Defensemen, like goalies and forwards, have their own unique skill sets that they need to learn and refine as they get older. Certainly, one might assert that forwards and defensemen basically need the same skills, and at the basic level that is true. In practical terms however every coach would likely admit that they could use a couple better defensemen. The next question that comes to mind is what are we looking for in a “good defenseman”?
It is important to understand what role defensemen play on a team. Their primary responsibility is to defend the goal, regain possession of the puck and advance it up ice to the forwards by passing or skating the puck towards the other end of the rink.
In recent years many coaches have simply taken skilled forwards and placed them back on defense in order to add more offensive power to their team. They do this at the expense of playing well in their own end of the rink. This is a shortcut to developing defensemen.
In terms of basic skills required to play the position well, SKATING is the fundamental differentiator. Not up and back skating that forwards do but strong backwards skating which includes lateral movement, transitions and a good sense of when to force the oncoming rush versus contain situations.
The decision-making process is quite a bit different than for forwards. Force, contain, pass or skate all come into the mix of decisions required to play well. At higher levels, blocking shots and body checking are also very important skills to be learned by boys and girls (minus the body checking).
The ability of a player to perform well in the position is very much a function of the depth and breadth of the skill set each player possesses. Mastering the position is not possible without strong fundamental skating skills. These skills are learned over many years of repetition during practice sessions and during open hockey/pond hockey sessions.
Youth and high school coaches should spend time in most practices with who are the defensemen in order to improve the skills required to play the position well. This means separating the players for 10 or 15 minutes and focus on defenseman skills in one group and forwards in the other.
There are about 20 easy drills that can be used to help players who play defense improve if players have an opportunity to do them consistently over the course of a season and a career. These drills can be viewed on the Minnesota Hockey website. They are located in the coaches section and subcategory skills videos. Here is the link: http://vimeo.com/5502815.
Coaches, by using these drills on a regular basis, your players who are defenders will get better and as we all know championships are won with solid defense backing up good offense.
See you around the rink …
Hal Tearse, USA Hockey Associate Coach in Chief, Minnesota
This was published in the November 2012 issue of Thoughts from the Bench.