Defense and goaltending typically wins championships. It’s interesting how year after year the Stanley Cup–winning team typically has the fewest goals against. Great defensemen are great at getting the puck and starting the offense going the other way. Here’s how to keep it going.
Move your feet. Great forwards are great at battling and managing the puck. I tell the defensemen that I train that if you are not moving your feet, then you are doing something wrong. This is not to say you should have happy feet, but when you get the puck you need to move your feet. When you are shooting the puck, you need to move laterally. Lastly and most importantly, you have to move your feet to get great gap control
Communicate. If you are not communicating on the ice with your D partner and goalie, then you are doing something wrong. I am talking about being a second set of eyes for your partner and navigating for them vocally—loud and clear right on the ice.
Master shooting the puck 13–15 inches off the ice. Both forwards and defensemen should work on shooting 13–15 inches off the ice, which is the hardest slot for goalies to see and the hardest shot to block. Most goalies will butterfly and the puck will go over the pads. It’s easiest for goalies to block shots on the ice or top shelf. I used to practice this shot myself for hours a day. Stack a couple of pads in your goal to force yourself to aim in that very difficult area for goalies to block—again, 13–15 inches off the ice.
Control the gap. Gap control starts after the breakout pass; defensemen should race up as fast as they can to support the forwards. Don’t ever think your job is done after your breakout pass. Skate up for the back pass and be ready to jump into the play—but be ready to get right back. If a turnover happens, you have created great gap control for your 1-on-1. Remember, if you are not moving, you are doing something drastically wrong. The game is geared towards offensive defensemen. The days of the stay-at-home defensemen are gone.
Use a longer stick. With your skates on, you typically want the stick at your chin—but defensemen should try an inch or two longer for a better reach. Stick on puck sounds basic, but defensemen need to do it at all times. They need to strengthen their arms to hold the stick firmly with one hand. Their stick should be disturbing their opponent at all times. I used to carry those grippers in my car and I would practice my grip all the time. Reach and arm strength is everything.
Skate faster backwards than forwards. Bobby Orr. He was the one. He was the first player who could skate faster backwards than forwards. When I coach—whether it’s a Squirt team, prep school or my highest level select team—we start off practice with three laps around at full steam. Forwards go forward. Defense goes backward. We may have to wait for them, and we do, but that does not make them feel good day after day of watching the forwards wait. As a defensemen, you can never turn your back to your opponent. I ask kids, “Would you cross the highway with your eyes closed?” You need to face the traffic or opponent at all times. Always stay square, looking at them in the face, with your long stick disturbing their flow if they are carrying the puck.
Study your teammates. To this day, I can remember guys’ jersey numbers and which hand they shot with. The defensemen especially need to know their team as the game is fast and you need to know which side your winger/center is going to catch a pass. It will become part of your subconscious memory. You will know who you are passing to by looking at his or her number. As a defenseman, you need to know what kind of blade your D partner so you can pass to the correct side. (There is a song on the radio right now that makes me laugh every time I hear it: “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5. It makes me think of Jaromir Jagr not Mick Jagger. When I played for the Penguins, I had the luxury of breaking out the puck and passing it up to Jagr. He told me, “Jeff, don’t worry about getting me a good pass. You worry about getting the puck to me. Shoot it at my head, my chest—as long as you get me the puck. I can slap it out of the air, I can grab it. Just get the puck to me every time.”
Take TREMENDOUS pleasure in your breakout pass. A good breakout pass used to feel as good to me as scoring a goal. Defensemen start the play and a bad start can turn into a disaster in your end. A bad breakout pass will get you benched in the pros and sometimes even in college. “Remember, you have more time than you think, but not as much as you would like.” Take that extra second to sit the puck down and give a nice pass. If you throw a grenade to a teammate, then it will eventually blow up and end up in your net.
Don’t get beat. Even in practice, you should feel a little on edge—worried about getting beat and not doing your best on each and every drill. This is for the guys and gals who are taking the game seriously. I was always scared one of my teammates would beat me. You should all feel that way. If you want to raise your bar to the next level, this is really great advice. The players who are somewhat nervous in practice are focused and giving it their all, and guess what? They will produce in the game. I am not talking about only goals. Good breakouts from the D. Forwards winning battles. Every time I had a 1-on-1 battle I treated it like life or death.
Fake a shot first. Almost every single time I took a shot, I would do a fake shot first. This is a beauty at younger levels, but it works during prep school, college and—believe it or not—the pros.
Defensemen have no time for crossovers. I was an old dog that had to be taught this new trick when I was playing. Now, I try to teach kids this early on now so they cannot fall into this trap. The game is too fast today. Defensemen need to hone pivoting not crossing over. This allows you to always stay square with your opponent. Watch Nicklas Lidström; he never crosses over, hence he very rarely gets beat.
Editor’s Note: Thank you to Jeff Serowik, a former NHL player and founder/president of Pro Ambitions Hockey, for this story.