The defensemen are winning the dump-and-chase battle
Posted by Dean Holden at June 12th, 2014
by Jack Blatherwick, 5 June 2014
No doubt ‘dump-and-chase’ is a strategy that wins in the NHL Playoffs, but we’re selling our younger players short if we don’t allow them to learn offensive attack by trial and error. At what age do we totally abandon playmaking and insist on ‘getting it deep’ when we cross the red line?
I don’t know the answers, and they aren’t mine to make. I do know that if youth and high school hockey are nothing but platforms for adults to win games – if a coach doesn’t have the patience to allow turnovers when youngsters try creative plays – that coach will never have a hand in the development of a Patrick Kane.
The reliance on dump-and-chase hockey in the NHL is another story, of course. It’s a business. If the coach doesn’t win, he’s done – well, maybe that would happen to a PeeWee coach. Are the missions the same at the PeeWee and NHL levels? That’s a scary thought.
But I write this week not about what we are doing to forwards when we teach them there’s nothing more to offense than getting it deep, crushing the D, throwing bad-angle shots on goal and crashing the net.
It’s about what this does to defensemen. The NHL has made a clear statement: “Until someone is killed, there will not be a charging penalty for skating 200 feet and boarding the defensemen.” However, even though the odds are stacked against the D, their future is a bright one, because as a group, they are fighting back. I don’t mean fighting back as in the ugly hit by Brent Seabrook on David Backes. That was inexcusable and out of character for Seabrook.
No. The D are fighting back in ways that will change the game in a positive direction. Dump-and-chase only works if the D fails to clear the puck out of the zone quickly and cleanly. The first requirement is that once a D touches the puck, it must leave the zone either by a perfect pass or indirectly off the glass or by ringing it around the boards. Quick transition kills the forecheck. At a higher level, the best D are the ones who have made these playoffs a thing of beauty at times, the ones with the talent and poise to make brilliant passes – sometimes 100 feet – on the tape, so their forwards have an advantage on the attack.
The neutral zones get clogged up like a traffic jam when defensemen ring the puck around the boards. It makes life miserable for their forwards and reduces their chance to attack with speed, but this is a must sometimes when the forecheck is too quick. But the days in pro hockey are numbered for D who use the boards every time. They play on teams that head to the golf course before the playoffs even start.
Seabrook, Keith, Doughty, Mitchell, McDounaugh, Suter, Spurgeon and many other skillful D kept their teams alive much longer in the playoffs with passes that make forwards better. And that is the future of hockey: Offensive attack is as dependent on the skills of defensemen as the creativity, speed and effort of the forwards.
Here’s evidence: When Tyson Barrie went down with a knee injury caused by Matt Cooke’s leg, the Colorado Avs had no chance to win the playoffs – or even play at the Wild’s level. The Wild forecheck began to dominate each game. All of a sudden, the forwards looked like a bunch of Zach Parises, and this newfound ‘Wild identity’ is likely to change the future of the franchise. The puck is in the offensive end a lot when opposing defenders can’t make quick breakout passes that discourage the forecheck. The Wild D could. The Avs D couldn’t (without Barrie).
So I have a final question: If breakout skills are the future of hockey, will we adjust and develop defensemen with this in mind? Right now in most youth practices, the D are backing up without a puck on their stick for most of the hour – learning to defend against the rush. They’re learning about ‘Gap control?’ Hells bells. My dog could learn it in two rushes, and defensemen spend their entire life learning to control gaps.
Defensemen need stick skills, vision, anticipation, agility and poise with the puck to beat the dump-and-chase strategy – so we better prepare them for this with practices that push them out of their comfort zones with the puck.