Spacing is a term more often heard in other sports, but even if hockey has its own particularities, the concept remains crucial to offence.
The more attackers you bring in an area, the more defenders will follow, making it hard to create meaningful plays. Spacing aims to counteract this. It refers to the ability of a team to spread out to exploit holes in the defence.
More and more, we see conscious spacing from NHL formations. As defences have learned to contain the endless puck-cycling in the corners of the offensive zone, teams now prefer to use the width and length of the ice to set up scoring chances. They fill open ice. They increase the distance between attackers and move the puck away from defenders. They manufacture breakdowns, and then, they strike inside.
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Spacing makes the ice less crowded, giving attackers a singular check to beat instead of multiple ones. It creates an environment where individual skill can shine and where there is more potential for defensive breakdowns and odd-man advantages (2-on-1s, 3-on-2s, etc.).
Of course, hockey is much faster-paced than football, soccer, and even basketball. There are fewer occasions to stop, regroup, and plan offensive spacing.
However, by applying certain principles, it will manifest naturally in the flow of the game.
Layer the offence
Attackers should aim to give multiple options horizontally and vertically to the puck carrier. As the defence stretches itself to stick to their coverage and counteract spacing, it becomes easier for teammates to find holes between defenders.
Spacing also helps generate different points of attack. As the team covers more of the surface, they can better retrieve loose pucks and re-start the offence from other angles.
Scan the ice
Spacing can be formulated as a rule: avoid bringing your defender onto teammates, or more specifically, into the passing, shooting, and driving lanes of teammates. If an attacker already occupies a certain spot or lane, then another one shouldn’t move in the same space, congesting it and closing the play.
Always be moving
Offence usually requires movement. Rare can an attacker sit inside space. As the attack swirls, players have to continuously move at different speeds to find new spots to support it.
When a player stops, he eliminates one variable for the opposing team; defenders should always have to keep track of both shifting attackers and the moving puck. Overloading the awareness capabilities of the defence creates breakdowns.
Below are a few NHL examples of great spacing that leads to scoring chance.
Examples of spacing
Off the rush spacing
The first clip is a net-drive, the more common, systemic use of spacing. Off the rush, at least one attacker moves ahead of the play to drag or push the defence towards the net, creating space in the upper half of the offensive zone for a trailing teammate to set up a shot.
The layered, diamond-like formation of the offensive rush gives multiple different options to the puck carrier. It also helps spread attackers so they don’t close each others’ plays.
The second clip illustrates this.
A trio of attackers enters the offensive end. The puck carrier moves along the wide lane, one forward attacks the net, and another slows down at the top of the zone — crucial to the play. By not mirroring the motion of his net-driving teammate, the higher forward doesn’t bring his defender inside the cross-crease passing lane. It remains open and the trio scores from it.
Offensive zone spacing
In the offensive zone, spacing allows the team to establish possession. By using the width and length of the ice, they control the puck away from collapsing defences.
By spreading out, they also stretch the defence, attracting it to the outside. This way, they create space in the middle of the ice. Attackers can then drive the open slot from the periphery, moving in from behind defenders’ backs to become shot options.
When the puck circles the offensive zone, attackers popping open also drag defenders away; their conscious efforts to spread, to become pass options on different layers, create open ice and better opportunities for other off-puck teammates.
In the below clip, as the puck carrier attacks the wide lane, John Tavares (Maple Leafs #91) pops open in the high slot, dragging a defender away. The movement reduces the defensive presence around the net, which allows Alex Kerfoot (Leafs #15) to find space there and score a second later.
Good off-puck decisions or movements from attackers enable the offensive plays of teammates. By spacing out, players can effectively contribute to the offence without ever touching the puck.
Examples of poor spacing
In the following clips, attackers kill offensive plays by not moving their feet to give passing options or by failing to create enough distance from teammates. As a result, one defenceman can cover two attackers at the same time or help off his non-threatening, stationary coverage to shut down the puck carrier.
Spacing isn’t the be-all and end-all of offensive strategies. There are a few occasions where crowding one part of the ice is the right play. For example, when possession is contested on the walls or when a rebound sits loose near the crease. Then, the main goal is to establish numerical superiority to win the puck.
However, as spacing helps prop up the talent of all players and creates more scoring chances, it’s a concept coaches of all levels of competitive hockey should have in mind when designing and practicing offensive play.