They’re an integral part of any winning team.
But learning how to play defense in ice hockey isn’t as easy as it sounds.
In fact, it’s one of the questions I hear most often from readers, which is what pushed me to write this post.
This beginner’s guide to playing good defense in hockey is a perfect place to start if you’re new to the position of defenseman, or if you’re just looking for a refresher on what your main job is in each zone. In Part I, I’ll cover the various defensive play styles as well as how a defenseman should position himself in the offensive zone. Part II will cover the two remaining zones—the neutral zone & defensive zone.
While I’m a forward by nature, I made a name for myself as a two-way forward and know a thing or two about how a defenseman should play his position.
Now, the way you defend varies from team to team, so this beginner’s guide is really more about helping you establish a solid foundation as a defensemen that you can build off of and adapt to your team’s play style & system.
By the end, you’ll have a better idea of what your role is in each of the three zones, as well as what you should be doing with and without the puck.
But first, let’s take a look at various defensemen types so you can associate yourself with one and match your play-style accordingly.
It’s easier to notice what you’re doing right or wrong when you have someone you can compare yourself to. Knowing what type of defenseman you are (or would like to be), you can then watch an NHLer with a similar play-style and learn from his actions. This is one of the best ways to learn!
Different types of hockey defensemen
There are, in my opinion, only four types of defensemen. They all have the same overall goal in that their job is to stop the other team from scoring, but their overall play style differs quite a bit.
Keep in mind, there’s some overlap in the different categories (ie: PK Subban can be considered an offensive defenseman like he can be considered a two-way defenseman). It’s more of a general classification than anything.
The stay-at-home D
This defenseman is Mister Safe. He keeps his game simple, and rarely makes mistakes. He has an excellent first-pass which means he’s an asset on the breakout—finding the open target and putting the puck right on a player’s stick blade comes easy to this type of defenseman.
But he’s not a big scoring threat…
He’s more comfortable in his own zone where he knows his role—blocking shots, moving players away from the front of the net, and winning battles in the corner in order to clear the puck.
He doesn’t play with much flash, but he gets the job done and doesn’t get scored on very often.
He usually boasts a great plus/minus.
The offensive defenseman
This defenseman type has an offense-first mentality. He can obviously play defense, but he’s there to contribute offensively as much as possible. He’s usually on the first power-play, and most likely has a cannon of a shot or is considered the quarterback of the powerplay (the one who carries the puck and sets things up in the offensize zone).
He’s a great skater, passer, and has amazing vision & hockey sense. Collecting goals and assists is his job. A lot of the team’s offense stems from his ability to move the play forward and start the attack.
He may not be used when up by a goal and defending the lead, or when trying to kill penalties (although he might be used more often depending on the defensive core’s makeup).
The two-way defenseman
This defenseman is equally comfortable in the offensive and defensive zones. He’s able to play a solid defensive game by shutting down the opposing team’s top players, and he’s also able to contribute offensively if that’s what you need him to do.
When defensemen of other types get injured, the two-way defenseman can step in and fill a greater role—he can take over the offensive defenseman’s or stay at home D-man’s job if need be.
He’s extremely versatile, and can be used in any situation—up a goal, down a goal, on the PP or PK. A true asset that you can fit into any defensive core.
The enforcer is the big, bad D-man. The defenseman that no other team likes to play against. He’s the guy that tries to end your life if you try and get by him along boards.
He sets the tone, and can swing momentum in his team’s favor at a moment’s notice.
He’s a physical presence, and he lets his presence be known any chance he gets. Whether it’s by throwing his body around, giving a little cross-check behind the play or slashing any stick that comes near him, he’s a force to reckon with.
He makes players think twice before cutting to the middle, and forces them to keep their game simple.
Opposing players don’t want to face him. He’s tough to hit, he’s tough to battle against and he’s tough to play against—he’s just tough really.
What type of defenseman are you?
Determine what type of defenseman you are. Look at the four types of defensemen above and choose the one that closely resembles your style of play. This will help you assess your progress moving forward as you improve as a defenseman.
If you’re unsure which type of defenseman you most resemble, ask your family, friends or coaches—they’ll be able to point out your strengths and weaknesses, which should align with one of the before mentioned defensemen types.
If it’s not what you expect, then you’ll have to work on your skills and change your play style or decide to perfect what you’re already doing well.
One thing to keep in mind is that if others notice you as one type, odds are it’s because you’re doing a good job at it!
That being said, there are things all defensemen must do, regardless of their play style…
Play basic defense.
Let’s move on to your role as a defenseman in the offensive zone (I’ll cover the other two zones in Part II).
Offensive zone tasks
In the offensize zone, your main objective is to keep the puck from exiting the blue line as long as possible so that your forwards can continue on the attack and hopefully score a goal.
