Team Defence

This article is about the principles and fundamentals of team defence – it is not intended to emphasize systems. There are some points here that are bordering on a system, but these points are so important fundamentally that they are included. Good team defence is as much about effort and grit as it is about tactics and strategy. As always, the level of skill and execution of your players are the keys to success. Good one on one checking ability, angling, and speed are the staples of team defence. Skill and fundamentals go hand in hand. If your players are under-skilled or weak fundamentally, they will have a difficult time completing their jobs.

Defence offers a unique challenge for the coach in terms of motivation. You must be innovative in terms of how you teach and drill defensive skills and fundamentals and continually reward and encourage good defensive play if you want to have a team that wants to practice defence and takes pride in this part of the game. When you name the captain and the assistant captains as the leadership core of your team, you may find it beneficial to choose a defensively conscious forward for one of those positions.

There are three concepts associated with hockey that you must identify as a coach if your team is to have success at developing a solid defensive game – it happens that these apply to offence as well. Firstly, they must recognize the difference between puck possession and puck control. Secondly, they must understand transitions, and most importantly, support. These should be understood conceptually as well as graphically by your players and your staff, and should be included in your key teaching points for every drill.

The first read your players must make in any given situation is who has the puck. Then they must make decisions based on the immediate pressure on the puck and the positioning of the supporting players on either team. They must also consider the area of the ice the puck is in, what options are available to the player in possession, and the level of control of the puck carrier. These are the main factors that affect what a player does on both offence and defence.

There are three levels of control with which your players must become intimately familiar – you can call them what you like. For our purposes, we’ll call them by numbers. Level 1 occurs when a player has the puck in his possession but because it is along the boards, in his feet, or he has bobbled it, etc., he is not in a position to make a play with it. This type of control also encompasses the likelihood of control such as when there is a loose puck, etc. The next level is when a player has it firmly on his stick and is able to direct the puck in a number of ways, but he is under pressure so he must protect the puck – or he is slow at controlling it when he gains possession, and is not able to make clean plays with it. Level 3 control is when a player has the puck comfortably on his stick and is not being challenged, with his head up and able to exercise all of his options.

Transitions are traditionally viewed and taught by coaches as a shift from offence to defence or from defence to offence. Teaching transitions in their entirety means making your players aware of the three areas of offence (breakouts, zone entries, and net drives) and defence (forechecking, backchecking, and zone coverage). If your players recognize when and how to transition between these, (as well as transitioning from offence to defence and visa versa) you will have a better chance of creating and generating team speed and puck speed, and you will be in the best position to check from anywhere on the ice with minimal set-up time. Defensive strategies that require time to set up are prone to failure because most often the opportunity to disrupt the attack passes while you get into position. Transitioning from a forecheck to a backcheck, and from a backcheck to pressuring and covering in your zone is a key area to focus on for the coach. You must make your players aware of the concept of over and under forechecking and backchecking.

Support and speed are fundamental to all aspects of hockey and should be the first thing taught to players and the most important concept stressed for the coach. Without support and speed you have nothing. Players must become familiar with the concepts of close support (around the puck), and secondary support (away from the puck). A good defensive catch phrase is: “who’s on it” and “where’s it going”? Without a clear understanding of support, your team will suffer from the inability to pressure skilled players and cover options off the puck. You will also have a difficult time recovering loose pucks generated by successful one on one checking and you will not transition well from defence to offence. The reason for this is that instead of putting the other team on the defensive, you will be forced to play on the defensive side yourself because of the inability to close down a play and turn the puck over to a player in a position to gain a workable level of control. Many times a team forces the other team into a bad area of the ice with low quality control to force a turnover, but lose it again because of the lack of support around the puck.

