Hockey is a fluid game and one where all players are needed to contribute to offensive and defensive success. The title “Defensemen” although, suggests that their primary role is to defend and eliminate the opposition’s chances against all while getting the puck to the forwards to create the offence. However, with an increased focus on strategy and teams defending better than ever, producing offence is no easy task. Teams need offensive contributions from their defensemen in all three zones in order to generate consistent scoring chances.
So how do we as coaches get our defensemen to activate and engage offensively? We can’t just expect them go out and do it, especially if the metaphorical “harness” has been on them in seasons past. We need to provide our defensemen with the technical skills, freedom, and problem solving skills to enable them to add these offensive abilities to their toolbox.
Here are six ways to encourage your defensemen to be major contributors in your team’s offensive game:
- Practice What’s Preached – If it’s active defensemen contributing to the offence you want, then you have to be practicing it constantly. Not encouraging creativity and taking chances in practice is a sure fire way to see a lack of translation to game play. Find drills to promote your defensemen engaging offensively or even just add small progressions to current drills to accommodate this part of their development.
- Skill Development – Prioritize the individual skill development necessary for your defensemen. Skating, passing, puck handling, and shooting skills are the foundation of a player’s game. At the end of the day, no matter the tactics and strategy that we as coaches deploy, players will always fall back on their most practiced habits. Ensure players have plenty of tools in their toolbox for whatever offensive opportunity is in front of them.
- Team Identity – Ensure that what you are asking your defensemen to do is in line with your team’s identity and style of play. If you are a passive defensive oriented team that relies on great structure and limiting risk, it’a going to be tough to truly enable your defensemen to take chances and play without fear of making a mistake because they were out of position. Make it part of your team’s everyday identity and it should be easier to get buy in and execution from your defensemen.
- Forward Responsibilities & Support – If you want your defensemen to take offensive chances then they will need support. Forwards must be aware of their responsibilities for support when a defensemen leads the rush or dives deep into the offensive zone off a cycle. Not only will this protect your team from a defensive standpoint, but it’ll also give your defensemen the confidence to make these types of plays, knowing that they have their teammates support.
- Video – An effective tool to use with your defensemen to better help them with their situational awareness and reads. Show lots of positive clips to reinforce strong plays, while showing only the most important mistakes to ensure correction and improvement. Also, incorporate clips of their favourite NHL defensemen and point out their good habits and decision making.
- Expect and Encourage Mistakes – As a coach we must always understand that our players are learning every practice and game. The biggest part in the process of learning is making mistakes. Players need to feel comfortable in trying to make plays, making mistakes and learning from them. This starts with the environment that the coaching staff creates. If you are asking your defensemen to be active and take chances offensively you have to be willing to accept and positively correct the mistakes that come along with that. It’s not allowing carelessness by your defensemen, but it is about allowing them to take chances, be creative and learn without the fear of a coaches displeasure when mistakes arise.
In today’s game a team’s offensive success ultimately relies on all five players on the ice. Defensemen need to be comfortable joining the rush and making plays under pressure. That confidence and the ability to make these types of plays doesn’t happen overnight. As coaches we must empower our defensemen and work with them to develop that confidence through their skills, tactics, and hockey IQ. Not all defensemen are going to be offensive superstars, but all defensemen can work to become better offensive contributors for their teams.