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Every player is responsible for defense, not just defensemen and goaltenders.

03/21/2019, 10:45am CDT By John Russo, Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Every player is responsible for defense, not just defensemen (and goaltenders, of course). To have TEAM defense, coaches need to teach the concepts to all players, exercise it in practice, then monitor it in games. A passive goaltender, risky defensemen or lazy forwards make the other team’s offense look good – and their job easier. The offense will largely take care of itself if good TEAM defense is a high priority. 

Scenario A 
The red team pinches their defensemen in very aggressively in the offensive zone and doesn’t have consistent back-up by a high forward. This strategy will result in the red defensemen being “caught” when they are not successful in the pinch. The consequence is that the blue team will come out of their zone and attack into the red team’s end with a 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 advantage too often. 

These are the situations that create goals. A pinching defenseman should always be backed up by a high forward if any substantial risk exists, and the pinching defenseman should always block out the player along the boards if not successful in getting the puck. This will very substantially reduce the 2-on-1 and 3-on-2 rushes.

Scenario B 
The red team ends up with all three of its forwards forechecking deep in the offensive zone. The blue team gets control of the puck and breaks out of the zone 3-on-2 with all three of the red forwards caught. 

Unless pushing late in a game when behind, it is seldom good to have all three forwards forechecking in deep. One forward should always be high so as to recover defensively and eliminate the 3-on-2 rush back into his own zone – and to be in a position to get the puck in a scoring position.

Scenario C
The red team defenseman aggressively pinches along the boards in the offensive zone and has a forward teammate in a back-up position. The other red defenseman doesn’t take a “passive” position to be safe while the defenseman partner is pinching. Two blue forwards come out of the zone in control of the puck and are both behind the red defenseman, creating a 2-on-1 versus the red back-up forward.  

Defensemen must “read” each other constantly and always have one in a passive (safe) role when the other is being aggressive. The way a team plays in the neutral zone also will have great bearing on how many goals are given up. 

Scenario D 
A faceoff anywhere in the neutral zone, the red center pushes the puck forward and all of the red forwards rush past the blue forwards to go after the puck. The blue defenseman passes the puck quickly past the onrushing red forwards to his own blue forwards, who immediately have a three-on-two opportunity.

Of course, on any faceoff, at least one forward has to stay with the opposition forward and not rush through after the puck. This forward is like the high forward on a forecheck.

Scenario E 
The blue team has broken out of its own end with three forwards against two red defensemen and one red (forward) backchecker. The red backchecker loses track of the wide blue attacker in the neutral zone and a quick pass puts the blue wings in on goal for a scoring chance.  

The forward backcheckers must “guarantee” their backcheck all the way to the net, as the two defensemen have two other players (including the puck carrier) to keep track of. Overall play in the defensive zone is a great determinant of how well a team does defensively. The forwards play an important role in their own end. 

Scenario F 
The red team is now defending in its own end. The blue team has control of the puck in the corner. The red wing moves down into the corner to “help out,” but upon getting there the blue forward makes a crisp pass along the boards to the blue defenseman, who promptly walks to the top of the circle and shoots a great shot into the lower corner to score.  

In this very typical case, the red wing needs to stay outside and guarantee coverage of the defenseman on that side. A mistake in going into the corner after the puck leaves the defenseman wide open for a great shooting opportunity on the net.

Scenario G 
The puck goes into the corner and is chased by a blue forward and a defending red defenseman. The red center decides to go into the corner also, leaving two blue forwards not in the corner. The puck pops out of the corner to a blue forward with two red defenders stuck in the corner. 

Centers are generally defensemen in their own zone and must team up with their two defensemen as a group of three that is defending against three opposing forwards. The center can’t jump into the corner, leaving uncovered opposition forwards.

Scenario H 
The exact situation as in Scenario G exists. The pass out of the corner comes to an uncovered blue forward high in the slot who slams a wrist shot into the upper corner. The other red defenseman is covering the other blue forward closer to the net.  

Most systems have the puck side wing covering the point and the far side (from the puck) wing covering the high slot – from the hash marks to the tip of the circle.

Scenario I 
The defending red team center tries to draw the puck and loses the draw cleanly to the blue center. The blue “shooter” gets a good shot on net.  

There are two problems with this scenario. First, the red center should try to neutralize faceoffs in the defensive zone. This means not allowing the blue (attacking) center to get a clean draw. Second, one of the red forwards should have been racing out to cover the shooter. This also often involves working with a red defenseman to create a clean path out to the shooter. 

These nine scenarios illustrate how team defense involves all of the team’s players, not just defensemen and the goaltender. Goaltenders sometimes allow what we would call “easy” goals, but most often they stop a great many tough shots. Invariably, however, with too many breakdowns at various points on the ice like the above scenarios, the goaltender will not be able to stop all opportunities to score.

It is critical that coaches teach all team members what their defensive responsibilities are in each zone. I find that proper defensive performance is the most intensive and difficult teaching situation that I face as a coach. Players must understand the game and the consequences of their actions – and must have discipline – to be good defensive players.


John Russo, Ph.D., is founder and now mentor to the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. He was a captain at the University of Wisconsin and recipient of prestigious hockey awards at the state (Peterson award) and national levels (Snooks Kelly). His Coaches Corner columns have appeared in Let’s Play Hockey each year since 1986.

Order John Russo’s new chapterized book, “The Best of 26 Years of John Russo’s Coaches Corner.” It has been described as a “must read” for all youth coaches. Go to for information and ordering.