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Hockey Positioning Primer: Center and Defensemen in the Defensive Zone

With the simple guys out of the way, we turn our attention to the complicated rotation among the low players in the defensive zone.

Sometimes low coverage is elegant, and sometimes you all end up in a pile on the ground.
Sometimes low coverage is elegant, and sometimes you all end up in a pile on the ground.
Ronald Martinez

A few weeks back, we started a series of stories on the basics of hockey positioning with the most basic of the roles, that of the wingers in the defensive zone.

(I can say that. I'm a winger.)

The next logical step is to look at their three teammates—the center and defensemen. While the general rules for winger positioning are fairly straightforward, the rules governing the low trio of the center and two defensemen are not.

If you play beer-league hockey, you may be familiar with positioning conventions that the left defenseman is responsible for the left half of the defensive zone, the right defenseman is responsible for the right half of the defensive zone and the center is responsible for the play in the low zone around the slot.

That's a great place to start in beer leagues, where positioning is best kept simple because players like me have enough trouble just getting to the right area, let alone deciding what we need to do when we get there. However, at higher levels of hockey, the three low players on the defending team (who as we discussed last time, can sometimes be a winger who gets back before a center) work in concert with a little less regard for traditional zones.

Now before we get into the basics, let me disclaim here that these are large, sweeping generalizations. Teams design defensive systems all the time that encourage some double-teaming with low players to create turnovers or cheat players to certain areas to jump the transition game. Additionally, teams may scheme for certain matchups—you may cover Sidney Crosby's line differently than you would the one centered by Boyd Gordon.

But if you're just drawing up the true fundamentals, the thoughts that everything is then built from, we head back to the core principle of in-zone defense—body on a body. There are five attackers and five defenders responsible for them.

In the majority of cases, two of those attackers are the point men who are primarily the responsibility of wingers. The other three are likely cycling or otherwise rotating their way around the low zone looking for space to pass or shoot. The three low players, then, are responsible for marking that swirling mass of humanity while basically keeping one man responsible for each attacker.

There are a number of ways to do this, though there is usually true man-to-man pressure on the puck carrier and more switching on the chaos that goes on around him. Often, though, the puck carrier can beat the first man and create a mismatch. Two main options are possible in this situation—the original defender can recover quickly or the low three can rotate so someone shifts to the puck carrier while the beaten defenseman picks up another of the low attackers.

Beyond that, there are a few other general principles. Most teams like to have at least one of the low three loosely guarding the area in front of the net if possible. More often than not, there will be an attacking player in the area who is his check. If there's no attacking player, it becomes a decision of whether there is an open player somewhere (there may not be if there's a line change going on) and if there is one, if he's in a dangerous enough area to warrant abandoning the high-risk crease area.

The constant switching and reads of a low trio is one of the biggest reasons that chemistry, both team and among a defensive pair, is important. Because switches are so necessary down low, players often react based on what they believe their teammate will do rather than wait to see what happens and then react, which could easily leave them a step behind the play. Having a good working idea of a defenseman's and a defensive pair's tendencies makes low defense much simpler.

Because things are so variable, let's jump right into some video stills to illustrate different ways things happen.

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Here we've got the Stars defending a cycle play from the Anaheim Ducks. The mish-mash line of Erik Cole, Cody Eakin and Alex Chiasson are your forwards while Brenden Dillon and Trevor Daley are the defensemen. To start, Cole and Eakin are in typical winger position (Chiasson is a little low but acceptable for a player with NHL skating abilities), Dillon is pursuing the puck in the corner, Daley is watching the front of the net and Eakin is out of frame on another attacker.

This is very traditional positioning, and it's all very well done. Chiasson's relatively low lane, though, has opened up an obvious pass.

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The pass heads over to that far point man, and now Chiasson has to scramble just a bit to recover. Eakin has floated into the mid slot as well to provide coverage to the shooting lane.

What's important to note here is the switch that is happening on the now-weak side. Dillon wants a piece of whatever Duck he's chasing, so he's going to rub him out in the boards. That's going to lead to a bit of a chain reaction.

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Dillon has just rubbed his guy into the boards, and the far point man recognizes the side that's been left open by the defenseman wandering up so high. Thankfully for Dallas, Cole has seen the same thing and has made a mental, if not verbal, switch with Dillon to take over the low triangle role.

As for the rest, Chiasson is going out to front the shot, Eakin is responsible for the Duck behind him and Daley for the one at the top of the crease (I know it seems like they're not really marking them, but once they turn around when the puck arrives, they are close enough to be able to get their stick on the Ducks' sticks). Everyone at least mentally has the right check.

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The shot has gone wide of the net, and things are starting to get a little chaotic. Cole isn't super low yet, but there's no Ducks player with him, so he's in decent position to pick him up.

The real issue is going to be the switch between Daley and Eakin. The Duck with the puck is Daley's man, but Daley is a full stride behind him with little hope of catching up on a circular route behind the net. Eakin, however, could go meet him at the far post and cut off a potential pass or stuff attempt.

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Here's where you can really see problems developing. This type of switch only works if Eakin communicates to Daley that he is leaving his man for Daley to pick up. Otherwise, you end up in a situation where you've got two players trying to cover one in the low triangle. Eakin is still in good position on his man, but he's in the midst of a decision that needs to involve more than just himself.

Given this was relatively early last season, you can probably guess what happens next.

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Daley is still pursuing the Duck and seems to have gained half a step. Cole has snuck down into decent position for a guy the Stars really never want as part of the low triangle (to be fair, Chiasson wasn't high on that list either). Dillon's still recovering from delivering the hit. And Eakin is heading toward the far post.

At this point, it's too late to communicate the switch. Daley is Committed (with that capital C) to his man - he can't recover to the guy on the far post very easily. Perhaps Cole is close enough to slide over and help, but Eakin needs to be able to communicate that.

I didn't get a screenshot of the next moment, but the Ducks player beats both Daley and Eakin to the post and shovels a pass across the crease as Daley lays a body check on him. Here's that aftermath.

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Dan Ellis made a great read here and kicks out his leg to prevent this from going in. Eakin has realized a moment too late that he left a guy all alone on the back door and is making a desperation dive. Chiasson has gotten sucked a little low wanting to help if the puck pops out, Daley is covering the guy he knocked down, Cole is sinking low to help with rebounds and Dillon is coming back into the fray to switch with Cole.

They went from great position to a mess because they didn't execute a switch very well. It happens—it's what offenses are designed to do—but it could have been prevented with better communication.

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That's how you get a puck kicked out behind the net with all five Stars on the ice within six feet of their goal. Poor communication after a relatively simple rebound play. Thanks to Ellis, this didn't end up in the Stars net.

So what are the takeaways about low defender positioning?

  • Communication and/or chemistry is of the utmost importance. The constant switching that goes on among the low three means everyone involved has to be aware of what job they are doing now and five seconds from now.
  • Body-on-body, or at least body-in-lane-to-deny-body, is the key principle. It doesn't matter how you get there. If the center is pressuring the puck-carrier in the near corner or the right winger is guarding the left post because the left defenseman rotated up, so be it.
  • There are a huge number of decisions to be made in the low triangle, not the least of which is the risk-reward of every positioning decision. Being beaten by a puck carrier is occasionally inevitable at the NHL level, and the decision making needs to be on point to minimize the impact.

I realize that might be clear as mud, but I hope you can at least take away some pointers to watch for. Later this week, we'll take a longer look at a play with an eye toward how low positioning to make things a little clearer.