That’s your main goal. Everything else is gravy.
Now, there are several things you need to keep in mind in order to accomplish this goal, and they depend on whether or not you have the puck—let’s break this down a little further.
With puck possession
When you yourself have the puck
If you have the puck on your stick at the blue-line, you should’ve already went through your mental checklist. I’ve written about puck management for defensemen in the past, so if you’re unsure what to do with the puck at the offensive blue-line, read more about it here.
Remember that your main objective is keeping the puck in. If you’re pressed for time, just put the puck back in the corner or take a shot on net.
Keeping the puck in the zone—even if your team has to fight for possession again—is 10 times better than turning it over.
When your D-partner has the puck
Now, assuming your defensive partner has the puck, you’re going to want to be what we call his ‘safety valve’—always in a good position to get back and save the day if something goes wrong.
You’re definitely going to want to stay open for a pass across, but you also have to be ready to back-check if he turns the puck over to the opposing team.
The key is to anticipate the play that’s about to unfold while remaining a passing option for your partner.
For example, if your partner has an opposing winger putting some quick pressure on him and you feel there’s a slight chance your partner’s going to have his shot blocked or lose the puck, you have to be ready to regain the middle of the ice and get back to stop the breakaway.
That’s your job. It may be his mistake turning the puck over, but it’s your job to take back the middle of the ice and stop the breakaway.
Always try and predict the turnover before it happens.
When your forwards have the puck
When your forwards have the puck low in the zone, you’re going to want to get open for any scoring chances when possible, but defensively speaking you’re going to have to be aware of “cheaters” and “cherry pickers” at all times.
Opposing players WILL try and blow by you sometimes, going for that high-risk high-reward “Hail-Mary” pass from teammates.
Always keep the opposing 5 players in front of you, and be sure to retreat back if a player leaves the zone. You should also always be a stick-length or two away from anyone who decides to sneak behind you.
Even if an opposing forward decides to skate up out of the zone and towards the red-line, you have to stay by him.
You might think this is the wrong thing to do because it makes it easier for the other team to get the puck out of their zone, but you have to have faith in your forwards and know that they now outnumber the opposing forwards.
If the opposing team ends up breaking out of the zone on your side because you were covering one of their forwards higher up near the red line, you’re still in a great defensive position to stop the rush.
Had you stayed at the blue-line and hoped to block the “Hail-Mary” pass or chip off the glass, you might have let their forward get away with a free breakaway.
So the key here is to always be aware of the opposing 5 skaters—especially the forwards who like to cheat and leave their zone before the puck does. All it takes is one little chip or flip of the puck into the air from their defensemen and they’re gone on a breakaway. Always be aware!
Without the puck
When this is the case, you’re again in a state of ‘read and react‘. You want to try and anticipate the play developing before you while always being ready to leave the zone and take the rush if need be.
A good tip is to somewhat mirror the puck—this means try to stay in line with the puck.
For example, if the puck is near the net, you’ll want to be closer to the middle of the ice than to the boards. If the puck is in the corner, you’ll want to be closer to the boards than to the middle so that you’re only a few strides away from stopping a rim or clearing attempt by the other team.
Always read and react:
- Pinch down to keep the play alive if you’re 100% sure you’ll get to the puck first and can keep the puck in the zone.
- Hang back at the blue line and seal the wall off if you think they’re going to try and clear the puck out hard off the boards.
- Start to back up if you feel they’re going to execute a clean breakout so you have enough speed to defend the rush.
- Slide closer to the middle a little bit if the play is in the opposite corner, but not so far that you can’t get back to the boards to stop a hard rim if that’s the case.
And while this post is all about defense, still keep yourself open and sneak in backdoor if there’s an opportunity to score(if and only if your D-partner is aware and can back you up).
Playing defense isn’t easy.
You’re expected to block shots with every part of your body, move players potentially twice your size away from the front of the net, and run around from corner to corner try to recover the puck.
And while a defenseman’s task seems pretty straight forward—to stop the opposing team from scoring—there’s more to it than that.
I’ve just covered the different defenseman types and the thought process that should be going through your mind in the offensive zone with and without the puck.
Two things that can help you improve your game right away:
- Ask your teammates, family & friends what kind of defenseman they see you as, and focus on playing within that type’s play style.
- Focus on being aware of the thought process the next time you go out and play defense—try and make conscious decisions based on what you see and feel from the play developing in front of you. Read & react to the play, but also try and anticipate—over time you’ll learn to trust your skills, and your overall confidence & effectiveness as a D-man will improve.
That’s it for today. Check back next week for Part II of the beginner’s guide on how to play defense in hockey, where I’ll cover the neutral & defensive zones—where the real defense happens!