This is Part II of the two-part series for defensemen on how to play defense in ice hockey.
Before you continue, make sure you read Part I: The Beginner’s Guide on How to Play Defense, which covers what to do in the offensive zone as well as some general tips for defensemen.
Let’s dive into Part II where I’ll share some general guidelines on defending in the neutral & defensive zones as a defenseman.
Neutral zone tasks for defensemen
Your play in the neutral zone as a defenseman depends heavily on your team’s system & style of play, but there are still some general rules to follow that can improve your defensive game.
Much like in part one, the tips I’m going to share with you depend on whether or not you have the puck, so let’s break the neutral zone down further.
When you yourself have the puck
When you have the puck as a defenseman in the neutral zone, your job is to move the play forward as quickly and efficiently as possible.
This all depends on how the opposing team sets up in the neutral zone. Depending on their play style, you might see an aggressive forecheck (often times called a press), a more passive forecheck (called a trap), or an extremely passive forecheck like the 1-3-1.
For more on the different systems you may encounter in the neutral zone, visit Coach Nielsen’s blog.
Whatever the case may be, it’s a matter of reading and reacting to the play in front of you.
Try and determine early on what type of forecheck the opposing team is playing in the neutral zone.
Scan the ice and see what your options are.
- Are they pressing you hard? Chipping the puck off the boards to your winger isn’t a bad play in this case.
- Is there only one forechecker putting pressure on you? Then your D-partner should be open. Attract the forechecker as much as possible, then make the easy over pass to your D-partner—he’ll have plenty of time to make the right play as the forechecker will take a few seconds to get to him.
- Is the forecheck somewhat passive? You might have to skate the puck up until someone pressures you, and then dish the puck out to one of your open teammates on either side.
- Are they playing extremely passive and have all the options covered? Move your feet and beat the forechecker to the red line to try and dump the puck in if no other easy pass presents itself.
Always scan the ice and look for the best option. Regardless of what neutral zone forecheck the opposing team uses, there will more often than not be an opening as players tend to make positioning mistakes in the neutral zone, especially at lower levels of hockey.
This can mean your center is open down the middle for a split-second, or your winger might be open just long enough to receive your pass and chip it into the opposing zone.
When in doubt, skate the puck up yourself or simply chip it off the glass.
A perfect example of a defenseman who can make something happen out of nothing in the neutral zone is Erik Karlsson. Watch how he turns a bad situation into a scoring chance:
Remember, you shouldn’t always be looking for a clean breakaway pass to your forwards. That opening rarely happens.
Just keep the play moving forward and minimize the turnovers, and you’ll be a great asset to your team.
When one of your teammates has the puck
When one of your teammates has the puck, things change a bit. You’re back to the “safety valve” role again.
If your D-partner has the puck, your only job is to support him. Be ready for the pass across, as it could come any time.
Your best bet is to stay a little below and off to the side of him, as forecheckers will try and cut between both of you and steer your partner (the puck carrier) away from you and up the boards to force the play to one side of the ice.
Even though the picture below is taken in the defensive zone, it still shows the importance of being below and to the side:
By being a little lower than your partner in the neutral zone, it makes it that much easier for your partner to send you an over pass if he’s in trouble—the forechecker has more ice to cover to stop the pass across from happening.
If your D-partner decides to skate the puck up one side of the ice, you have to trail behind and get a little closer to the middle in case he loses the puck. Again, it may be his fault if he turns the puck over, but it’s your job to be the last man back. Be ready to take the rush at all times when your D-partner decides to skate the puck up.
If one of your forwards has the puck, you should be slowly moving up the ice while watching the play unfold and staying close to your man (most likely one of the opposing wingers). This way, if your team turns the puck over, you have your man covered and can easily retreat and take the rush if need be.
Never leave an opposing player sneak behind you! Keep the opposing team in front of you at all times. If an opposing player sneaks behind you on your side of the ice, stay within 1-2 stick lengths of him. If he skates to the other side of the ice, yell at your partner to be aware of him so that he can take over and cover him from there.
Without the puck
If there was one word I could use to describe neutral zone play for defensemen without the puck, it would be ‘anticipation‘.
Your job without the puck is to stay close to the man you’re covering (most likely an opposing winger) while being ready to anticipate a pass, stop a player from dumping the puck in, or to stand up and deny the blue-line if you have support to back you up (most likely your D-partner or your centerman).
