Sunday, July 15, 2012

Defencemen

Most people have heard the expression "Defense wins championships." Although the team who scores the most goals wins the game, the defensive end of the rink is what makes or breaks a game. Here are some of the qualities I think make a great defenceman.

Skating- Being a good skater is possibly the most important thing a defenceman can focus on. Many of the teams I once played on, a defenceman was the fastest skate on the team, although speed isn't the key here. Good skating for a defenceman includes a great transition game. Being able to transition at full speed without slowing down on one-on-ones will not only help you from not getting beat, but also will force more opposing players to dump the puck into the offensive zone instead of trying to make a move.
Angles- For defenceman, angles are extremely important, especially if you lack speed. It doesn't matter how much faster an opposing player is if you can take the right angle to cut them off. Being good on your angles will prevent odd man rushes from getting beat. Another thing is, often times when the puck is dumped into the defensive zone, a defenceman will loop around to the puck to avoid getting destroyed by a big check in the corner. However, this gives the attacking player a chance to catch up and gives you hardly any time to move the puck up and make a play. Even when the opposing team dumps the puck in for a line change, play the angle for a straight line to the puck, this way you give yourself plenty of time to gather the puck and look up ice to make a play.
Gopher defenceman Nate Schmidt
Patience- One thing I see a lot at the high school level is defencemen who collect the puck in neutral ice and throw it behind their back. Although in cases where an attacking player is right on you this may be the safest play, I like to see players control the puck and look up ice for a forward to pass to. Gopher defenceman Nate Schmidt executes this play perfectly. When you have a little room between you and the attacking player, gather the puck, transition so that you're carrying the puck backwards, and look to your defensive partner or a forward to move the puck to. Another good play for these situations is an escape move. An escape move is executed when an opposing player is giving chase to the puck carrier, whether it be at neutral ice or behind the net. When carrying the puck away from an attacker, continue skating in the direction you are going until they get close, then power turn (180) to the opposite side of which they are giving chase to protect the puck, and they will keep skating on by which will give you space to skate and make a play.
Passing- Making good passes is important for all hockey players, and especially for defencemen, who start the offensive rush by making passes out of their own zone. In youth hockey it often happens that defencemen want to make long stretch passes down the ice that are high risk to get picked off. A good defenceman will make the smartest passes, which may be less than a ten foot pass. Also, multiple shorter passes will make the attacking team chase the puck more than one long pass. Another rule to live by is NEVER make a pass in front of your own net. These passes are high risk even if there aren't any forecheckers in front, with the chance of muffing a pass or having the pass hit a bad patch of ice and skipping. The idea of making your passes shouldn't be make long pretty looking passes, but to move the puck up the ice as easily as possible and into the offensive zone.
Shooting- Growing up, players watch NHL defencemen with big shots exceeding 100 mph. Such heavy shots are good to have on your team, but not as important as knowing where and when to shoot. Having the puck at the point with a player in front of you, you should never take the shot if the player is within a stick length, as they are close enough to block the shot, or poke the puck away. If a player is farther than a stick length away, you should be able to easily take a low shot around the player, or move laterally into better position to get a better angle shot. Top shelf goals from the point may be pretty, but can often be blocked in front or easily seen by a goaltender, with almost no chance of deflection. The only time a defenceman should be shooting high from the point is if they have a VERY clear shot, and even then a lower placed shot would probably be more effective. Shooting low from the point creates a rebound opportunity for the forwards in front, and also provide opportunities for deflections off of sticks,skate, or shin pads.
Checking-  Body checking is great to separate a player from the puck and is huge for defencemen. One-on-ones is where playing the body is most important. The higher the level, the better the puck handlers are and will make a defenceman look silly if he is fishing for the puck. Always watch the offensive player's body on a one-on-one and you won't get beat. It's important to note that there are situations where checking is not the best option, and can actually be taking yourself out of the play by unnecessarily putting a check on a player when you could gain possession of the puck. When racing for a loose puck with an opposing player, if you aren't certain you can get the puck before them, playing the body is the best option. However, if you have confidence that you have enough speed to reach the puck first, ignore playing the body and gather the puck. In instances where you and the opposing player will reach the puck at the same time, it is a safe play to put a check on that player, in case you go for the puck and they poke/pull the puck around you. Working the corners it's important to pin players who are carrying the puck. Pinning them to the boards will allow one of your teammates to come in and grab the puck. The easiest way to do this is by pushing the player up against the boards, with your leg either in front of them, or between their legs if their are facing the boards. While doing this, you must make sure not to hold the player to avoid getting a penalty, but by pinning a player like this, you prevent them from being able to squeeze out of the check.