Immediate, or close support is a primary defensive fundamental to stress for a coach. Relying too heavily on the one on one checking ability of your players is a dangerous way to play – especially in your half of the rink. You will encounter many situations where your player is disadvantaged by skill, size, being at the end of a shift against a fresh player, etc. – you could compile a fairly long list. Or … your player could meet with some bad luck such as catching an edge or breaking his stick, etc. In any case, the closer you get to your net, the narrower the margin of error. Pressure with speed and close support, and challenge them to find an open man.

When you mention a 2 on 1 in hockey, most coaches automatically think of 2 forwards coming down on 1 defenseman. As a coach, you must cultivate a defensive 2 on 1 mentality in your players around support principles. You obviously need to have quick and hard pressure on the puck. The next level of support gives you the 2 on 1 defensively that you need to be effective as a defensive team. That level of support and the actions of that player are determined by the factors that affect decision making as have already been covered in the previous paragraphs. Sometimes the second level of support will be hard on the puck, and other times it will come from a distance – but getting the 2 on 1 is critical, if not essential to team defence. When you are drilling defensive skills and fundamentals, include a large percentage of your time to 1 on 1 play and the roll of the first support player in the 2 on 1. Make skills and fundamentals a large percentage of your defensive practice time.

Instil in your team these defensive fundamentals:

  • Match the other teams speed and have superior stick speed. Individual foot and hand speed is most important – your players should be faster because they don’t have to handle a puck.
  • Identify and defend passing and shooting lanes with your stick on the ice. Be aware of inside/outside positioning.
  • Take direct routes to your intended target. Get your body turned quickly in the direction you want to go, and skate hard.
  • Take away their ability to make direct (lower skilled) passes – force them to skate or pass through you. This will hamper their ability to generate puck speed, and force them to make higher skill level plays (over sticks, through legs, etc.).
  • Pressure the puck at all times but especially on the exchanges. This is an important point if you want to challenge the offensive team and force them into making mistakes. Quite often a player will miss-handle a pass and you can force them into moving, or protecting, the puck before they have complete control.
  • Always outnumber your opponent around the puck. The ultimate goal of any defensive tactic or system is to get the puck back – not just contain. Get the 2 on 1!
  • Play tough at the lines. Don’t allow controlled shoot-in plays or easy access to your zone.
  • Finish checks. This involves not only taking the body, but also eliminating sticks. Many plays are completed and goals scored because a defender was in a good position to make a check, but simply didn’t finish the play by making physical contact with the puck, and/or the body and stick of the player in possession.
  • Create support up and down the ice (north and south) as well as across the ice (east and west). If your D and forwards don’t support each other on the same side of the ice, the support must come from the other side, which can leave holes.
  • Play inside and net side in your end of the ice. Don’t let them make plays in your blind spot.
  • Stagger your transitions. Prepare your players for situations in which some may be forechecking while the others are backchecking, etc. It is usually only for short periods of time that all five players on the ice will be facing the same circumstances when you are pressuring the puck and eliminating options off the puck at the same time.
  • Establish a defensive angle and a point of attack. Drive the play wide and play with tight support on the strong side and down the middle of the ice. This challenges the skill level of your opponent by making it difficult to make cross-ice passes, which force your team to skate distances to adjust to a new puck position. Diminish the area in which they have to work, shortening the time it takes to close gaps.
  • Force the opposition to play the game under pressure. You will be a very hard team to play against if your players learn to battle away from the puck. Everyone on your team has to engage at least one player at ALL times. This can be a physical or a mental battle but … Make your presence felt!
  • Don’t lose one on one battles. You won’t win them all but make it as close to a tie as possible and get help.

Forechecking should be presented by the coach as checking when you are pressuring the puck in the direction of the other teams net – not only when you are going after the puck in the opposition zone. This definition can be expanded to include checking a player face to face. You have to look at it this way to best teach the skills to check in this manner, and also so that your players make the correct reads for seamless transitions. When the other team is on offence, you must respect their effort level and the speed of the puck.

