie. Then, most shots can be easily handled by goalies. Or, more accurately, they are easy for goalies if they can get a clean look at the puck and if its not deflected. Given that, one approach to create offense from contested shots is to make sure there is traffic in front of the net. This ruins the goalie's clean look at the puck and it creates the potential for deflections. You don't have to watch too many NHL broadcasts to hear and see that this is the dominant paradigm for generating offense. Get shots and make sure you have bodies going to the net for screens, tips, and rebounds.
While true, it still highlights the value of uncontested shots. The idea of throwing junk at the net and supporting the play with bodies going to the net-front area begs the question of what would happen if we could actually throw quality shots at the net. This is very hard to do as many NHL jobs (coaching, management, and playing jobs) depend on seeming at least competent at producing a recognizable defensive structure which can ensure your team is contesting the vast majority of shots.
This is why breaking down that structure is so valuable. Pick your favorite hockey puckhandling move. If it doesn't have a chance to lead to a breakdown in the opposing defensive structure and, following that, an uncontested shot, it probably shouldn't be used. As explained in the blog post featuring the "reactive" reason for slip unders, these moves may still be useful in working out of a sticky situation just as an attempt to retain possession, but if you have clear possession, there had better be a good chance of payoff if you are going to bring out some fancy puckhandling.
Regardless, as I think about this concept of using high-end puckhandling moves to break down defensive structure, I am reminded of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight:
“Nobody panics when things go according to plan...”
Defenders use stick position, body position, and overall team structure to keep things to plan. On the attack, we can "play within the system", be conservative, and try to keep possession of the puck while hoping to wait for the defense to make a mistake and give us an opening. But there are situations where you can't wait. If you are behind by two in the second half of the third period, you may have to force the issue. You may have to seek to break down their structure by beating somebody one on one. When you need to hurry to create offense, it's nice to have the tools with which to attack in your back pocket!