Coach’s Hat Trick: Two Types of Defense Philosophies

When you’ve been involved in the game of hockey, you get to understand the nuances between systems or styles of play. That goes beyond saying so-and-so isn’t playing well or missed a check. And it certainly goes well beyond any stats you can find out there. Everyone knows the expression “playing the trap” but if you asked them to describe it, very few could actually do it, or fully get it. This is no knock on hockey fans, but it comes with years of playing, watching and studying the game. And that’s why NHL coaches are well ahead of any fan out there, whether they agree with it or not.

I was fortunate to have spent a lifetime around hockey. I played the game the games since a young age, and to a competitive level (although never pro). Helping me understand the game more was when I started refereeing, as it forced me to understand the rules and why or how to apply them. As a student of the game, I moved onto coaching. Seeing that Ringette was a dying sport and my youngest daughter didn’t have a team to play on, I started a Female Hockey program for the Penticton Minor Hockey Association and I helped coordinate with other Female Directors in BC and with BC Hockey to create a Female league for the BC Interior. This obviously added to my knowledge of the ins and outs behind the scene of the game too.

Now well into my 50’s, I count between 40 to 45 years of hockey experience. Does that make me better than anyone else? Absolutely not. But does it help understand all aspects of the game? Darn right it does. So when I see a young buck pumping his chest thinking he knows it all, this old buck has seen others. It’s like if Cole Caufield, as talented as he is, was to tell Corey Perry or Eric Staal that he knows more than them. You get the picture, right?

Types of defense

This brings me to talking about two different schools of thoughts when it comes to defense. Forget offensive versus defensive defensemen here. Back in my playing days, forwards were shot blockers mostly, while defensemen were taking care of rebounds and the men in front. For several years now, we’ve seen more and more “shot-blocking defensemen”. Those who remember him will have Josh Gorges in mind on the Habs. The guys was fearless and blocked shots right, left and center. But which style is best? Well, it’s a matter of preference, really. There are two schools of thoughts about it.

Shot blocking

Some coaches, players and mostly goalies believe that defensemen helping block shots is more efficient. After all, if a defenseman blocks a shot, it’s not getting to the net and therefore, it prevents a goal. But here’s what I personally don’t like about it and I’ll tell you that as someone who has played the position of goaltender. If a forward attempts blocking a shot, he’s up high. If the puck deflects or gets through, it game me as a goalie, plenty of time to react and see the puck.

Josh Gorges

Defensemen are obviously closer to the goalie and in order to attempt blocking a shot, he has to position himself in the line of the shot, therefore in between the shooter and the goalie. In doing so, he obstruct his view. If the puck gets through, a goaltender has very little time to react and if he gets any part of the puck, it deflects and the goalie has very little chance of stopping it… unless he’s lucky and it hits him.

But worse, if the goalie manages to stop the puck and can’t control the rebound, the defenseman trying to block the shot is in no position to check his man in front. This puts the goalie in a very awkward situation, often alone and out of position in front of a shooter.

Checking

As a goalie, I always told my defensemen to let me see the puck and take care of the opponents in front. If I can see it, I have a better chance at stopping it. So a forward wanted to block a shot up high? Go ahead. I’d tell them to take care of low shots (laying out like Guy Carbonneau used to do), allowing me to stay on my feet longer.

But my defensemen, unless I was out of position after a save, had to focus on clearing the front of the net and check their man in front. This allowed me to see better but if I gave up a rebound, it was tougher on the opposition’s forwards to score on those rebounds.

On the Habs

If we look at the Canadiens’ current top-4 defensemen of Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson, they are big and bruising. They have Carey Price behind them who, if he see the puck, he will stop it. So those defensemen, while they will block the odd shot, are more focused on moving people in front of the net. Because of their size, it’s a style that’s preferable.

If they had the Avalanche’s defense, smaller and more mobile, it would be very difficult to move people around so they would have to rely more on shot blocking and stick check. That’s why Victor Mete and Mike Reilly did stick out like a sore thumb on the Canadiens, because they simply couldn’t check or move people around in front of his net.

And that’s why the ideal defenseman is a big but mobile defenseman, who can do both depending on the situation. While not everyone will agree (and that’s okay like that), I prefer the checking type defenseman personally, because I’ve played goal. So admittedly, I’m biased. Which style do you like best? Go Habs Go!

Beyond Hockey

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“We didn’t get close to that.” – Josh Gorges

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