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Developing Offensive Defensemen: Culture, Skill, and Hockey Sense

By Mike Doyle, 09/22/22, 11:15AM MDT

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Tips for how coaches can help their defenseman become more active.

If you recently tuned in to see the Colorado Avalanche hoist the Stanley Cup, you witnessed a remarkable performance from a burgeoning blue line talent, Cale Makar. The 23-year-old defenseman and UMass alum earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL playoff MVP, after winning the Norris Trophy as the regular-season’s top D-man, making him only the third defenseman to take home both honors in the same season.

Of course, it’s not just Makar. Americans Quinn Hughes, Charlie McAvoy, Adam Fox, Cayla Barnes and Savannah Harmon are just a handful of the growing number of ultra-skilled and smart defensemen changing the game today.

What stands out when you watch these defensemen, even for a period, is how active they are in the offense. USA Hockey Minnesota District Coach-in-Chief Christian Koelling talks about how coaches can help their players become more active defensemen.

Offense, Like Defense, Is a Team Game

The days of the lumbering stay-at-home defenseman are a thing of the past. Today’s game is full of end-to-end action that not only benefits from active defensemen, but demands it.

“Just like defense is a five-player commitment, offense is as well,” said Koelling, who also serves as the director of hockey operations for the University of Minnesota Duluth. “Having the philosophy that defensemen are part of the offense or part of the attack is important for youth coaches.” 

Coaches who adapt that mindset and apply it to their team will help build more complete players. And a big part of the philosophy is activating defenseman to join in on the offense.

“Part of that philosophy is that sometimes you’re going to give something up because of it,” Koelling added. “It’s a risk-reward scenario and you’re hoping that for every 10 quality scoring chances you gain from jumping up in the play, maybe you only give up two or three against.”

Eliminating the Fear of Failure

In creating active defensemen, there will undoubtedly be some mistakes that lead to chances the other way. Try to get rid of the fear of failure as a coach, so you can instill that in the players.

“It’s creating that culture within your team and your locker room to instill that mindset of going after it and try to have success,” Koelling said. “Don’t worry about the failures or getting scored against. That comes down to culture.”

And when a mistake is made, that is often the best opportunity to teach.

When to Jump and When to Play It Safe

Part of the coach’s job is to help players learn game situations and develop their hockey sense. The defensemen need to be able to read when it is appropriate to jump in the rush and when to take a more cautious approach.

“It’s important to teach them when you may or may not be looking for that risk-reward trade off,” Koelling said.

When the game is late in the third period, your team is up a goal but shorthanded, it might not be the right time for a defenseman to jump into a 2-on-3 rush. But if the player does make that decision, coaches can use that as a teachable moment. Keep in mind that yelling or embarrassing the athlete is a good way to scare the rest of your team into being scared and timid.

Coaches can focus on a number of different reads.

“Oftentimes it’s going to be the weakside or net-front defenseman that is going to join the rush,” said Koelling. 

Players can primarily look for two things.

“First would be if one of the forwards was caught low in the defensive structure and [the defenseman] is able to join the rush as a third player. So that might happen if a center or winger is caught low in a defensive position, then the weakside or net-front defenseman can jump up and be that third player,” Koelling said. 

The second option is the second layer of support; not leading the rush but finding space just behind it as a trailer.

“That second layer is dangerous and can create a lot of opportunities,” Koelling said. “Often times that can be used as a trigger to get up in the play.”

Team Effort

Finally, getting blue-liners involved in the offense takes awareness from the forwards.

“It’s important for the whole team to understand what you’re trying to do. They need to recognize that if you have a defenseman up in the rush, you need to make strong plays and you need to protect the puck,” Koelling said. “Either the puck goes on net or you turn the [opposing] D and make sure the opposing team has to go 200 feet. You can’t have turnovers at the blue line if you have D up in the play.”

It’s important at the youth level to let defensemen take reps in forward roles and forwards take reps in defensive roles during practice. This develops offensive skills in the defensemen and more well-rounded forwards.

“It helps teach them how to play certain aspects of the game more confidently,” Koelling said. “I also think it gives them an appreciation for their teammates for letting them step into a more unfamiliar role in practice.”

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