These are the main fundamentals to stress to your players and your team for forechecking:

  • Have good skating speed.
  • Establish a defensive angle.
  • Attack in the passing lanes. This will allow you to battle two players at once – the puck carrier and his team mate.
  • Try to force them onto their back hand.
  • Communicate.
  • Don’t let one pass to beat two players.
  • Don’t allow anyone to skate past you with the puck.
  • Make sure your defensemen are actively involved in the forecheck. This is very important! You will have a difficult time pressuring down ice if you allow easy forward passes to be completed, and you will force your forwards to do a lot of unnecessary skating which will tire them out. If your D battle their high forwards breaking out, you can force them to stay deeper in the zone and you are less likely to get beat with a long pass – and you can get back pressure sooner. Again … create north/south support with the D and forwards.
  • Stay alert for clues as to when to transition. If a player reads off the immediate pressure, the level or likelihood of control, and the support players, he will gather the necessary information to make the right decision most of the time.

Backchecking is the main ingredient in team defence – it is the link between your forecheck and the coverage in your zone. Regardless of how well your team forechecks, or how well they play in their zone, if they do not understand and ‘buy into’ a backchecking philosophy, you will not be able to develop strong and consistent team defence. Similar but opposite to forechecking, backchecking should be viewed as checking when you are headed in the direction of your net. It does not mean that you chase the other teams forwards back to your blue line when they get past you with the puck, and immediately skate to where you are ‘supposed’ to be in your zone. You could say it means checking a player who is skating generally toward your goal and who is travelling in the same direction as the checker. This is an important distinction to make because a player will encounter many situations in which he is called upon to stretch or expand his zone coverage with back pressure for short distances quickly in his zone. An example of this situation would be a high forward helping a low player who is caught flat-footed in a quick developing two on one drive to the net.

A good defensive team is prepared to transition from a forecheck to a backcheck with at least one forward backchecking ahead of the puck. The amount of immediate pressure and support around the puck, and the level of control and options for the puck carrier will tell a player when to transition to a backcheck – even if his team mates are still pressuring on the forecheck. If your players collect information only off the forecheckers, you will quite often get all your forwards beat and your D will have to back off. The main reason for defensemen giving up large, unhealthy gaps (other than lack of confidence in their skill level) is that they don’t get consistently tight backchecking support. When your defensemen can hook-up with the forwards, it gives them all confidence to play aggressively. The first backchecker and the strong side D must converge on the puck carrier before the red line so that he can’t shoot it in. Forcing him to skate with it in desperation to get to centre will slow down their ability to generate puck speed. If they gain the red line … do not give up the blueline or allow any delay tactics by the puck carrier – make him have to out-run his support. Drive the puck carrier into hard coverage and do not allow another attacker to penetrate deep without the puck by letting the puck carrier gain control past your blueline. Teach your players to use the lines on the ice and the icing and off-side rules to their advantage, and also to understand the consequences and ramifications of giving up the zone.

As with all aspects of defence, the critical factor for a backchecker is to pressure the puck and/or eliminate options. This involves not only getting players into the personal space of the attackers (close enough to engage), but to actually force the puck carrier to move or protect the puck by putting pressure on the actual puck. ‘Pressuring the puck’ is not just a figure of speech, but must be taken literally. Your players should be checking body to body and stick to stick. This will take the puck carrier out of his comfort zone by driving down his level of control and thus, occupy his play-making energy. It will also add an element of confusion for the players who are in support of him – it keeps supporting players ‘honest’.

The general guidelines for backchecking are:

  • Have at least one player backchecking ahead of the puck.
  • Pressure the puck until it is turned over.
  • Confine the play to one side as soon as possible.
  • Match the offensive speed of the attackers.
  • Play inside and net side (especially when you are in your zone).
  • Over-load to protect the middle of the ice. The net is in the middle of the ice and eventually they have to bring it to the middle or shoot from outside. As is always the case with defence, play the game in the passing lanes.
  • Never be the last one back. If you are … your team is out-numbered on the rush. You have to jump on the net side of the attackers and block their path to the net.

