Could Hockey’s Best Defensemen be Hockey’s Best Forwards?

Today’s article is a special contribution from Gus Katsaros.

Young skilled defensemen are stepping into the NHL earlier and more developed than ever. Capable of a rover style, they’re integrating into more offensive chances and making impacts at a younger age with more offensive skillsets. Developing better rover defensemen should also require teaching forwards more defensive discipline to remove any restraints and reducing overall risk on the ice. If the blueline impacts scoring more, forwards must impact defensive support for balance. The rotational nature of stepping up in support will require forwards covering up, and their defensive game will also have to adapt. Teaching forwards responsibility could go a long way toward assisting defensemen development – and provide a more free flowing game in the future.

Sounds fun, right?

Communication is even more important now, with all the positional switches in every zone. Defensemen have be great communicators, and often coordinators, instructing forwards on positioning or intention to trigger support.

Mobility is a baseline skill now, a must have quality, with rovers normalizing skating prowess across defense pairings and expanding the back end versatility and capabilities. Defensemen are in the best position step up in the transition and support the rush. Sometimes these days they even lead it.

Defensemen contributing to the creation of offensive chances has fully emerged in the mainstream, gaining prominence with feature articles on NHL.com and even here, outlined in a history lesson.

Not everyone can be Erik Karlsson, however – rushers could be secondary to puck movers with outlet ability, getting pucks up to skilled forwards producing more controlled zone entries. Defensemen must support the rush and try to hit ‘four to the line’ in transition.

Blueliners don’t really ‘pinch’ anymore, they’re active participants in the offensive zone cycle, stepping off the line to keep pressure in the zone by design, supported by capable forwards in a rotation. Manning the point and being proficient in keeping pucks onside in the first two or three feet of the offensive zone is important. We can’t forget the ability to walk the line. A big shot with a long windup is less desirable – and being used less – than the ability to accurately get pucks on net for rebounds and tips.

This chart shows groupings of 5v5 points by NHL defensemen from 2015-16 to 2017-18. The amount of defensemen scoring between 0-9 points declines year over year, while the group with 10-19 points absorbs the graduates from the 0-9 group. The position’s impact will manifest in small increments, but skilled blueliners will have more impact especially among the lower pairings. Flexibility to throw out any pairing to compliment a forward unit is a keen advantage for any coach.

This also illustrates just how few elite blueliners really exist in the NHL. Teams have to make up the disparity with a balanced blueline corps.

Defensemen have changed since the puck rusher/stay-at-home combo, balancing the creative license of the rusher with defensive support. Puck rushers used to be the premium talent. They got prime minutes and moved pucks up ice with the man advantage mostly driving the red line and firing it into the zone. Some attempted zone entries. Speedy forwards would retrieve the puck flooding the zone with speed, and imposing physicality on the forecheck.

Anticipating the dump-in, defensemen could line up a little deeper in the defensive zone, cheating a little with a head start to the puck retrieval.

Eric Tulsky published a landmark study that focused on shot generation from controlled zone entries versus dump-ins and changed the future of defense, affecting tactics, skillsets, and positioning.

Defensemen are required to step up at the blueline, retreating back into the zone should have some proposed solution to getting the puck back or keeping players to the outside until support arrives. Backward skaters are more vulnerable and can be exploited as forwards attack their feet, forcing unwanted pivots and turns inducing imbalances to gain advantage.

The study also reduced the immobile ‘stay-at-home’ type that couldn’t keep up with the modern skating game. Big plodders that could cheat their way to puck retrievals struggled when moved up to the blueline to defend zone entries. They can’t rely on the physicality in corners and brutish strength in front any longer – every blueliner has to contribute something on every pairing.

Defensemen as rovers expands the boundaries for the definition of the position. Forwards will have to supplement their skillsets to thrive in conjunction with the improved blueline, and produce more of a total hockey experience.

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