The defensive zone breakout is a crucial piece of the hockey puzzle…
Teams that excel at the break out tend to enjoy more puck possession, more goals for and less goals against than teams that struggle down low in their own zone.
Think about it.
If you keep the puck as far away from your net as possible, it makes it kinda hard for your opponent to score. There’s a reason coaches & players spend so much time mastering the breakout—it’s a skill that pays and pays the more you master it.
In fact, coaches & scouts love players that excel on the breakout.
And if you know your hockey, you know that there can be no breakout without the winger (well, there can be, but let’s just say the winger should be involved most of the time!).
As a winger who played both RW and LW for many years, I had quite a bit of time to work on my breakout skills—I worked on them before practice, after practice, under pressure, and even with no pressure at all.
Throughout my career, these skills served me well in every-day games, and even in big moments—championship moments—where I was relied on to help break the puck out of my zone to protect our lead.
I want to share what I’ve learned with you so that the next time you get the puck on the half-wall as a winger, you know exactly what to do to maximize your chances of making the right play and breaking out of your zone with ease (without creating a turnover or getting clobbered by an opponent).
By the end, you’ll know the exact 4 steps you should run through in your mind—as a winger—each time you’re about to initiate a breakout to ensure maximum effectiveness.
Here’s how to become a MONSTER on the half-wall and make breaking out as a winger in hockey look easy.
The winger’s job on the breakout
Simply put, the winger’s job on the breakout is to get the puck out of the zone at all costs.
Note: It doesn’t matter if you’re left wing or right wing. The following rules apply when the puck is on your side of the ice.
That said, just because your job is to get the puck out of the zone, it doesn’t mean you have to fire it down the ice blindly every time it comes within reach.
As a winger on the break out, you have a logical progression of plays you can make with the puck that range from keeping complete control, all the way to losing it entirely (AKA firing it down the ice).
What I’m going to teach you in this article is the order in which you should evaluate these options in order to make the best play possible given the situation.
And remember, all of this ‘thinking‘ happens in a short period of time—within a split-second.
But don’t worry…
Once you learn this simple 4-step execution plan and practice it in real game situations, it’ll become second nature and you’ll get faster and faster over time.
Let’s take a look at how this all works.
Preparing for an effective breakout
First things first…
Before I get into winger breakout options, you have to understand how to get yourself ready to initiate a breakout.
Initially, when the other team has the puck, you’re in DEFENSE mode. You’re not even thinking about breaking out.
This means you should be 100% committed to playing defense—not blowing the zone, not cheating up high, and not standing still near the boards. Whatever your job is in your D-zone (most likely covering the front of the net or covering the opposing D-man), is what you should be doing.
Scan the ice
Only once your team recovers the puck should you be switching your focus to the breakout.
Does your team have the puck? Good. Now it’s time to scan the ice and start skating over to your position on the breakout.
If you only remember one thing from this entire blog post, let it be this—scan the ice BEFORE you get the puck.
You want to make sure you have all the information you need in order to make the right play once you do get the puck.
Make sure you take in information such as:
- How much time do I have?
- How much room do I have?
- Where is the opening?
- Where are my teammates?
These are all things you’ll be able to take a mental picture of with just a quick scan of the ice after a bit of practice & experience as a winger.
Now that you’re in position and have a good idea of what’s going on around you, you’re better equipped to make a good play if the puck does come your way.
Again, I can’t stress how important this is…
If you just do what I mentioned above, your breakout skills will improve.
Got it? Good 🙂
Now let’s look at your different options as a winger on the breakout.
4-step execution plan for wingers on the breakout
Your first option is always to skate.
As long as you have room, you want to start moving up the ice with the puck. Too many wingers stand still when they receive the puck on the boards in their own zone. This makes you an easy target!
Your goal is to get the puck as far from your net as possible—skating up ice is the perfect start. What’s more, being immobile makes you an easy target for fore-checkers. You want to be moving your feet and getting up ice as soon as possible—even if it’s just a few steps before you make a pass.
Note: One of the things coaches higher up love to see is a winger that gets the puck and instantly moves his feet up ice. It helps your team transition from defense to offense and forces the defending team to fall back, especially if they have two fore-checkers down low.
2. Pass to center
Other than skating the puck out yourself, your best bet is to find your center man and make him a high-percentage pass near the middle of the ice.
