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Critical topics for defensemen

02/13/2019, 12:00pm CST
By John Russo, Let's Play Hockey Columnist

These concepts will be good for defensemen to understand and practice.

Photo: Greg Nayman

Defense is a very challenging position. The following concepts will be good for them to understand and practice.

1. Chasing mistakes 
Hockey is a game of mistakes, especially for defensemen. Bold moves, passes that don’t work out and shots that hit people are not uncommon. When a player is the last line of defense before the goaltender, however, good decisions need to follow these “mistakes.” Too many players want to correct their mistakes immediately by jumping (inappropriately) into the problem area. This is almost always a bad decision. The proper action is whatever normal assessment dictates, not a rash decision to correct. Coaches should watch for this issue early on and help correct it. 

2. Taking away space/ice 
For defensemen, taking away space means not retreating to or through the neutral zone too quickly, while not increasing risks. What kind of statement is that? Many defensemen give up the offensive zone too quickly when the risk is really pretty low. If the opposition is trying to break out using passes to wings and the defensemen have a high forward (such as on a 2-1 forecheck), it is a good idea to stay in the zone (while staying in the physical position to retreat quickly) as long as reasonably possible. This shortens up the space that the opposition has available to break out. Proper positioning with the stick and body can also help “discourage” a pass up that side. 

The same is true in the neutral zone. When the opposition is coming out of their own zone and looking for a (wing) pass, the D can discourage passes by carefully shortening the space between themselves and the wings. These tactics force the opposition to slow down their attack (carry the puck farther), allow the back-checkers to catch up and be more effective, and makes defending the blue line easier. 

3. Defending at the blue line 
A simple concept, but not so simple in practice. Any time defensemen are not outnumbered when the opposition is approaching the defensive blue line, they should make a stand at the line and begin forcing the attack to the outside. Often, I see defensemen allowing 3-on-3 or 2-on-2 attacks to easily cross the blue line and proceed all the way to the top of the circle, at all levels of youth and even college play. Of course, a disadvantage situation (2-on-1, 3-on-2) has to be strung out, so bold moves are not appropriate at the blue line. 

Defensemen must start reading the attack as it begins at the far end of the ice, continue reading and adjusting as it passes through the neutral zone and approaches the defensive zone, and be prepared to stifle it at any advantageous time before it gets to the critical shooting point (top of circle).
4. Defending attacks from the blue line in 
Again, a really simple concept but often isn’t practiced well at the youth levels. All it means is that once the attack gets inside the defensive blue line, defensemen need to aggressively push the attack toward the outside before it gets to the top of the circles. The top of the circles is important because that is where the effective scoring distance generally starts. Defensemen can’t be in a position, as the attack comes over the blue line, such that they are backing up to the top of the circles and allowing good shots. 

5. Getting a stick on the puck 
Once an attack gets far enough into the offensive zone and a shot is inevitable, defensemen need to begin positioning themselves to get a stick on the shot as close to the shooter’s stick as possible. We’ve talked about defending the blue line and pushing the play outside once inside the blue line. The next logical step is “killing” a good shot with proper stick work. Being very physical is in order around the net and in the corners, especially. 

6. Coverage at the net 
Once the puck is in the defensive zone and shots/passes near the net are imminent, defensemen (and centers) need to make certain that they pay attention first to physical coverage. By that, I mean good positioning on the opposition forward. Too many defensemen are mesmerized by the puck and fail to properly cover. Even at the high school level, I see defensemen actually running out to cover points or going into the corners, leaving the front of the net outmanned. The biggest problem, however, is actual positioning – having an advantageous position (proper side) and facing the way that maintains that advantage. 

7. Backing up your partner 
Whenever possible, defensemen need to back up their partners. I know this seems easy, but try watching a full game or even a period some time just for this situation. You will see constant risky situations because partners are not taking a few more strides to be good backup to their partners. A good example is right after a cross-pass in the defensive zone. The passer needs to immediately move back at least slightly behind the partner to be a backup and make a return cross-pass feasible. Front angled cross-passes in the face of forecheckers is always dangerous. Another example is around the net where the partner without the puck needs to look to support the partner with the puck, as well as provide back up. Failure to properly back-up creates unnecessary 2--on-1 and breakaway chances.


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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