On a snowy Montreal morning I am listening to Connor Carrick (NJD) and Justin Holl (TOR) discuss the finer points of playing defense on a newly released episode of The Curious Competitor Podcast:
Listening to both D-men (whose games I know well) got me thinking about the different ways NHLers approach the position.
NHL Ds have lots of responsibilities; according to Carrick they often lose sleep over that. But how they go about fulfilling them differs between individuals:
In defensive-zone coverage Jared Spurgeon uses his elite footwork to suffocate threats early on the perimeter, while Shea Weber prevents access to the slot with timely and forceful box-outs.
In transition the vast majority of NHL Ds are content to sit back and let their forwards play with the puck. Conversely Roman Josi and Jeff Petry are constantly looking to get involved on exits and entries. (More on that)
In the offensive zone Zach Werenski has free rein to move off the puck and present himself as an option in high-danger areas (more on that), whereas a majority of NHL coaches still want their Ds to sit at their points and shoot pucks quickly off low-to-high passes.
At the 19-minute mark of podcast Carrick asks Holl about the areas of growth in his game that allowed him to jump from the ECHL to the NHL. Having watched nearly every one of Holl’s Marlies and Leafs games from 2017-2020, I would credit his progress to his mastery of two non-negotiables for modern defensemen.
Non-Negotiable 1: Defending the Rush
When playing on defense, the best way a player can create value for his/her team is to turn the other team’s possessions into 50/50 puck battles.
On the sequence above, TOR3 Holl and TOR52 Marincin show great partner work to force the puck carrier to the outside. Holl then establishes body position and wins the 50/50 battle in the corner.
At elite levels the difference between great and not good enough is subtle:
Can you turn your opponent’s middle entries (between the dots) into outside entries (outside the dots)?
Can you turn your opponent’s controlled entries into uncontrolled entries (dump-and-chase plays)?
Can you turn your opponent’s uncontrolled entries into failed entries (offsides or turnovers at the line)?
Anything can happen on a given shift, but 10 rushes against per game x (82 games + playoffs) means that top NHLers have almost 1000 opportunities per season to separate themselves from the pack.
Non-Negotiable 2: DZ Retrievals
I’ve said it before: DZ retrievals are the toughest part of the game.
Every time an NHL defenseman pivots to retrieve the puck under his goal line, he is taking his life into his own hands.
Read the puck trajectory
Execute the pivot
Shoulder-check “big ice” (middle)
Shoulder-check “small ice” (boards)
Shoulder-check “big ice” again
Drop a shoulder fake to make F1 lean the wrong way.
Pick up the puck cleanly
Crossover, crossover, crossover
Gain the middle & find a play
Ideally every retrieval looks something like this. But rarely do the conditions cooperate. There could be a bad bounce off the yellow kickplate, an opposing F1 who is closer (or farther away) than expected or teammates who are out to lunch and not providing options up-ice. Regardless the retrieving D-man has the duty to make a continuation play and to only punt the puck as a last resort.
So how did Justin Holl go from an ECHL regular at 23 to an NHL matchup D at 28? Simply put he’s one of the best I’ve seen in his mastery of these two non-negotiables. During his dominant 2017-18 AHL season, in NZ rush and DZ retrieval situations, Holl was simply automatic. Their play dies; our sequence starts. 10 times per game.
As a young player, it doesn’t matter whether you’re 5’6” or 6’5”; whether you can blast a puck straight through the goalie or hardly lift it at all. If you can defend the rush and make retrievals, there’s a team out there for you. And you’ll be well on your way to maximizing your potential.
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