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Whole team offense

03/26/2019, 11:45am CDT
By John Russo, Let's Play Hockey Columnist

Team offense should get everybody into the offensive action – even the goaltenders.

Photo: Nick Wosika

Last week, we took a long look at different aspects of team defense. The orientation was mostly on the importance of how forwards fit into the process, rather than the more obvious role of the defensemen and goaltenders.

This week, we will concentrate on team offense getting everybody into the offensive action – even the goaltenders. We will look most closely at the defensemen roles.

One of the biggest overall changes in the game of hockey over the last 40-50 years has been the greater involvement of defensemen in the offensive part of the game. I can remember Doug Harvey of the Montreal Canadians in the 1950s and 60s as one of the first offensive defensemen. Then, of course, Bobby Orr changed the way defensemen would play forever by actually winning the NHL scoring title. Being part of the offense as a defenseman doesn’t necessarily mean rushing up the ice with the puck, but that might be part of it.

Defensive zone
The first and most important concept I want to discuss concerning this zone concerns team defense. It is important that all players do the job in the defensive zone so that the puck can be moved out of the zone and the offense initiated. 

I always tell the near side (where the puck is) wing that being in the corner “helping out” is a big mistake from an offensive standpoint (as well as from a defensive standpoint). If the wing does get the puck in the corner and tries to make an outlet pass, the pass will be unsuccessful because the person the wing is outlet passing to will not be there. Guess who that person is who will not be there. Of course, it is the wing who went into the corner to help out and therefore is not in the right position to take the outlet pass.

If all players are doing their jobs in the defensive zone, the chances of gaining control of the puck are pretty good. Bingo – the first step in offense – getting the puck. This is no small concept. If a team is being run over in its own zone, no offense is being created. Good defense gives the opportunity to get on the offensive.

The next step in the defensive zone after getting the puck is getting it moved out of the zone, preferably under control. Most often, the defenseman or center (defenseman in defensive zone) gain control of the puck because they are playing deep in the zone where the puck action is. These defensemen need to make quick and good decisions about skating, passing or dumping the puck to move it out of the zone quickly before the opposition can re-establish their forecheck. Defensemen are therefore the primary initiators of offense in their own zone and as the play moves into the neutral zone.

Neutral zone
The neutral zone is where the “forming up” takes place so that good attacks can be made into the offensive zone. The defensemen will tend to handle the puck often in the neutral zone and high in the defensive zone, especially when a transition is taking place. 

I tend to spend some considerable amount of time in practice with what I call neutral zone transition drills. These drills involve dumping the puck to a defenseman (to the top of the circle) in the defensive zone and having the five-player squad “break out” into the neutral zone. The opposition will be one, two or three forecheckers and two defensemen so the whole drill can eventually be a rush against the two defensemen into the offensive zone. The idea of the drill is to teach the defensemen to make good decisions with the puck as they transition from defense to offense. They need to decide to skate with the puck or pass – and decide who to pass to (including a defensive partner) and when. The defensemen should literally keep the puck and skate it into the offensive zone, becoming a primary part of the offensive zone attack.

Against good competition, it takes all five skaters to make it through the neutral zone and mount an attack over the blue line. 

One of the other key things I always watch for in the neutral zone is how the defensemen follow the play once they pass the puck to the forwards. I want them to stay close behind the attack and “capture” the offensive blue line quickly after the puck crosses it. Lagging defensemen allow the puck to come back out over the blue line and ruin the attack. Tight defensemen (one of the two) should also be tight trailers into the high slot. The high slot trailer could be the best alternative for finishing the attack.

Offensive zone
In the offensive zone, it is critical that the whole zone and all five skaters be part of the offense. Teams that don’t “use their points” will have a hard time scoring inside. The reason for this is that defending teams will pull their wings (covering the points) in further and further towards the net as they realize that coverage of the points is not critical. Ultimately it becomes five on defense vs. three on offense in the zone with no place to go. Some coaches describe this as “shelling up” around the net. The way to avoid this is to move the puck out to the points, then back inside. This spreads the defensive players out into the zone. 

Shots from the point are also very effective scoring opportunities, if well done. What does “well done” mean? It means defensemen shoot low, not too hard and hit the net. It also means that defensemen learn to wait briefly for a screen to develop and for their forwards to get into position to tip and rebound. Point shots without a screen or tippers/rebounders are seldom good scoring opportunities. Hitting the net and keeping shots low are probably the two most important aspects of point shots.

Defensemen should also be on the lookout for chances to move up toward the net occasionally for quick passes and scoring opportunities. It is my feeling that defensemen should generate roughly their appropriate percentage of points (30 percent). It does not require rushing the puck to accomplish this.

The goaltender should also be part of the offense by having the ability to handle and move the puck well.

Offense is a team activity, just as defense is a team activity. Teams that depend upon individuals or less than the full team for either can more easily be beaten by good teams with proper concepts. Coaches should try to make their entire team understand the “hows” and “whys” of team operations – at as early an age as possible.


John Russo, Ph.D., is founder and now mentor to the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. He was a captain at the University of Wisconsin and recipient of prestigious hockey awards at the state (Peterson award) and national levels (Snooks Kelly). His Coaches Corner columns have appeared in Let’s Play Hockey each year since 1986.

Order John Russo’s new chapterized book, “The Best of 26 Years of John Russo’s Coaches Corner.” It has been described as a “must read” for all youth coaches. Go to for information and ordering.

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