Hockey 101: How to Identify Quality Defense

Jun 2, 2016
632
Calling all SoSH hockey buffs to help educate a new fan.

As a teenager, I loved playing hockey video games and going to the local AHL arena (Hershey Bears) to take in a game. I went for the speed of the action and the fights. There was no opportunities to play where I grew up, and it was not big at the division 1 university I attended, so I quickly lost interest.

Now that my 7 year old son is getting into sports, he has been particularly drawn to hockey. I find myself watching more and more with him, but it has been hard for me to teach him the strategy of the game other than the obvious.

When watching baseball and basketball it is easy to recognize great defense. However, I find it very difficult to understand defensive strategy in the NHL. I think it is the speed of the game that is tripping me up. So what makes a great defenseman on the NHL? How do you identify a struggling one? Who are the best defensive centers and how can you tell?

Any other general pointers for TV viewing?

Any help is much appreciated! Thanks in advance.
 

FL4WL3SS

Member
SoSH Member
Jul 31, 2006
11,412
Andy Brickley's potty mouth
A good defenseman is a great backchecker, doesn't turn the puck over, knows how to get the puck out of his own end either through a great outlet pass or dumping it out at the right time.

A great defenseman does all that and can also score, pinch at the blue line without getting caught and join a rush. It's a very nuanced position, but start looking for guys that are responsible in their own end and then see if you start recognizing them in the offensive end.
 

burstnbloom

Member
SoSH Member
Jul 12, 2005
1,888
Defense in hockey has a lot to do with body position. You want to keep the puck between you and your opponent rather than allowing them to use their body to protect the puck. When you have the puck it's the opposite. Keep your body between the defender and the puck while still being able to attack. You can't just turn your back but you can move to your backhand side if they are on your forehand, etc. But the best players anticipate the spaces on the ice that could develop into danger zones on both sides of the ice and take advantage of those spaces. It's a super nuanced game.

My seven year old nephew plays mite and he is learning stuff like this every day. He will retrieve the puck facing the boards and hesitate until he can feel where the defense is coming from and either pass away from it or spin away from it. It's awesome to watch him figure stuff like that out. It just takes reps.
 

Jordu

Member
SoSH Member
Apr 30, 2003
6,702
Brookline
A few things to look for in a quality D man:

1. Never lets the offensive player he’s covering get farther than one or two stick lengths away. Known as “gap control.”

2. Keeps stick on the ice! Body checks and takes pucks away from opposing forwards. Identifies and blocks passing lanes.

3. Wins puck battles behind the net AND moves the puck forward in transition to offense.

4. Protect the house. When needed, get into the area in front of the net, keep your head on a swivel, lift forward’s sticks, get pucks away from the area.

Basically, a center’s defensive responsibility is between the dots from the end boards to the high slot. You want your center to cover the other team’s center, and you want your center to stay low in the zone, between their center and the net. You also want your center be available for a clearing pass from the D.
 

Steve Dillard

wishes drew noticed him instead of sweet & sour
SoSH Member
Oct 7, 2003
4,750
https://www.defendingbigd.com/2012/4/13/2941077/dave-tippett-defense-mark-fistric-matt-niskanen

It is easy to focus on defense as if it is a static situation, so that a player who muscles up the forward along the boards is viewed as valuable. But unlike basketball, where there is a defined offensive possession and defensive defending, hockey has lots of challenged pucks -- dumps, momentary possession by the defenseman, etc. A lot of the old school tends to overlook those aspects and focus on the pure defending aspects of the position.

"We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shut-down defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can’t move the puck.

"Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn’t defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he’s making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he’s only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman."
 

Eddie Jurak

Go Leafs Go
Lifetime Member
SoSH Member
Dec 12, 2002
26,132
Melrose, MA
Any other general pointers for TV viewing?
During Bruins games, focus on McAvoy when he is on the ice as much as the feed allows. Young guy, very inexperienced, but he is on his way to being a legit #1. He already has a great mix of positional defense, physical play, puck moving, offensive game, quick to recover if he gets beaten, etc. Very well rounded player who, odds are, is doing what he is suppoed to be doing.
 
