KEY TEACHING POINTS IN DEVELOPING AN EFFECTIVE DEFENSEMAN:
1) Stress Communication:
It is vital for defensemen to become vocal because it helps develop a trust in defensive partners. In general a communicative player becomes more confident and develops leadership qualities. Being consistently vocal also instills a level of confidence for other players in otherwise uncertain situations. Often defensemen are being chased into corners with their backs turned to the play and need to make quick decisions under intense pressure. Having someone consistently giving direction will lessen panic under pressure, increasing possession and intelligent decision making. Without the puck a defenseman can take more chances and be more aggressive if a partner is consistently communicating that there’s coverage for him should he lose the battle. Communication is a strong contributing factor to the rest of the items on this list.
2) Encourage Passes to Open Ice, Wherever That Ice is:
Allow a defenseman to use ALL options they see. If the best pass is to the front of your own net, that’s fine. If it’s up the middle, that’s fine. If skating is the best option instead of passing, that’s fine too. Discourage passing for the sake of passing. Pass with a purpose. Encourage your defensemen to skate the puck straight up as close to the middle of the ice as possible on a breakout. This opens the ice up and gives pass options on both sides, increasing the chances of a successful breakout. Building the confidence to use all options is more important than any turnover made during the learning process. As a player gets older, the systems coaches use against them will be more complex and players need to be creative enough to find and exploit the weaknesses, which are generally found in areas most people are taught all along NOT to look. We can’t stifle creativity making safe players because it will only get harder for safe players as they move up.
3) Develop Active Defense
Allow Defensemen to join, or even start a rush up the ice. Let them go down into the offensive zone if they are part of the primary scoring chance. Emphasize never leaving the defensive zone before the puck, and getting back into position in the offensive zone immediately after the primary scoring chance is over.
4) Encourage Aggressiveness at Both Blue Lines
To defend against a rush the key words are GAP CONTROL. The gap for each situation is different depending on the speed of the oncoming attacker and the numbers, but for the most part a defenseman can control how fast a puck carrier moves and where he goes with proper body positioning and speed matching. Let the gap between the defenseman and the puck carrier be too small rather than too big. It will force the attacker to slow down. The defenseman should be offset from the attacker, not straight ahead. This will create an angle and make the attacker go to space they might not want to go or force them to their backhand, etc. The goal is to get the attacker to run out of room going forward, making them either pass or go sideways instead. Encourage this to happen just outside the defensive blue line so that an attacker will be more likely to make a last second sideways movement forcing his team mates offside. To teach this, you have to be willing to let your team get beat on rushes early on. This could happen often, but a defenseman who gets a beat for two months while learning proper gap control will be much much better over time, and more confident over time, than the player who backs off every time and gives up valuable space on the ice with no resistance.
Of course, one of the easiest ways to defend a rush is to stop it before it happens. This means holding the offensive blue line and being aggressive on any plays up the boards. For defensemen this involves solid positioning on the line and confidence enough in their own skating ability to recover if they aren’t successful. A lot of it is timing and reading whether there is support from team mates. They will never develop proper pinching decision making if they are always told to back off. Yes, there will be mistakes but that is critical to mental development.
5) Create A Smart Shooter
Get your defensemen to walk the line. An active defenseman will force opposing players to move, creating passing and shooting lanes. It constantly changes shooting angles and buys more time and space to make the right decision. Encourage low, hard wrist shots. Encourage a quick release (this is NOT the amount of time it takes for a player to shoot after they gain possession of the puck. It’s the time it takes for a player to release the puck once they make the DECISION to shoot). The most important thing isn’t to get the puck at the net, but to get the puck through the traffic. If that means shooting intentionally wide or laying the puck into the corner, that’s always better than hitting a shin pad.
6) Teach Checking With a Purpose
Whether your level involves checking or not, the purpose of body contact is always the same: to separate the attacking player from the puck. This can be done safely and legally using angles to make opposing players run out of room to move. With patience, proper body positioning, and good gap control a defenseman can win any one on one battle. Discourage lunging forward and over committing. Whenever defensemen go out to the corner or behind the net to engage in a battle the number one thing is to emphasize is making sure they always keep themselves in a position where if a turnover does happen they will beat the opposing player back to the net.
7) Allow Time For Little Things
Let your defensemen spend some time flipping the puck up the ice or off the boards. They can practice clearing the puck into space and learn the weight to use to get the puck safely down the ice without it going all the way for icing. Let them practice shooting wide on the net and seeing where the puck goes.
“Player Development” is a regular feature of a Tough Call Blog. Check in on the second Thursday of every month for the latest development based article!