I say high-percentage because if your center man is too high up, it’s probably not the best pass to make. If he misses the puck, the opposing team can recover it and essentially walk in from the middle and take a quality shot on net.
Passing to your center man is a great option if he’s well positioned—a few feet away, at lesser or equal height than you. This is ideal.
You should also make sure he doesn’t have any immediate pressure, as making him a pass in this case will most likely result in a turnover.
If you’re successful in passing to your center man, head up the ice alongside him to provide support in case he needs to give it back to you.
And remember…you should have a good idea whether or not you’ll be able to pass to your center man BEFORE you get the puck (Hint: gather this information when scanning the ice!).
3. Back to D
If you don’t have room to skate up ice and can’t use your center man as support, it’s likely because you have pressure from above (the opposing D-man or high forward pinching on you) and from the side (someone is covering your center man).
In this case, passing the puck back to the defenseman who gave it to you might be a viable option. You have to be careful though—your D-man might have a fore-checker close by as he just recently had the puck.
This ‘back to the D’ play wont work all the time, so don’t try and force it…
But when it’s open, it’s a great option for breaking out of the zone—your D-man can then send the puck over behind the net to his partner to initiate the breakout on the other side of the ice.
4. When in doubt, eat chips!
Yep, just eat chips! Let me explain…
So far, you’ve had enough time to either skate or make a pass in order to initiate a breakout.
But sometimes, you just don’t have that luxury. When you play at a higher level or with players that are bigger and faster, chances are you’ll have someone right up in your face as soon as you get a pass from your D-man.
That makes it extremely hard to skate up the ice, find your center man, or make an effective play.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. That’s why you have to eat the puck or chip it out!
Eat the puck
Eating the puck simply means protecting it with your body at all costs—not literally eating it.
*Legal notice: I am not responsible for any damage caused by your attempt at literally eating any pucks. You’ve been warned 🙂
Use your skates to jam the puck up against the boards, use your stick to keep the puck as far away as possible from your opponent, and use your body as an obstacle to stop attackers from stealing your puck.
The goal here is simply to wait for your teammates to come and help you. You’re essentially creating a battle and waiting for support to then clear the puck out together.
It’s not as effective as a direct pass or set breakout play, but it’s much better than creating a turnover. If you watch the NHL on TV, you’ll see that “eating the puck” happens all the time.
Then, there’s the “chips” part of the equation, which really isn’t as fun as a bag of doritos…
Chip it out
If you’re able to get free for even half a second, you’re going to want to chip the puck off the glass in order to get it out of the zone.
If you’ve been paying attention, you know that above all else, your job on the breakout as a winger is to get the puck out. By any means possible.
Chipping the puck off the glass is a great way to get out of a sticky situation. It takes practice to get the puck high enough so the defender can’t intercept it near the blue line, but with a bit of work you’ll be able to increase your chances of a successful breakout chip.
Just remember: When in doubt, glass and out!
So there it is…your 4-step execution plan for breaking out of your zone effectively as a winger.
First, you’re going to want to take in information by scanning the ice.
Get used to going through this mental checklist when skating over to your position (BEFORE you get the puck):
- How much time do I have?
- How much room do I have?
- Where is the opening?
- Where are my teammates?
Armed with this information, you can then make a smarter decision once you DO have the puck.
In order of importance:
- Your first option is always to start moving your feet and skate up the ice—from there, more options will become available to you to further complete the breakout.
- If you have limited time or space to skate up, use your center man for support if he’s both ready and open. Remember that your job isn’t done once you’ve made your pass—continue to support him up the ice and help them get the puck out at all costs.
- If you have even less time and space, consider passing the puck back to where it came from—your D-man—if he’s both ready and open.
- If you have no time or space at all to make a play, eat the puck and wait for help, or chip it high off the glass and out of the zone.
These are—for the most part—your main options on the breakout. Sure, there may be a few other things you can do (like a cross-ice path to the other winger), but the ones mentioned in the execution plan above are really your staples when it comes to getting the puck out of your zone.
With a bit of practice, you’ll be breaking pucks out of your zone with complete confidence in your abilities.
Get out there and start running through this execution plan!
Have any questions about breaking out? Leave a comment below so I can learn what you’re struggling with!