You have to base your decisions on what the opposing team does, and how well your team is forechecking.
For example, if the opposing team has complete control of the puck and is carrying it up the ice without much pressure from your forwards, you’re better off backing up and defending their attack instead of jumping up and putting pressure.
On the other hand, if your team is doing a good job of putting pressure on the puck carrier, you might be able to step up on him and force him to make a bad play-you’ll either create a turnover, force a dump-in, or get a good body check in.
You always have to make sure you have support before trying to jump up and make a play. Have a glance at where your forwards & D-partner are on the ice before making your decision.
Take this neutral zone press by Dustin Byfuglien for example…
If you pause the video at 3 seconds, you see a clear 3-on-4 situation. Byfuglien decides it’s safe to step up and play the body on Perry because he has good support from his forwards and his D-partner.
The result is a bone crushing hit, and a turnover the other way for a great scoring chance.
You’ll usually want to jump up and put pressure if:
- You anticipate the winger you’re closest to is about to get the puck—you should only be a stick length or two away from him to begin with, so jumping up and putting pressure on him is the right play so long as your centerman has the middle of the ice covered and your D-partner is ready to back you up (the last thing you want is for the opposing winger to simply chip the puck by you and create an odd-man rush).
- Your forward funnels the puck carrier to your side of the ice, and continues to maintain good pressure on him so that he can’t skate towards the middle. If the puck carrier has nowhere to go but forwards (in your lane), then it’s safe to jump up and pokecheck him and/or finish your hit if you’re allowed bodychecking.
- Or if there’s any kind of loose puck or turnover that you can get to first.
Neutral zone play is crucial to your team’s success, and knowing when to jump up and help out or stay back and play it safe is an important skill to have for any D-man, regardless of the type you choose to mimic (more on that in Part I).
Remember to always scan the ice and evaluate what’s going on around you before making your decision. Keep your head on a swivel and make sure that when you decide to go, you GO, and when you decide to hang back, you HANG BACK.
I can’t stress this enough.
Mistakes are made when players aren’t confident in their actions. Going half-way is never a good play. Either go all out or don’t go at all. Be sure of your decision and commit to it.
That goes for anywhere on the ice—not just the neutral zone.
Now, let’s take a look at defensive zone tasks.
Defensive zone tasks
As a defenseman, your main objective in this zone is to (obviously!) stop the other team from scoring at any cost.
If that means sliding to block a shot, putting your face in front of the puck, or even going airborne to block an open net, then that’s what you have to do.
Defensive zone play for defensemen is not easy by any means. You’ll have speedy forwards to chase around, skilled players who are just looking to slip the puck through your skates and embarrass you, and dangerous shots from the point aimed right at your head.
But someone has to do the job.
Here’s how to play awesome defense in the defensive zone.
When you have the puck
So you’ve managed to get the puck on your stick. Maybe you won a battle in the corner or picked up a loose puck in front. Whatever the case may be, your main goal now is to get the puck out of your zone as quickly and as efficiently as possible by initiating a breakout.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you can fire it off the glass and hope for the best—this is really your last option.
You should be looking to get the puck to an open forward who’s in a good position to move the puck even further up the ice, and hopefully out of the zone.
That’s your number one play.
It again comes down to scanning the ice:
- If you don’t have much pressure on you and you can make a high-percentage pass (a pass that has a great chance of being successful) to one of your forwards, then that’s your play.
- If you have too much pressure on you, check if your D-partner is open for an over pass behind the net. If so, get the puck to him. He should have more time to make the right play as the ice was overloaded with players on your side.
- If your D-partner and wingers are covered but you have time to make a play, chip it high off the glass and try and clear the zone. Never a bad play when no one on your team is open for a clear pass.
And if you have absolutely no time at all to make a pass or clear the puck, then protect the puck with your body until help comes your way.
If you’re in front of the net, try and put it softly in the closest corner and go protect it until help comes along. If you’re already in the corner, keep it between your skates or jammed up against the boards with your stick and again wait for help. Your D-partner or centerman should come along and help you.
One thing to note is that you shouldn’t just shoot the puck blindly through the middle when it comes your way. Many new defensemen simply try and get rid of the puck as soon as possible. Doing so causes many turnovers and scoring chances for the other team.