Your forwards have to be made aware of the need to backcheck all the way back to their net when it is necessary. They must work with the D on their side of the ice and the first forward back has to assume pressure to the strong side. Your defensemen should be secure in the knowledge that they can stand up and take/pin the man before the blueline and have someone to recover the puck without forcing your weak side D to leave the mid lane open. I apologize for making this sound like a system, but it is very important to team defence that you supply back pressure to the strong side in this manner. The primary support system and pressure has to be between a forward and a defenseman – not D to D! The D have to stay united and ready to help each other out, but if they have to play on the same side of the ice without sufficient back-side support, you are asking for trouble.

They also have to be able to pursue the puck if it is moved by the initial puck carrier. If the first forward coming back assumes the responsibility of covering the initial puck carrier, even if he passes it off, the D know they don’t have to worry about that player getting back into the play and becoming an option for the new puck carrier, and they don’t have to consider playing a short-ice two on one, or a player getting behind them to recover a chip-in. Now both D (who are facing the play) can play strong down the middle to drive rushes into the corners and identify second wave attackers. It is harder for a forward who is drive skating to turn a defenseman when he is being pressured from behind. Although it is sometimes necessary, you will weaken your coverage if both D are forced into a situation where they must check the same player. The forward and the D communicate who takes whom. On offence, forward and D support is also obvious when a forward crosses the blueline and drives deep. If the D are supporting, the forward knows he can cut back or delay and he will have someone open late.

Making player changes can be done quite nicely by deep forecheckers when they are on their way back into their zone. You can cheat on the change a little and get a fresh player on while gaining five to ten feet of ice. It makes more sense to get a fresh player on than it does to have a tired player playing in your zone. Many coaches insist that their players don’t change when the puck is going toward their zone. If this is what you believe … you may want to reconsider. Maintaining defensive pressure while changing players is a tactic often over-looked by coaches. When game conditions require your players to keep the tempo up on teams at certain times in games, staggering your changes on the forecheck and on the backcheck can get a fresh player or two on against tired opposition, and if you can get a stronger player on against a weaker player you can create a miss-match.

Defending in your zone has been the source of many a grey hair for coaches. There are a few basic principles that have already been covered, as well as a few fundamentals that will make this easier for your players. The first thing you have to do is to make your players aware of the fact that the attacking team is going to be very aggressive. They will raise the intensity level the closer they get to your net, and you must at least match this or you will be blown away. Most defensive zone systems break down because they do not meet the competitive level of the offensive team.

Your goaltender has to be a major consideration for you as a coach, as he is a big part of your defensive zone system. There is more information on this point in the Goaltender article of this series. Communicate with your goaltenders, observe their stronger traits and tendencies, and develop strong goaltending on your team with the drills you employ. Get lots of shots and challenge your goaltender in practice. This also makes sense for your players as they will develop better offensive abilities and smart defensive play in a competitive environment. If you take into consideration things such as what kind of shots they are facing, how many, from where, the time (in seconds) between shots, etc. when you devise your drills, you will automatically take care of a large portion of your offensive practice.

The most important areas of the ice are the prime scoring areas – they don’t call it the prime scoring area for nothing. Call it the ‘red zone’, mid-lane low, or whatever you like … but make no mistake that this is where you need to be the smartest, and the toughest if you want to win hockey games. In your zone, you must establish a strong, persistent and consistent presence around your net. You cannot allow easy access or uncontested puck possession anywhere in your zone, but especially in the prime scoring area. Your players must battle and challenge their ability to get open. You must insist that your players control the hands and stick of the player they are checking in this area. You can have good body position and be ineffective as a checker if your opponent has his hands free and his stick available.

The important concept of ‘time and space’ is accentuated in your zone. With enough time and space, even an unskilled player will make plays. You have the best chance of controlling time and space if you can confine the play to a small area – you already know about limiting their movement to small sections of the ice. Don’t try to cover the entire zone if you don’t have to – you will just create seams and shooting lanes.

