Posted by Dean Holden at March 1st, 2013
by John Russo, 21 February 2013
Note: This will be one of the articles (Chapter 5; Position Development) in John Russo’s soon to be published new book “Best of Coaches’ Corner – 26 Years.” Watch for it in 2013.
Over the past years, this column has dealt with the defense position several times. The Golden Rules for Defensemen has been included annually because it has been the most requested subject from coaches.
Most coaches are naturally forward- or overall team-oriented. That means that few coaches concentrate on the defense or goaltender positions as much as forward positions. Over the past years there has been a move toward proper handling of and concentration on goaltenders. That leaves the defense position, in many cases, as the one that most lacks orientation and understanding.
In a recent discussion with a former Olympic coach, he described defense as undoubtedly the “most under-coached position in hockey in the USA.” I have found no reason to dispute this statement. In fact, watching (and coaching) defensemen at the high school level in Minnesota over the years has brought me basically to the same conclusion.
It might be added, however, that part of the problem with defensemen may well be that there is less understanding or orientation by coaches concerning the position. Several factors that also attribute to the current situation at the defense position are:
• The game has sped up considerably over the past 5 to 10 years – in all zones.
• Due to game speed, it is more difficult to just back out of the zone and play “straight back” defense, without proper forward support.
• Offensive systems are more complex.
• The skating skill demands on defensemen are greater while practice and “free” time for development has not kept pace (i.e: practice-to-game ratios are going down as is shinny time).
• It has become less fashionable to “dump” the puck out of danger in the defensive zone – so defensemen need greater puck handling and passing skills.
The most overwhelming reason for defensemen problems, however, is the failure of coaches to recognize that it is the most demanding skating position on the team. Consequently, it requires special consideration for who is to play defense and in the development of the skills needed. I still see coaches switching wings to defense position because youngsters can’t handle the wing position. It remains even more true in today’s game that defense is the most demanding position, then center, then wing. This is especially true with the pressure that the “tag up” rule creates.
Players who cannot handle a wing position certainly cannot be expected to be good defensemen. Consider the following:
• Defensemen must not only be excellent forward skaters but must also have excellent backward skating and backward/forward turning skills. They must also have the speed to deal with fast forwards.
• Defensemen most often pass the puck in the dangerous defensive zone with the maximum amount of traffic – so their passing skills must be outstanding.
• Defensemen must be able to carry the puck (if necessary) in the defensive zone where the most pressure and congestion exists.
• Defensemen shoot the puck from a greater distance than forwards and must develop the proper speed, level and accuracy to make these shots effective.
• Defensemen must be able to handle (physically and psychologically) a variety of disadvantage situations under the pressure of mistakes being immediately recognizable and detrimental to their team.
The acknowledgment of defense as the most demanding skating position does not demean the wing or center positions. They each have substantial demands that must be satisfied to master their positions. They must also ultimately be effective scorers to be successful. Nonetheless, defensemen need to master more skills.
Youth coaches must look for those players that have good skills and potential for continual development for their defense positions. They must then continue developing and monitoring these players so that they can gain the broad range of skills they will need at age 16 to 18. Partial-year experience at forward positions, especially center, while moving up through PeeWee and Bantam levels is also an important part of a defenseman’s development. It gives them a better understanding of the situations faced by forwards and also keeps important offensive skills better honed.
Even the best teams always seem to be scrambling to be able to ice even four to six capable defensemen. The most successful teams are generally the ones that have their defense position well developed.