In fact, this is usually how scoring chances come about—when a defensive player makes a bad play and tries to clear the puck out by the middle.
Avoid clearing the puck down the middle at all costs.
The only time you should be using the middle of the ice is if:
- You’re passing the puck to your centerman who’s in the middle and is open for a direct pass.
- You’ve looked down the middle of the ice and you’re 100% sure no opposing players are there to stop your clearing attempt.
Any other scenarios and you’ll want to stay away from the middle.
When your forwards have the puck
When your forwards have the puck, you’re in ‘support mode’.
In hockey, we have a rule called the ‘5-foot support’ rule. This means the puck carrier should always have another teammate within 5 feet of him at all times in case he needs help.
For example, when the winger on your side of the ice has the puck, you should be close enough behind him to help out if he loses the puck or needs to drop it back to you due to too much pressure.
You should always be nearby in case something goes wrong. If he loses the puck and gets beat, you’re in a good position to defend against the attacker and stop him from getting to the net, or to recover the puck and re-start the breakout attempt.
Again, you’re the safety valve in case something goes wrong.
If the puck is on your side of the ice, hang back a little and be close enough to recover a turnover or help out if need be. You should always be keeping your eyes on the opposing forwards so you can be in a good position if they recover the puck and attack.
If the puck is on your D-partner’s side of the ice, your job is to cover the middle of the ice and provide lateral support, again while keeping an eye on opposing forwards and maintaining a good defensive position in case of a turnover situation.
When your D-Partner has the puck
When your D-partner has the puck in the corner, your job is to be near the front of the net. Here, you’re able to cover the opposing forward in front of the net (in case of a turnover) while also being close enough to go and help out your partner or easily go behind the net for an over pass.
You should only go and help your partner if there’s someone to take your spot in front of the net (assuming the opposing team has someone in front of the net).
If there’s no opposing player in front of the net, it means your D-partner is most likely getting outnumbered and needs your help. In this case, it’s OK to go and help out. Your winger should naturally collapse and cover the front of the net for you.
Usually, it’s the centerman’s job to jump in and help out the puck-side defenseman, so make sure to talk it out with your centerman and d-partner so you’re all on the same page.
On an over pass from your partner, you should look to take the puck behind the net to the other side of the ice and try initiating a break out from that side-either skating the puck yourself, passing to your winger/center, or chipping it out hard off the glass when under pressure.
Without the puck
Playing in the defensive zone as a defenseman without the puck is about 3 things:
- Winning puck battles.
- Covering your man.
- Limiting scoring chances against.
That’s defensive zone play without the puck in a nutshell.
Let’s start from the top.
Winning puck battles
Being that defensive zone play is essentially man-to-man, you’re going to want to always be close to the player you’re covering while he’s in the lower half of the zone.
If he decides to play higher up, then you’ll have to speak with your teammates and decide how to defend against a situation like that. But for the most part, the opposing forwards will look to have two players fighting for the puck while the third forward is a little higher in the slot, trying to get open for a scoring opportunity.
You’ll either be battling down low (in the corner) or covering the front of the net. Here’s a simple image from How to Hockey that clearly shows what your typical D-zone coverage looks like:
If you’re in the corner, you’ll most likely be battling for the puck alongside your centerman against two opposing forwards.
Make sure you communicate with your centerman so you know which man to cover. While this is happening, the other defenseman should be in front of the net, covering the remaining opposing forward who’s most likely hovering near the net.
When you throw in opposing players, it looks a little more like this:
Stay close to your man(again, 1-2 sticklengths) at all times so he’s not an easy pass option.
He shouldn’t be able to receive a pass and get a shot off. If he can, then you’re too far away from him.
When it comes to winning puck battles, you’ll want to stay on the defensive side of the puck as much as possible. That means staying between the opposing player and the net at all times.
You don’t want your opponent getting behind you. Always fight to try and regain defensive position by moving your feet and bumping your opponent or using your body if necessary.
The worst thing to do is to try and play the puck. All it takes is one quick move by the opposing forward and the puck is through your skates and he’s on his way to the net for a quality scoring chance.
Instead, keep your eyes on the player’s body. Let him do whatever he wants with the puck—he can’t get by you if you keep his body under control.