The worst thing a defensive team can do in their zone is to quit skating. It is virtually impossible to check someone or to cover someone driving to a good shooting position without the puck when you are standing still. You must stress skating and stick speed, as well as thinking speed. This will eliminate their time with a good level of control. Getting on someone immediately, if not as or before they come into possession of the puck is critical in your zone. The task for your players is to force them to make one touch passes under extreme pressure – attack when the puck is exchanged! Quite often a player will bobble or mishandle it when it is passed to him. If you jump on the player receiving a pass, you can force one-touch passes when the player doesn’t have good control. This will often lead to loose pucks and you can take the body or recover the puck. Don’t make the mistake of confusing speed, pursuit, and pressure with running around in your zone. Running around is when your players are ‘hypnotized’ by the puck and are not eliminating options. This can be done just as easily when they are moving slowly or not at all as it can be when they are skating.

Making the transition from a backcheck to D zone coverage is a major component in any defensive system. Following a few obvious guidelines will make this easier. When the other team makes an attempt at breaking into your zone, the first priority is to control the actions of the puck carrier by out-numbering and pressuring him, and taking away his options. Try to force the early shot on a rush and let your goaltender take care of it. Forwards coming back must hook up with the puck side D and stay committed to this effort until they are successful at turning it over. Only when there is a loose puck as a result of a dump-in, a shot on net causing a rebound, or the puck carrier being checked, can your team stop backchecking – and then only when it becomes obvious that your player will recover the puck. Another instance is when the other team makes a line change, which is often the case when they advance the puck into your zone.

In the defensive zone, support principles are highlighted. If you expect your players to play strictly a zone or a man to man system, be prepared to get beat down low a good deal of the time. They must be allowed to play some sort of combination of these two systems with alertness as to where the greatest threat lies, and they must be given the freedom to cover for each other without hesitation. The determination and skill level of your team, including the goaltender, will be the main criteria for what defences will work best for your team.

Good offensive players will naturally choose the path of least resistance – they will adopt a ‘take what they give you’ philosophy. When you are supplying hard coverage in your zone, which should be all the time, and you are supporting by getting numbers around the puck, you will quite often have to give up something, or at least ‘cheat’ a little. The coach has to decide what he is willing to concede in order to prevent getting pounded down low, or to prevent weaker players from being keyed on. You should never forget that you have another player to cover the open man – your goaltender. When you are teaching and practicing defensive zone coverage, include your goaltender in the plan. If he is aware of where there could be a soft spot in your team defence, he can stay alert and focused on that area. If, for example, you have to relax the coverage on the weak side point in order to prevent net drives, your goaltender can battle him and should make the save most of the time – as long as he can see the puck.

Another key factor in successful zone coverage is when the puck is moved to the point, you can’t allow the first player to shoot – force him to move it by charging toward him with body language that indicates contact. He should be limited to the options of passing D to D, or putting it back into the corner. In either case, forcing him to move it gives your team an opportunity to cover these options from any type of coverage you use, and gives your goaltender time to find the puck and get set.

A coach must devise ways to combat a variety of offensive tactics. Stretch passes, switching/cycling, give and go plays, wide-lane, mid-lane and net drive plays, etc. are all part of an offensive teams weaponry. The defensive team must be equally as creative and flexible if they are to have any chance of neutralizing skilled offensive teams. Developing good offensive skills and fundamentals on your team is a must, as hockey is a game of offence. Having a good offensive team gives you a chance to develop the defensive part of the game if you can create a practice environment with hearty competition. Competitive, game-like drills are a fun activity for players, and offer the best solution for the coach on how to teach and develop team defence.