Jun 2, 2016
632
During Bruins games, focus on McAvoy when he is on the ice as much as the feed allows. Young guy, very inexperienced, but he is on his way to being a legit #1. He already has a great mix of positional defense, physical play, puck moving, offensive game, quick to recover if he gets beaten, etc. Very well rounded player who, odds are, is doing what he is suppoed to be doing.
I live in central PA, so I only have access to Penguins, Flyers, and Caps games, but I will try to watch McAvoy when they play Boston.

Full disclosure, I am unfortunately a Sabres fan. Maybe it is tough to pick up on defensive skills because Buffalo is so bad at it. I keep hearing how Ristolainen is untouchable because he is so young and already a great defenseman. I know he is good in the offensive end, but it is hard to see in the defensive end. Also, consensus was that Marco Scandella was a great pickup, but he does not stand out at all.

On another note, thanks for the link SD. Interesting read and there were some stats in the article that I did not know existed. What are some suggestions for advanced stats and websites to better examine a players defensive/overall value?
 

catomatic

thinks gen turgidson is super mean!!!
SoSH Member
Jul 16, 2005
2,282
Park Slope, Brooklyn
From the perspective of a parent of a seven year-old future defenseman—focus on his skating skills first and foremost. He should be comfortable turning on the fly from skating forwards to backwards—in either direction. He also needs to be good at forwards crossovers, yes, but especially backwards crossovers—otherwise he'll get his doors blown off time and again if he can't generate speed in reverse.

Watch old Dallas Smith tape to see his poke-check/sweep check technique. Tell him he can get away with all kinds of contact in front of his own net if the puck is anywhere nearby—and often, even if it's not. And when you square to block shots, square up and get the pads lined up, because taking shots on the side of one's skates or shins is a quick route to time off.
 

wnyghost

lurker
Aug 8, 2010
149
Take Your Eye Off the Puck is a nice book to help understand the game. Author is Greg Wyshynski (aka Puck Daddy)
 

Dummy Hoy

Angry Pissbum
SoSH Member
Jul 22, 2006
6,545
Falmouth
Don't know if I agree with all that, but catomatic is right about the skating. The game from The League down to mites has changed regarding defensemen in the last handful of year and it's all skating and puck control. Quick feet, edgework, and transitions should be the focus.
 
Jun 2, 2016
632
Don't know if I agree with all that, but catomatic is right about the skating. The game from The League down to mites has changed regarding defensemen in the last handful of year and it's all skating and puck control. Quick feet, edgework, and transitions should be the focus.
I guess I should have been more clear. This is strictly from a viewing standpoint. The nearest ice rink to our house is an hour away and neither me or my boy has even put on a pair of ice skates. He already plays baseball and basketball, so he does not need another activity. Both of us really enjoy watching both on tv and live when we get a chance, but it is obvious that our viewing experience can be greatly improved upon.

Regardless, I really appreciate the feedback.
 

Dummy Hoy

Angry Pissbum
SoSH Member
Jul 22, 2006
6,545
Falmouth
Gotcha.

I'm not a Wysh fan at all, but reading a book like that may help. That quote in Steve Dillard's post really summed up the changing game well and let you know how a defenseman is viewed these days.

Or you could just watch this and understand the game:
 

catomatic

thinks gen turgidson is super mean!!!
SoSH Member
Jul 16, 2005
2,282
Park Slope, Brooklyn
Gotcha.

I'm not a Wysh fan at all, but reading a book like that may help. That quote in Steve Dillard's post really summed up the changing game well and let you know how a defenseman is viewed these days.

