A defenseman can be more offensive, others are more defensive. Which kind are you?
By Tim Turk
To be an elite defenseman in hockey you need to be skilled both offensively and defensively. But there’s more to it.
In hockey, there are five main positions that are required to make up a successful hockey team. Every team needs a goalie, two defensemen, a left wing, a right wing, and a center. In addition, all the players filling these positions must communicate and work together effortlessly, like a well-oiled machine.
However, it’s not enough to just say that someone is a “center” or a “defenseman.” Why? Because different styles of play exist within specific positions in hockey. Some defensemen are more offensive, some are more defensive, and some exhibit a mix between the two styles, known otherwise as “hybrid defense.”
Of course, to be an elite defenseman in hockey you need to be highly skilled both offensively and defensively; but I’m referring to specialization. Some defensemen specialize in one of the extremes, and others are very balanced in their play style.
So what makes a defenseman play in a particular style, such as offensive, defensive, or hybrid? Below are the main skills for each defensive style. If you play defense, take some time to consider each set of skills and compare them with your own abilities to figure out which type of defenseman you are.
It may sound silly to consider a hockey player a “defensive defenseman,” but it isn’t a meaningless label. There are certain skills, listed below, that some defensemen exhibit more than others. This allows them to end up making them more protective on the ice. Likewise, there are skills mentioned in the next section, that make a more “offensive defenseman.”
The designation is exactly how it sounds: a defensive defenseman specializes in protecting their team’s territory and keeping the puck out of their net. Here are the most common defensive skills:
Initiating a Change in Puck Possession
One of the most important defensive skills for a defenseman is taking the initiative to retake possession of the puck from the opposing team. A good defenseman must be willing to engage the defensive system at the right moment, to avoid letting the other team close in too far on the net.
Confidence plays a huge role in the willingness of a defenseman to initiate a change in possession. They can’t be afraid of being outmaneuvered upon challenging an opposing forward. Otherwise, the other team will get a better opportunity to position them to score.
There are many ways to initiate a change in puck possession, and one of the most important ones is gap control.
As a defenseman, gap control involves closing the distance between you and an advancing forward who is carrying the puck. A defenseman with good gap control will pick optimal spots to challenge approaching forwards and push them towards the outside of the rink and away from a prime scoring area.
This is a defensive skill because it acts as another counter to the pressure that the opposing team’s forwards will impose when they’re attacking. Having fast, effortless, controlled skating (especially backwards skating) allows defensemen to retain the best position against an attack from your opponent. It also allows them to react to movement of the opposition, passes, and shots as fast as possible.
In hockey, hitting is a huge tactic used to stop the opposing team from scoring. If you have a fearless, intimidating physical presence, the opposing team won’t be able to easily approach your net. In short, you’ll prevent them from obtaining favorable shooting opportunities.
How do you develop an intimidating physical presence? You need to be willing to take/deliver checks for the good of a play. (Obviously, checking is not tolerated in most adult hockey leagues. Leave that to the pros.)
Offensive defensemen specialize in helping their team attack the opposing team’s net in the effort to score goals. While they still protect their own net, the focus is more on aiding the forwards on their team to get the puck in the net.
Of course, defensemen won’t be taking too many shots on the ice. But when they do, it’s important that the shots are consistent and accurate. Part of a defenseman’s offensive repertoire is the ability to take good shots so that they can either score (by a literal longshot), or their shot can be tipped into the net.
Rushing the Puck
Although a defenseman’s primary purpose is to protect the net, they still play an offensive role from time to time. An important offensive skill is the ability to rush the puck on a breakaway. The defenseman’s skating, stickhandling, and agility need to hold up if there’s an opportunity for them to make an offensive push to try to score.
Supporting the Rush
Another offensive ability closely related to rushing the puck yourself, is supporting a rush that your team is making. Defensemen shouldn’t be afraid to jump into their team’s push by either challenging enemy defenders or positioning themselves as an option to receive a pass.
A word of caution: you should always assess the risk of joining a rush before doing so. Check the positioning of the opposing team to see if it’s worthwhile to leave your defensive zone and go all-in with your team.
A hybrid defenseman shows balance between all the skills previously mentioned. They might specialize in position control and backwards skating while also having impressive shooting and rushing abilities.
There are four “hybrid skills” listed below, as well. The skills are important for all defensemen to possess, but for the purposes of fitting into an offensive or defensive role, the skills are more neutral. Specializing in these skills may mean that you’re more of a hybrid defenseman.
The term hockey sense is often mistakenly considered to be “intuition” for the game; this implies that it can’t be developed. That couldn’t be further from the truth, however.
Hockey sense is just a term for a large group of individual abilities, which can all be learned by practicing and studying the game. Following are the skills that fall under the definition:
- Versatility The ability to perform well in a variety of roles on the ice
- Decision Making Being able to make quick and correct decisions in the heat of the game
- Foresight (anticipation) Having the means to estimate where a play will move in advance, so that an advantageous position can be gained
- Awareness Being able to keep track of the position of every player on the ice and the location of the puck. And then using that information to help make decisions
All defensemen, whether offensive or defensive, should have outstanding communication skills. This comes in two forms:
First, a defenseman should recognize when, in the middle of a play, something needs to be verbally communicated to one of their teammates and shouldn’t hesitate to pass along the information. Second, a defenseman should engage in constructive discussions with teammates and coaches while on the bench, and before and after a game.
All hockey players—defensemen included—should have good puck skills. These are skills like shooting accuracy and strength, stickhandling, giving and receiving a pass, and protecting the puck.
The final hybrid skill is a mix of attitude, work ethic, and competitiveness. We’ll call that mindset.
Mindset involves staying calm through losses and being humble through victories. It involves keeping focused on your long-term goals in hockey so that you stick to healthy eating habits and a proper training regimen. It involves playing your hardest in every game no matter how bleak the result looks. Finally, it involves staying true to your own strengths and recognizing the strengths of your teammates, and adjusting your play accordingly.
It’s important to remember, though, that even if you consider yourself “offensive” based on the skills listed above, it’s entirely possible to make the switch to hybrid or even defensive. In truth, all the skills mentioned here are important for a defenseman to have, and you get to choose which skills you want to practice. So, if you look at this list of skills and identify some of your weak ones, think about focusing on developing them in your training. It’ll only help you to become a better-rounded player. And no doubt it will help you along with the ultimate goal: being the best hockey player possible.
Tim Turk has been an NHL Shooting and Scoring coach for over 25 years, working with organizations like the Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, and Arizona Coyotes, and many National Programs abroad. He also works with minor hockey teams, coaches and players of all ages and levels, specializing in Hockey Shooting, Passing and Puck Protection. For more information visit timturkhockey.com.