Arguably the toughest position to play in the game of hockey is that of the defenceman. Here are 5 tips to help you take your game to the next level:
1. Prioritize Skating Development
We all know that becoming a good skater is a crucial to success in hockey. Heck, it’s what separates hockey from all other major sports. The problem is young players never focus enough time and energy into really developing their skating. Why? Because, traditional power skating is boring and a large number of coaches and parents don’t give skating development the respect it deserves. They think of it along the lines of staged learning instead of continuous improvement and practice. It’s not unlike a golf swing in the sense that even the world’s best golfers need to continuously work to maintain and improve their swing.
With that being said, skating is more important to a defenceman now than it has ever been in the history of the game. The fact is, the game is much faster, systems are more complex and integrated, and incidences of clutching and grabbing have essentially been eliminated. Long gone are the days when you would simply stick the big slow kid back on D. In order to be an elite defenceman in today’s game you need to be able to skate well.
2. Simplify Your Game
The simplest and most effective lesson I ever learned came in my first season in the ECHL. My coach told me that I had too many things going on in my game and I needed to simplify. He said, “Forget about scoring, or first passes, or big hits, or the power play, all I want you to do is take care of your end.” When I tried to ask questions about what he specifically meant, he cut me off with, “No, no, no. Just think about the words, ‘Take care of YOUR end’, and you’ll be fine. Everything else will take care of itself.” My entire career, up to that point, I was trying to process way too many things every time I stepped onto the ice. In junior it was about putting up points so that I could get a scholarship and worrying about which schools were in the stands. In college I was trying to remember 25 different systems while feeling the eyes of the two healthy scratches just waiting for me to screw up, knowing that if I did, I’d be the one up there in a suit next game. Now, here I am in pro hockey and the coach is trying to scale back the information bouncing around in my head. His direction was as simple as his message. All he wanted me to think about was playing defence, period. If I cleared my head, the thousands of hours spent training to play defence would take over, allowing me to focus on being present.
What happened next was astounding. Over the course of the next few weeks, I played solid defensive hockey, and in turn, my average ice time per game increased. I started playing in the top pairing, playing against other team’s top lines (something I had never done up to that point in my career) and I was given more opportunity on special teams.
My message to all young defencemen is that if you simplify your game, everything else will fall into place. If you are sound in your own end, you will get more ice-time, more responsibility, gain more confidence and your stats will likely reflect it.
3. Be a Leader
I like to think about defencemen in hockey in the same way you would think about catchers in baseball. Catchers have the most responsibility of all the players on the field and are often considered the “Field General”. From pitch-calling to relaying defensive alignments, it’s no surprise that some of the best managers and coaches are former catchers. In hockey, defencemen have the best sight line of any position (with exception to goalies), able to see plays unfolding and react and communicate/direct accordingly. Defencemen are also linked to football quarterbacks in how they process passing options on breakouts. In fact, the term “quarterbacking” is often used to classify the role of defencemen on the power play.
With all of that in mind, it’s important to take pride in being a defenceman and be proactive. The defencemen that are more self-aware and engaged in their role as a leader are at a significant advantage to succeed in the game. I always tell the players at my annual summer defenceman camp, “You need to be the leader. Forwards are too dumb and goalies are too weird.”
4. Practice Your ABCs: “Always be Communicating”
Building off the last point, since defencemen have the best site lines and can see plays unfolding in front of them, they need to be the most vocal. One of the toughest things to get young players to do is communicate on the ice, even though it’s a simple task. As one coach, who had a thick Manitoban accent, once told me, “We should never have to tell you guys to talk to each other out there. Communicating is the easiest thing to do in hockey. All ya gotta do is open your moooufffth.”
Next time you go to an NHL game or even watch one on TV, try to focus on the amount of communication that is happening on the ice. Players at the highest levels are always talking to each other. Communication (and trust) is what enables players to make plays so quickly and effectively. As a defenceman you need to be constantly talking, letting your partner know how much time they have going back for a dumped puck, if you want them to run a reverse, letting the forwards know who you want them to take on a back-check, if you want the puck off a cycle in the offensive zone, etc.
Always be communicating.
5. Be a Student of the Game
Like anything in life, the game of hockey is forever changing and evolving. Within the game, no position has experienced a bigger transformation in the last 20 years than the defenceman. From an offensive standpoint, defencemen are now more active and integrated into the attack than ever before. On the defensive side, since they are widely considered the second last line of defence, they are also responsible for mitigating risks when breakdowns inevitably occur.
In college and pro, we (defencemen) often had longer video sessions due to having more defensive responsibilities. If you didn’t engage your mind and buy in whole-heartedly to recognizing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, you were setting yourself up for certain failure.
The more time you dedicate in the video room and to learning about in-game tendencies, the more effective your snap decisions will be on the ice. Practice and off-ice training is where true development takes place. It’s the breeding ground for execution. Attention to detail in practice and in the video room will allow you to simply “take care of YOUR end” with positive outcomes.