Or you could just watch this and understand the game:
Never picked up on the mention of "Hyannisport" in Slapshot before...
 

catomatic

thinks gen turgidson is super mean!!!
SoSH Member
Jul 16, 2005
2,282
Park Slope, Brooklyn
Ha! Maybe it's just because I've only lived on the Cape the last couple of years, but neither had I until watching that again.
Lucky you—I often think about Truro as a retirement destination. My brother's in Woods Hole—both are childhood haunts. Not enough rinks on the outer cape though...
 

AMcGhie

Set Adrift on Memory Bliss
SoSH Member
Apr 11, 2006
3,282
Portland, OR
Take Your Eye Off the Puck is a nice book to help understand the game. Author is Greg Wyshynski (aka Puck Daddy)
Came here to say this too, although he went from PD/Yahoo to ESPN about a month ago. Because I didn't grow up playing hockey, there is a lot of positioning and strategy that I just didn't get and he explains it all really well.
 

veritas

Member
SoSH Member
Jan 13, 2009
3,011
Somerville, MA
Lots of good info in this thread. One thing I'll add is that analytics are a great complement to watching/scouting players. Humans are prone to all sorts of biases, and confirming what you see with numbers over a large sample size is a good way to keep yourself honest, and improve your hockey watching ability. There are a lot of players who don't pass the eye test, but consistently make their team better when they're on the ice, or vice versa. And there are a lot of different ways that players can contribute to team success (or failure). A player can be really good at one specific thing that people might notice a lot, and below average in a bunch of less obvious areas. Statistics will show you that.

Torey Krug is a good example of someone who I never thought much of in his first few years in the league, but consistently rated very well in advanced metrics (and traditional counting stats too). So I started watching him a lot more closely to see if I was maybe missing something, and I really think I was. He's small and slow so he's prone to making a few *really* bad plays that you generally remember. And he also doesn't make a ton of memorable great plays, for similar reasons. But when you watch him closely for a while, you realize that he's almost always making small/medium positive plays that more than make up for the big mistakes. He's really good at getting the puck out of his own end -- and by that I don't mean just chucking it up the ice a la McQuaid, he gets the puck to the forwards at the right time and place to be able to do something good with it. He breaks up a lot of plays in the neutral zone. He's great running the PP when he's not getting beat for SHGs. He's does weird/clever things to overcome his physical limitations when teams dump and chase vs him, he'll often let guys beat him to the puck but will get himself in good position to neutralize them and get the puck back.

Brandon Carlo is the opposite of that, in my opinion. There aren't many who look better not making good plays than him. Being 6'5" and a great skater helps with that. But there are definitely some holes in his game that I didn't really notice until I looked at the numbers and realized they didn't match up with what I thought of him from watching the games. He just turned 21 though and I still think he is going to be a pretty good NHL player.
 
Jun 2, 2016
632
Lots of good info in this thread. One thing I'll add is that analytics are a great complement to watching/scouting players. Humans are prone to all sorts of biases, and confirming what you see with numbers over a large sample size is a good way to keep yourself honest, and improve your hockey watching ability. There are a lot of players who don't pass the eye test, but consistently make their team better when they're on the ice, or vice versa. And there are a lot of different ways that players can contribute to team success (or failure). A player can be really good at one specific thing that people might notice a lot, and below average in a bunch of less obvious areas. Statistics will show you that.

Torey Krug is a good example of someone who I never thought much of in his first few years in the league, but consistently rated very well in advanced metrics (and traditional counting stats too). So I started watching him a lot more closely to see if I was maybe missing something, and I really think I was. He's small and slow so he's prone to making a few *really* bad plays that you generally remember. And he also doesn't make a ton of memorable great plays, for similar reasons. But when you watch him closely for a while, you realize that he's almost always making small/medium positive plays that more than make up for the big mistakes. He's really good at getting the puck out of his own end -- and by that I don't mean just chucking it up the ice a la McQuaid, he gets the puck to the forwards at the right time and place to be able to do something good with it. He breaks up a lot of plays in the neutral zone. He's great running the PP when he's not getting beat for SHGs. He's does weird/clever things to overcome his physical limitations when teams dump and chase vs him, he'll often let guys beat him to the puck but will get himself in good position to neutralize them and get the puck back.

