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What does good defense look like in the NHL?

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Under Alain Vigneault, the Flyers defend aggressively.

Boston Bruins v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

Defense. In the NHL, a good defenseman used to be one that blocked a ton of shots, threw a lot of hits, and had a good plus-minus. While the greats have always had strong two-way play, now more than ever the average defender must rely on their skating ability and puck skills to keep up with the pace of the game.

But not only has the required skill set changed, how we view defense has changed, and will only continue to evolve.

Which prompts the question: what does “good defense” actually look like anyway? It all starts in the offensive zone.

The forecheck

A team’s first line of defense is its offensive zone forecheck. The best defense is an absence of offense, and there’s no better way to keep the opposition from getting scoring chances than by hemming them in their own zone. For a defenseman, their primary objective is to read when to pinch, and act accordingly.

In this example, the Flyers lose an offensive zone faceoff and immediately apply pressure on the forecheck. Joel Farabee and James van Riemsdyk force the Washington defenseman to move the puck up the boards, where Erik Gustafsson is able to jump in front of the intended receiver and steal the puck.

Once the puck is behind the net, the forward duo goes to work again, creating a turnover and a great scoring chance for Scott Laughton.

After his shot misses the net, Gustafsson pinches once more, though this time the Capitals clear the zone. The high forward, Laughton, has great positioning and is able to recover the puck in the neutral zone.

Even though the Capitals cleared the zone, they were forced to do so without control, allowing the Flyers to re-gain possession.

What the Flyers look to be running here is a 2-1-2 spread — or split — offensive zone forecheck. The first forward attacks the puck carrier while the second forward cuts off the D to D pass. This can be seen in the second video, with van Riemsdyk acting as forward one, and Farabee as forward two. Forward three, which is Laughton throughout the entire sequence, must act as support and switch roles when called for, as well as cover for pinching defensemen. The puck-side defenseman will read when the puck is about to move up the boards, and pinch to interrupt, and hopefully stop, the breakout.

In the team’s most recent game, Gustafsson and Robert Hagg illustrated what a good stick on puck pinch looks like, versus what can go wrong when you ignore the puck entirely in the same shift.

To start, Hagg’s decision to pinch was questionable. Michael Raffl was a bit lower in the zone than he should’ve been as the high forward, adding extra risk to the equation. Now, the Flyers have their defensemen pinch a lot, making it entirely possible that the defense had been instructed to almost always pinch in these situations. It’s a bit of a grey area. However, the more clear-cut problem with Hagg’s pinch was the execution.

Hagg makes no attempt to play the puck, and if he had made any contact, Raffl would have had a much better chance to catch up to Lars Eller in the neutral zone. Instead, the puck leaves the zone uncontested, and Eller is able to pick it up in stride.

Later, Hagg pinches twice with both a focus on playing the puck, and with better support. In these instances, both pinches lead to more offensive zone time for the Flyers.

While the focus is on defensemen here, re-watch the above video and focus on Laughton. He showed a fantastic understanding of his job and ends up making a key play on both of Washington’s exit attempts.

With “absence of offense” in mind, defensemen picking good times to shoot, and helping cycle the puck, should also be considered — you guessed it — defense. What a defender can do to extend their team’s time in the offensive zone is essentially defense. And of course, good offense; it’s all intertwined, really.

But, while a successful forecheck might just be the perfect defense, against even the most effective forecheckers, the opposition will break the puck out of their zone numerous times in a game. This leads to defending in the neutral zone.

The neutral zone forecheck

In attempts to figure out why the Flyers have been playing so poorly at five-on-five, a lot has been said about their neutral zone system. Vigneault has the Flyers run an aggressive 1-2-2 neutral zone forecheck. The goal of the 1-2-2 is to essentially cut the ice in half, preventing one side of the ice from being a transition option, while reinforcing the side that the puck-carrier is on in an attempt to recover possession.

Because of the aggressiveness, it will sometimes look as if they’re running a 2-1-2 forecheck. Below is an example of the quick switching between forward one, Connor Bunnaman, and forward two, Michael Raffl.

It can also look like a 2-1-2 at times because of how they play in the offensive zone. If the opposition’s breakout is quick enough, the forwards will not have nearly enough time to get into position in the neutral zone. When they do have the time, they sit in a 1-2-2.

Back to the point at hand, the Flyers’ have placed a clear focus on their defenseman stepping up towards the red line. In this clip, Justin Braun successfully disrupts the Capitals’ advance up the ice twice, forcing them to regroup in their own zone.

This is the Flyers’ plan of attack; passivity isn’t encouraged. In the next example, Ivan Provorov jumps up ahead of the Capitals forward to intercept the transition pass.

