Throughout my coaching career, I’ve had the opportunity to coach some truly accomplished defencemen, many of whom, have played in the top leagues in Europe, and all the way up to the NHL. With their insights, we have developed the five essential habits that every successful defenceman must possess, in order to be an elite puck retriever.
For most hockey coaches who are already familiar with breakouts, such as D2D, Wheel, reverse, quick up and when in doubt high flip out of the zone, or simply rim the puck ( I personally am not a fan of rimming pucks), the concepts of the breakouts themselves are well studied.
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In this article, I will forgo discussing those breakout patterns and instead will drill down on the key specific habits, which will determine your defencemen’s ability to successfully retrieve, and ultimately make a play on the puck (focusing on the initial point of contact with the puck when a defenceman is under pressure with his back turned to the play going to retrieve a puck). If your blueliners aren’t comfortable with the skills necessary to execute the breakout, the breakout plays themselves will be much more difficult to execute.
Breakouts, by nature, are the team’s first opportunity to transition the puck, and determine whether your team will be able to create offence and neutralize the opposition’s forecheck. I view this as a real power struggle for territorial advantage and an opportunity to begin to tilt the ice, spending less time in the defensive zone and more time possessing the puck. It’s no surprise coaches at all age levels realize the importance of breakouts and how critical they are to a teams’ success.
Defencemen who can retrieve pucks under pressure and make plays can really enhance your team’s ability to break the puck out. Let us now breakdown the five habits necessary of a successful puck retrieving defencemen.
1. Have a plan
Shoulder checks are the key. Your ability to scan the ice before reaching the puck and assess the situation allows you to create a better angle to the puck.
2. Quick to pucks
The sooner you get to the puck the more time you will have to make a play and the higher percentage of making a good first pass — you want to be quick but don’t hurry.
3. Determine which side the forechecker is attacking from
Divide your body in half (left side/right side). Feel where the pressure is coming from, this will allow you to choose the best escape move whether it be to the strong or weak side and/or to gain the back of the net for additional protection.
4. Point of contact
Arrive at the puck under control and separate from your opponent with either feet or body — use invasiveness (your feet, stick, or head) — your ability to separate at the puck and gain those few inches, or split second, will allow you to make a play with the puck.
5. Put the puck in a workable area
Keep your hands away from your body, properly separated (whether one hand on the stick or two). You have more time than you think, keep your head up and deliver a good first pass.
Here’s video evidence of each of those five habits:
Defencemen are critical to a team’s ability to breakout the puck out of the defensive zone, and it is important for coaches to teach them the skills necessary to feel confident while performing this inherently dangerous task (similar to a punt returner in football).
Executing the breakout under pressure requires defencemen to make split-second decisions while under the threat of contact from the opponent. As a coach, it is critical you provide your defenceman opportunities, in practice, to acquire the skills necessary to feel comfortable and confident. I am a big believer in splitting up the defence and forwards in practice as often as possible, even if only 10-15 minutes (either at the beginning or end of practice). This time invested working with your defencemen can provide them with the individual attention required to develop the 5 habits of successful puck retrieving defencemen.
Below are some sample drills which may seem very basic at first glance, however having witnessed firsthand the dramatic improvements they can make on a defenceman’s ability to breakout of the defensive zone, I am often reminded of the phrase “the brilliant basics.”
Allocate specific time in practice to perform these drills, encourage your defencemen to do these drills at full speed (whether under pressure or not) and you’ll be amazed at the development of your blueliners.