Brandon Carlo is the opposite of that, in my opinion. There aren't many who look better not making good plays than him. Being 6'5" and a great skater helps with that. But there are definitely some holes in his game that I didn't really notice until I looked at the numbers and realized they didn't match up with what I thought of him from watching the games. He just turned 21 though and I still think he is going to be a pretty good NHL player.
What advanced metrics do you use to supplement what you see, and what website would you recommend to track them?

Also, I know Jack Eichel is quick and a great puck handler, but how do I know he is not a huge liability on D?

Who are some of your favorite non-bruins players to watch because if their all around games?
 

cshea

Member
SoSH Member
Nov 15, 2006
25,240
306, row 14
For defensive purposes, shots against/hour, and scoring chances against per hour are two good ones. The lower, the better. Good defenseman are also those who keep the puck in the offensive end. Corsica and Natural Stat Trick are two good sites for analytics. As player tracking becomes available, zone entries, puck retrieval’s and zone exits will be good tools. Hockeyviz.com has heat charts that show where shots come from when a player is on the ice, which is also good at figuring out who is a good defender.

I know you asked about non-Bruins, but if you want to focus on quality defensive play, look no further than Patrice Bergeron. He’s a forward of course, but he is arguably the best defensive player in the world. The little stuff he does is amazing. Breaking up passing lanes, turning pucks over, cycling and creating chances in the offensive end.
 

veritas

Member
SoSH Member
Jan 13, 2009
3,011
Somerville, MA
What advanced metrics do you use to supplement what you see, and what website would you recommend to track them?

Also, I know Jack Eichel is quick and a great puck handler, but how do I know he is not a huge liability on D?

Who are some of your favorite non-bruins players to watch because if their all around games?
Seconding what cshea said.

My favorite quick way to get a sense for what a player does at 5v5 is to look at WOWY (with or without you) GF% (goals scored to allowed ratio) and Corsi% (shots attempted to shot attempts allowed ratio) stats. They compare how each player does with and without a specific teammate. It's far from perfect because it's missing a lot of context (quality of competition and zone start) but generally pretty reliable at a quick glance. Right now, by far my favorite site to see this sort of data is hockeyviz.com, which has tons of incredible visualizations (some available via subscription only, it's well worth the $5/month if you're into this stuff).

An example of some of one of the free ones I like are their spider WOWY charts. Here's an example for one of my favorite non-bruins, Mikael Backlund:

http://hockeyviz.com/fixedImg/wowy/1718/CGY/backlmi89/

What you can see from this chart is that most of the Flames produce better shot metrics when playing with Backlund than they do without him. And you can also see the minutes of each. You can also see a weird outlier blue dot of Matt Tkachuk on the far left which says that Backlund has struggled to produce shots (in a small sample size) when playing without Tkachuk. That could be small sample size noise, it could be that Tkachuk is really good, or it could be a usage thing where Backlund gets extra defensive zone draws without Tkachuk, his usual linemate. So there's a lot of info in this one chart that give you a basis to investigate further.

Here's another chart they provide, shot location heat maps. They have team heatmaps with and without each player for shots taken and allowed. Here's McAvoy's defensive heat maps, first when he's on the ice, and second when he's not:

http://hockeyviz.com/fixedImg/teamShotLocDefWi/1718/BOS/mcavoch97/

http://hockeyviz.com/fixedImg/teamShotLocDefWo/1718/BOS/mcavoch97/

The large blue areas show that teams are just not getting shot attempts from his side of the ice when he's playing. It's pretty remarkable, actually.

And here's all of Eichel's charts:

http://hockeyviz.com/player/eicheja96/BUF/1718

To me they seem to show he's a great offensive player but unfortunately a liability on D. They also show that Buffalo is terrible, so it's hard to judge a player in that sort of situation.