With how hockey is broadcast, it can be tough to find full-scale examples of strong, aggressive neutral zone play. Most of the time the decision to move up the ice will be off-screen, with the result being what’s shown. Looking at what can be seen, Provorov reads where the pass is going to be made and uses his skating ability to get to the puck before it reaches its destination. Similar to offensive zone pinches, the nearest forward (Voracek) acts as fail-safe and covers for the defenseman.

Defensive zone coverage

Finally, there is defense within the defensive zone. Traditionally, this is where a defenseman would gain a reputation for being good or bad at defense. Direct actions like stick and body checks matter, but more than anything else, a player’s positioning will impact their effectiveness in the defensive zone.

The defensive zone can be split into two sides: strong side, and weak side. The strong side is whichever side the puck is currently on, while the weak side is the side opposite of the puck. In basic zone coverage, the defenseman on the strong side will attack the puck carrier with the support of a forward, usually the center, while the weak side defender is responsible for the front of the net. When the puck changes sides, a coverage switch occurs and the two defensemen switch roles. However, basic zone can be exploited as it gives skilled players more time and space to make a play, so many teams adopt a hybrid of zone and man-on-man to pursue more aggressively.

The Flyers run a zone overload/man-on-man hybrid, which is why sometimes the low forward will be seen covering the front of the net rather than a defenseman. In the Flyers’ hybrid, the low forward and two defensemen play man-on-man coverage while the two high forwards will drop closer into the slot and play zone. When the puck is along the boards, they tend to have all five skaters on the strong side, which is where the term overload comes into play.

In the following example, Gostisbehere shadows Nic Dowd (#26), while Braun pressures Carl Hagelin (#62). With both defenders along the boards, Kevin Hayes becomes the net-front defender. The weak side winger, Travis Konecny, drops into the slot and crosses over into the strong side. The overload has the Flyers outnumber the Capitals five-to-three on the strong side, and three-to-two along the boards.

So what should we look for from a defenseman in the defensive zone? First, their body positioning. The defenseman (or low forward acting as a defenseman) wants to take the interior and force them to the exterior. All three Flyers down low do a great job of this — Braun, in particular. Hagelin’s speed can make him tough to mark, and Braun isn’t exactly a burner himself, but here he does a great job keeping him to the perimeter and not allowing him the time or space to do something with the puck.

(Though, this is largely the norm for Braun. Flyers General Manager Chuck Fletcher did compare him to seaweed, after all.)

Second, we should look for their ability to disrupt the puck-carrier and create a change in possession. Whether it’s stripping the opponent of the puck themselves or tying up the carrier to allow a teammate to take the puck, the defenseman wants to recover the puck. Braun again serves as a great example in the above video, interrupting Hagelin’s control. It’s a bit of an unlucky bounce that the puck winds up on Hathaway’s stick in the circle, but Hayes is in position and blocks the shot attempt.

Finally, watch what a defenseman does once they gain possession. Their ability to cleanly exit the zone is extremely important, as some defensemen get icing-happy, negating the work that they and their teammates just did to recover the puck. Here Provorov strips Nick Ritchie (#21) of the puck, and Gostisbehere starts the breakout.

Icings, failed exits, and even turnovers stemming from “successful” exits that come without control just allow the opposition to go on the attack again.

Gostisbehere had been the Flyers’ best puck-moving defenseman for some time — one of the best in the league — but since the start of last season, Sanheim takes the crown. Per Corey Sznajder’s (@ShutdownLine) tracking, Sanheim ranked first on the Flyers in possession exit percentage and had the second-lowest fail rate, behind only Braun. Through the early phase of the 2021 season, he’s once again been the team’s most effective puck-mover.

If a defenseman can get the puck back but can’t do anything with it once they have possession, they’ll just have to battle for it all over again. This is where many old-school type defensemen (Erik Gudbranson, Jack Johnson, Joel Edmundson, etc.) fall flat.

Using last season’s data to see a bigger picture, it’s the difference between an effective “defensive defenseman” like Braun, who created an exit with possession 31 percent of the time with very few fails, compared to Hagg, who only exited with control 16 percent of the time, and failed to exit the zone a team-high 26 percent of the time. This, in part, leads to shot metrics like Corsi and Expected Goals viewing Braun favorably, and Hagg unfavorably. They both are viewed as defensive defensemen, but when one can’t stop playing defense, there’s a problem.

Wrapping up

This is not all-encompassing. There are most notably one-on-one and oddman situations where a mistake can prove costly. Though in the latter, it’s usually because of a mistake first made by their partner in the offensive or neutral zone. The situations that we looked at happen more regularly than those. Still important.

The way we view defense in the NHL has evolved, and ten years may be the difference between a player like Dougie Hamilton being seen as a weak defender instead of the top-end defenseman that he is today. Though we still see that perception take hold in some evaluations.

Good defense starts in the offensive zone, and true stay-at-home defensemen are a thing of the past. A player must be able to have an impact in all three zones in order to be an effective defenseman in the modern-day NHL.