Keep one hand on your stick, and your blade out far in front to take away his space. While you’re watching his body, use your peripheral vision to keep your stick as close to his puck as possible. If you manage to get close enough, go for a quick pokecheck, all while keeping your eyes on the player.
Defensemen get in trouble when they start playing the puck too much—by focusing on the player and letting your stick do the work on the puck, you’ll be much more effective as a defenseman.
As for your other hand, it should be up in front of you, ready to shove or push the opposing player if he starts to beat you to the net.
Here’s a perfect example of lining up with your opponent’s body and not the puck to make sure he can’t get by you (in this picture, his stick is in the air, but only because he’s getting ready to pin his opponent on the boards):
Covering your man
Covering your man is an essential part of playing good D-zone hockey.
Many of the core principles I’ve mentioned in this article are key to covering your man effectively.
You’re going to want to stay on the defensive side of your player at all times—even if he doesn’t have the puck. So again, make sure you’re between the opposing player that you’re covering and the net at all times. He’ll have to get through you to score.
Secondly, make sure you keep your gap between 1-2 stick-lengths so you can press your attacker within a split-second if he were to get the puck. This gives him less time to react, and less time to make a good play.
And lastly, you don’t want to get tied up with your man. Contrary to popular belief, always having your stick tied up with your opponent’s stick is a dad idea.
Not only is he taking you out of the play, but all he has to do is get his stick free for a split-second for a quality scoring chance. Experienced forwards with good timing can simply roll off of you when the puck is coming your way, making for a dangerous scoring threat in close.
If instead you keep your stick free and ready, it’ll be much easier to neutralize your opponent’s stick when the time comes to do so, and you’ll also be ready to clear any puck that comes your way.
Limiting scoring chances against
Last but not least, one of your tasks as a defenseman in the defensive zone is to limit scoring chances against.
By following all the tips above, you’ll cut down on scoring chances against drastically, but there are a few more things you need to add to your game.
If you’re the net front D-man, you’re going to want to get in shooting lanes. That means placing yourself so that you can block shots and help out your goalie.
One simple tip for improving this is to place yourself in front of your opponent’s stick rather than in front of his body.
Instead of bringing your legs in close together and getting small & compact, it’s oftentimes better to stand up normally and “be big”. You’ll block more shots this way and help out your team.
Sometimes, if the shooter is close, you can go one-knee down and turn to the side while covering your face. This is a good technique for blocking shots from in the shot.
You’ll want to stay away from sliding all over the place though—it does more bad than good by taking you out of the play.
Again as the net front D-man, you’ll want to “box out” forwards from in front of the net when shots comes from the opposing defensemen.
This simply means to lift their sticks and push them out from in front of the net whenever a shot from the point is taking place. This will help reduce the amount of rebound goals, as there will be less people in front of the net.
This also allows your goalie to better see the puck as there are less bodies in front of the net.
Defense in the neutral & defensive zones is extremely important.
In the neutral zone, it’s all about scanning the ice and making the simple pass when you have the puck. When you don’t have the puck, be a good support for your D-partner & other teammates, and try to anticipate where the puck is going to be so you can jump up and force the play if your forwards are there to cover for you.
In the defensive zone, it’s all about winning puck battles, getting the puck out of the zone and limiting scoring chances.
Keep your eyes on the attacker’s body and your stick towards the puck, and pin opposing puck carriers as often as possible. Use your other arm as support when the forward is trying to beat you to the net.
Always make the simple pass when trying to get the puck out—when in doubt, use the glass. NEVER by the middle. When under pressure, use your D-partner (if he’s open) as a support by sliding the puck behind the net to the other side of the ice—he’ll then have more time to make a play. Be there for your partner as well when you’re the net front defenseman.
Stay in shooting lanes by lining up in front of your opponent’s stick and not his body. Block shots whenever necessary, but try not to slide—it takes you out of the play and creates openings for opponents.
Be ready to box out players from in front of your own net when shots are taken so stop them from getting easy rebound goals. Lift their sticks and push them out towards the corners to clear the net and make it easier for your goalie to stop the puck.
And that’s it for Part II of the series on how to play defense as a defenseman in ice hockey!
Hope it helps you keep that plus/minus up there! Best of luck!