And here's Cody Franson, who just got waived today and has struggled to get consistent NHL minutes despite consistently putting up pretty good metrics whenever he's played:

http://hockeyviz.com/player/fransco87/CHI/1718
 
Jun 2, 2016
632
Seconding what cshea said.

My favorite quick way to get a sense for what a player does at 5v5 is to look at WOWY (with or without you) GF% (goals scored to allowed ratio) and Corsi% (shots attempted to shot attempts allowed ratio) stats. They compare how each player does with and without a specific teammate. It's far from perfect because it's missing a lot of context (quality of competition and zone start) but generally pretty reliable at a quick glance. Right now, by far my favorite site to see this sort of data is hockeyviz.com, which has tons of incredible visualizations (some available via subscription only, it's well worth the $5/month if you're into this stuff).

An example of some of one of the free ones I like are their spider WOWY charts. Here's an example for one of my favorite non-bruins, Mikael Backlund:

http://hockeyviz.com/fixedImg/wowy/1718/CGY/backlmi89/

What you can see from this chart is that most of the Flames produce better shot metrics when playing with Backlund than they do without him. And you can also see the minutes of each. You can also see a weird outlier blue dot of Matt Tkachuk on the far left which says that Backlund has struggled to produce shots (in a small sample size) when playing without Tkachuk. That could be small sample size noise, it could be that Tkachuk is really good, or it could be a usage thing where Backlund gets extra defensive zone draws without Tkachuk, his usual linemate. So there's a lot of info in this one chart that give you a basis to investigate further.

Here's another chart they provide, shot location heat maps. They have team heatmaps with and without each player for shots taken and allowed. Here's McAvoy's defensive heat maps, first when he's on the ice, and second when he's not:

http://hockeyviz.com/fixedImg/teamShotLocDefWi/1718/BOS/mcavoch97/

http://hockeyviz.com/fixedImg/teamShotLocDefWo/1718/BOS/mcavoch97/

The large blue areas show that teams are just not getting shot attempts from his side of the ice when he's playing. It's pretty remarkable, actually.

And here's all of Eichel's charts:

http://hockeyviz.com/player/eicheja96/BUF/1718

To me they seem to show he's a great offensive player but unfortunately a liability on D. They also show that Buffalo is terrible, so it's hard to judge a player in that sort of situation.

And here's Cody Franson, who just got waived today and has struggled to get consistent NHL minutes despite consistently putting up pretty good metrics whenever he's played:

http://hockeyviz.com/player/fransco87/CHI/1718
Thank you for this. The entire thread has been extremely helpful. I've been exploring the site and advanced metrics in general. The hard part is using the numbers to prove my observations at this point. I need to get more familiar with the Flyers and Penguins rosters to get better at this.
 

teddykgb

Member
SoSH Member
Jul 16, 2005
7,302
Chelmsford, MA
In terms of less stats driven stuff, the best guys I played against were all impossibly good with their sticks. It's hard to describe but some guys get their stick on to your stick and the contact feels like they just hit you with a truck. Some guys are also super accurate at blocking and deflecting passes. At first you think they get lucky but they have great technique and hands to pick pucks in motion
 

allstonite

Member
SoSH Member
Oct 27, 2010
1,570
I will forever be grateful he got out of Montreal and the Habs stink off of him so I can fully appreciate and cheer for him. What a great player and person (the Titans jersey he wore yesterday excepted).
 

LogansDad

Member
SoSH Member
Nov 15, 2006
18,229
Alamogordo
Agreed. His Christmas videos are always awesome (this year he redid a living room for a Tennessee family, and handed out tickets to random people dressed up as some old grandpa character, and sent a bunch of stuff to his kids back at the Montreal Children's Hospital that he has always been to in the past).

I love watching him play now, too (really that whole team is fun to watch).