Defensive zone coverage: How Barry Trotz’s Islanders protect the middle

They patiently wait for the opponent to settle for low-quality chances.

Dolphins are one of the smartest species on the planet.

When they aren’t finding new ways to have fun in the surf or displaying an ability to recognize themselves in a mirror (one of only four animals with this cognitive ability!), dolphins are using their intelligence to come up with ingenious solutions for hunting prey.

One trick that they use to catch schools of fish in shallow water is the ‘mud net.’

A dolphin will slap its tail on the seabed, dislodging particles and creating a mushroom cloud of mud. The trapping dolphin will encircle a school of fish using this technique, creating a ‘mud net’ that collapses around the school of fish with only one way out. They must jump out of the water and over the ‘mud net.’ Unfortunately for the fish, the dolphins are there, waiting to catch the fish, their mouths open, and stomachs empty.


In this instance in the animal kingdom, the ‘mud net’ is used as an offensive technique but for the New York Islanders in these Stanley Cup playoffs, similar principals are deployed in their defensive system:

  • Dictate the battle on your own terms
  • Eliminate time and options
  • Patiently wait for your ‘prey’ to make a mistake

Protect the house

The idea of protecting the house isn’t revolutionary. The slot area in front of the net is the most dangerous spot on the ice and where goals are most likely to be scored so intuitively, fortifying and defending this hot spot when on the defensive side of the puck is wise. However, some teams are better at defending the house than others and the Barry Trotz led Islanders are one of these playoffs’ best.

Diagram of the slot or house. (Credit Melbourne Ice Hockey via Russian Machine Never Breaks)

The Islanders boast a 1.83 xGA/60 at even strength which is good for fourth in these playoffs. Their first-round victory over the Washington Capitals saw them outscore their opponents 11 to 3 at 5-on-5. How was Trotz’s team able to shut down a Washington offence that ranked sixth in the regular season for xGF and what can a team hoping to replicate their success learn?

Against sustained puck pressure, the Islanders defensive ideology is to force the puck to the outskirts of the zone and take away the middle areas, promoting shots from low-danger areas of the ice and limiting quality scoring chances from in close and from east-to-west passing plays. This is obviously easier said than done when playing against some of the most offensively gifted hockey players on the planet but the Islanders are consistently able to execute this strategy better than most.

Good defensive teams are able to dictate the flow of play rather than chase the puck. In Trotz’s system, their win conditions rely on keeping the puck to the perimeter and ideally, force the puck into the corners and fight to win back pucks in this area. Below we see the Islanders effectively containing the Capitals in the corner with their players effectively check-attaching themselves to the Washington puck carriers.


As the Islanders trap the Capitals in the corner, notice that the net-front defenceman and F3 in the high slot are taking away any passing options out of the corner and into the slot area.

They patiently wait for the opponent to settle for low-quality chances . . .



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1 comment

Brett Lee

Sharing my passion for hockey through video and analytics. Vancouver native working in Toronto.

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