When it comes to playing defense, there aren’t many people who know more about the position than Hall-of-Famer Scott Stevens. The Minnesota Wild assistant coach played 22 seasons in the NHL. Only one other defenseman, Chris Chelios, played in more games. Stevens captained the New Jersey Devils to three Stanley Cup championships (1995, 2000, 2003), and he scored more than 900 points over the course of his career.
Being an effective defenseman at any level of hockey, starts simply, Stevens says. And it starts with the name of the position—playing defense.
“Take pride in your defensive responsibilities in your own zone,” he says. “To play in the big leagues you have to be counted on by your coach to be able to do a good job in the D-zone. They want guys that are safe and can break up plays and move the puck out of harm’s way and up into the forwards’ hands.”
Here are some more tips to improve your play as a defenseman:
Mind your stick
When skating backwards up to defend an oncoming puck carrier, hold your stick with one hand and keep the stick in front of you and pointed at the puck. Do that, and you’ll have better chances to intercept passes, deflect shots or force offsides.
“You want to make the opposition who has the puck to work around your stick. And you want the ability to poke it off. If you’re skating back with two hands on your stick, you’re giving up lots of ice in front of you. One hand on that stick; look at him in the chest—old school.”
Inside the dots
The markings on the ice can be your friend. If you’re in doubt about where you should be on the ice, Stevens says, find the faceoff dots, get inside of them and sort things out from there. And remember: Never turn your back on the puck.
“You don’t want to get outside the dots; you want the play to be outside. You want the play to be along the boards and out of the middle of the ice. If you get the guy on the outside, now you have the boards to help you—a boundary. It’s a lot easier to work from the inside out than the outside in. If you leave the middle of ice open, that’s how breakaways happen, that’s where offense comes from.”
Work on your wrister
Offensive opportunities often start from the blue line, with a defenseman shooting in the puck. If a defenseman can get the puck on net, Stevens says, there are opportunities for tips and rebounds.
“Shooting from the point, it’s a knack. It can never hurt to practice shooting the puck, so you have a good shot and an accurate shot. A wrist shot is very important. In this day and age, the checkers come quick. There’s not a lot of time for the big slap shot so work on that quick wrist shot and getting the puck to the front of the net.”
Keep pucks alive
An important part of a defenseman’s job is to keep the puck inside the offensive zone and help the forwards sustain a forecheck.
“In the old days you used to pinch for the big hit. Nowadays you’ve got to make sure you’re pinching to keep that puck alive for your forwards so you can keep the forecheck going. You want O-zone time. You don’t want to be defending; you don’t want to be getting back and regrouping. Your priority is to make sure that puck doesn’t get by you.”
Have a plan
Defensemen need to keep their heads on swivels and know what’s happening around them when they turn to go retrieve pucks dumped into the defensive zone.
“When you’re going from skating backwards to skating forwards, shoulder check. Make sure you look around before you go to the puck. Know what you’re going to do before you get to the puck. Look around and see where your players are and also see where the forecheck’s coming from.”