Teams will adopt the mannerisms and attitudes of the coach. In terms of bench coaching, you need to pay strict attention to how your players focus on the activity of the opposition players away from the puck. If you can’t do this yourself, educate and empower an assistant to take on this task. If, during games, you as a coaching staff only instruct players who are directly involved with the puck carrier, you will ‘hypnotize’ your players and they will become overly consumed by the puck. As was mentioned earlier, develop your defensive philosophy around the catch phrase “who’s on it” and … “where’s it going”?

Even if you are coaching in a non-body checking division, realise that hockey is a contact sport. Controlling a team physically is a big part of the game. The only difference in the way the two divisions play from a physical standpoint is that in the non-contact game, you don’t follow through with the hit. Your players should always be body-to-body and stick-to-stick. For those that are coaching full contact hockey, there are five situations and corresponding areas of the ice in which you need to challenge physically if you want to win the physical battle as a defensive team. If your team is running around trying to make hits everywhere, it’s ok if you are setting the tempo, making a statement or trying to create confusion for there attack, but you will not be able to keep that style up for more than two rotations of your line-up without causing a physical melt-down of your players. Playing physical can be very hard work, and if you come out with a flurry of hits and then have to back off, you may give the other team some energy and wake them up as well. Furthermore, you will create a mindset amongst your players that may constrict their offensive instincts.

If you want to dominate a game physically without hampering your overall game, you must consistently make hits in the five situations to follow. That’s not to say you shouldn’t make contact anywhere else if the conditions are right, but if you let the other team ‘off the hook’ in these areas, you will make the job of defending as a team more difficult. Obviously, you don’t have to drive players through the boards, because physical contact is about supplying another dimension to the offensive players consciousness, but you must consistently pressure with hard coverage (body contact) in the following situations. We’ll start from their zone and work out – always remembering to observe sound defensive fundamentals.

•  Deep in their zone (especially on their D). You have to try to force quick decisions and bad passes. Try to get players on their backhand and/or to execute a no-look rim.

•  On the half boards in their zone breaking out . You can prevent good second passes if their forwards on the half boards are forced to make plays under pressure. In this situation, you must school your players on this check, because you may get some untimely pinches by your D.

•  On their high forwards in the neutral zone breaking out . This area of contact is arguably the most vital and the most often neglected by coaches. Basically, if you are going to be a pressure team, you cannot expect to have any degree of consistent success if your forwards are pressuring up ice and your D and/or a backchecker are allowing easy second passes to be completed, or chip-outs to be recovered. Your players should adopt similar techniques to a Free Safety in football – playing off the man and making contact as the puck arrives, or playing tight to discourage the pass and/or force the passer to hold up. These techniques should be used everywhere on the ice, i.e. covering point men in your zone. As always, the situation and conditions will determine how to play off the puck – there are no absolutes except that you must force decisions.

•  On their point men in your zone . Your opponents have to know as a team that they are going to have difficulty getting time to shoot and make plays from high in the zone, and under the threat of being hit. Again … instruct your players so that they know they don’t have to ‘cover’ the point, only be able to get there. Also, playing off the point gives them better sightlines for the whole zone, allows them to support low if needed, and gives them the opportunity to get some momentum toward their check to make a hit.

•  On players driving to your net with the puck . This is self-explanatory however, your players should also be mindful of the puck. Allowing players to dangle, protect the puck with a high degree of control, use you as a screen, or skate onto loose pucks to shoot in the prime scoring area will most often result in goals against. You may want to qualify any comments you make to your players about taking the man and forgetting the puck! If a player goes in the net it’s not a goal! Coaches often say that if you control a player’s body you will control the puck. This statement could not be further from the truth. Teaching your players to steadfastly stare into an attacking players chest without pressuring the puck will get them beat when they get to higher skill and speed levels. This is especially true versus players who use longer sticks and learn to make plays through holes at an arms length away (just watch players like Jagr, Spezza, or Getzlaf for example). Skilled offensive players won’t let you make clean face-to-face body contact unless they are forced to protect the puck in some way.

Teach your players to make quick pivots and changes in direction and skate hard in straight lines. Take direct routes to your target spots and your checks.