Offense- Being able to jump up into the offense is a good asset for a defenceman to have while rushing end to end every chance you get, is not. A good defenceman will seize the opportunity to rush the puck when given the chance. Such as playing against a team that constantly pinches down on the wings. Playing a team that does that presents the opportunity for the defencemen to skate the puck out of the zone, or make a quick give-and-go pass to the wing before they get pinched on. In the offensive zone, it can be a good option to have a defenceman crashing down the slot to pass to. However, keep in mind that this should only be done if you are the strong side defenceman along the boards. If you are the defenceman at the middle of the point, creeping in towards the net would leave too much open ice for the opposing team to break out down the center of the ice. This should be done when your team has possession of the puck down low, and you make your way towards the net to give the puck carrier an option and freeing yourself up for a shot. Whenever a defenceman jumps into the offense, it is important to remember that once possession is lost, or you are no longer a part of the play, to get back to your defensive position immediately. Even if a teammate is covering for you, defense is your position and it is your responsibility to get back as to not force them to have to make a crucial defensive play.
Stepping up- Stepping up at the right moment is huge for a defenceman. Since the idea is to give the offensive player nothing to work with, stepping up is crucial. Whether it be in neutral ice or in the defensive zone, the defenceman can force the offensive player to make a mistake. Stepping up doesn't mean lunging or coming to a complete stop, it's taking away a player's options of cutting in or taking a shot. Another important thing while stepping up is trying to get a stick on shots. While deflecting shots can be a burden to a goalie if the puck drastically changes course, but if a defenceman can get a stick on the puck right as a player is shooting, or prevent the shot by poke checking, then the shot is more likely to miss the net, get deflected out of play, etc.. It should be noted that while stepping up, you don't want to lunge or stand flat footed so that the offensive player can make a move to get by you. What the goal is when stepping up is to eliminate any chance of the opposing player to make a move on you or getting a quality shot, forcing a turnover or dump in.
Defensive Partners- Like forward linemates, defensive partners need to watch out for each other, and save each other on occasion when a mistake is made by one. Sometimes in the defensive zone, one defenceman might be caught on the other side of the ice when chasing an opposing player behind the net. In such a situation, his defensive partner needs to recognize this and cover the front of the net. There are other situations where defensive partners will cross and end up on their partner's side of the ice. This is completely normal, although younger players may worry they are out of position. No need to worry, however, as this happens it's best to just play the side of the ice you're on until your team is making a rush up the ice, freeing you up to change back. You need to recognize these situations on the ice to cover your partner, and so they will cover you.
Front of the Net- The front of the net is practically home for a defenceman. When in front of the net, it is your job to make sure no opposing player gets a shot or a stick on the puck. While you can't sit and hold a player and get bad penalties, tie their stick up and never let an offensive player behind you in front of the net. It is a must that you stay parallel with a player in front of the net, or behind them while still able to tie their stick up. If a player is ever to get far enough away from you to receive a pass or get a shot off, you must be prepared to block a shot. Knowing that your job is to not let any pucks come through the front of the net will force bad angled, low percentage shots.
Blocking Shots- Although some may think shot blocking occurs mostly with forwards blocking shots from the point, it is just as important to block shots from the slot, in front of the net, and sometimes even low percentage shots. Anytime a defenceman can block a shot in front, they should. While forwards often times lay down to block shots, I don't usually like the idea of a defenceman laying down to block a shot unless it is directly in front of the net and a sure thing to block the shot. Whether is be 1-on-1 or just a player shooting in the offensive zone, going down on one knee and using your body as a shield allows you to not only get in front of the shot, but also stay with the play if the offensive player doesn't shoot. Laying down on your side to block a shot can be very effective, but the timing must be near perfect. If you're planning on blocking a shot on your side, you mustn't go down until right before the shot is taken. If you go down to late, the shot could get through, and if you go down too early the player could make a play or pull the puck around you for a shot.

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