There aren’t many sports in which you can argue that defense doesn’t win championships in one form or another.
In hockey, and especially high school hockey, strong defense can make the difference between a decent team and a great one. A team with one great defenseman can cover up a lot of problems, and a team with depth at the position can suffocate the opposition in the attacking zone.
Still, determining exactly what makes a great defenseman isn’t easy. Forwards who score goals and goalies who comes with up with big saves jump off the page and demand attention. Often, strong defensive play is much more subtle.
A defenseman might return to the bench after a strong shift just happy that he made a crisp pass out of his own zone, or pleased that his stick prevented an opponent from making what otherwise looked like an easy pass.
These are the accomplishments don’t always fill the stat sheet but are critical to team success.
“The teams with the strongest defensive cores are often the best teams in the state. I look at BC High this year, and that’s what I see,” said St. John’s Prep (Mass.) coach Kristian Hanson.
Demands on defensemen vary from team to team. Some coaches want short, crisp passes out of the zone, while others ask for longer, stretch passes that might jump-start offense faster. Among the varieties in style are some constants, however.
“For me, I want a guy who can play smart and can recognize situations,” Hanson said. “A guy who knows when to pinch, and when to back off. Someone who can get the puck through when he shoots from the point. A guy who can keep it simple and make the easy plays.”
Even in that answer there are multiple layers to what a defenseman is asked to do throughout the course of a game. Start when the opposition has the puck in the attacking zone.
It’s important for a defenseman to be able to read the opposing forwards, try to prevent passes and, when possible, block shots.
“I think the stick work is huge,” said Ean Mendeszoon, a senior at St. John’s from Methuen, Mass. “It’s about positioning your stick, putting it in a place where if a guy sees it, maybe he doesn’t make that pass he was thinking about.”
Gaining possession of the puck might be even more important than preventing shots. The team with the puck has control of the game. Getting it back and moving it out of the zone with speed and accuracy jump-starts everything.
“I was always taught to keep the game simple, so I want to make a quick outlet out of the zone. Nothing can go wrong if you make a simple first pass,” said JJ Layton, a sophomore defenseman at Austin Prep in Reading, Mass.
“Most teams press on their forecheck, so I would rather make the pass or just get it off the glass into the neutral zone. If you play with the puck in your zone, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.”
Once the puck is through the neutral zone and into the attacking end, strong defensemen have to know when to jump into the offensive play. D-men who can score add another dimension to their teams, whether those goals are coming on the rush as they carry the puck from end-to-end, or on booming shots from the blue line that beat goalies or are tipped by their teammates.
Among the region’s highest-scoring rearguards are sophomore Matt Dillon at Shrewsbury (Mass.) High (34 points in mid-February) and junior Nick Albano of Beverly (Mass.), who boasts 32. Senior Greg Ferris at Notre-Dame Fairfield and Conor Scharlop of Fairfield are two of the highest scoring D-men in the Nutmeg State.
Contributing offense comes with risks, however, and young defensemen have to be cognizant of that. Putting himself out of position to take a big shot that misses and gives the opponent a scoring chance the other way, is a cardinal sin.
“Those offensive instincts have to take a back seat,” said Mendeszoon, who moved to defense full time when he was a freshman in high school at age 14. “The biggest change from forward is knowing that sometimes you have to stay back. You can’t always step up into the play; you have to worry about protecting the net.”
Defensemen play, for the most part, without the puck. They’re reactive, timing their own actions based on what the forward in front of them does, rather than proactive. That takes some getting used to for players who change from forward to defense.
For someone like Layton, a USA Hockey development camp invitee who started playing D when he was 6 because he saw so many open spots there on his youth team, things come a little more easily.
“It’s never been weird for me because it’s the only position I’ve ever known,” said Layton, who is from Peabody, Mass., and played in the Little League World Series in 2009.
“I focus a lot on gap control, making sure there’s not too much space between myself and my own teammates or myself and the opposing forwards. A great rule is 3-2-1. You want three stick lengths of space in the offensive zone, two in the neutral zone and one in your own end.”
Size and strength are pivotal in the back end. Mendeszoon stands 6-foot-4 and has one of the longest reaches of any high school defenseman. He’s become more mobile as he’s grown into his body and become more comfortable skating backward and moving side to side.
He’s also aware of the pitfalls of being one of the biggest skaters on the ice.
“There’s challenges. I think guys look at bigger defensemen and feel like they might not be able to move too well, they try to get wide around you,” said Mendeszoon. “I’ve always tried to be a solid skater, and one of the best challenges is going against the top guys on the other team every shift.”
Defensemen are tasked with winning the puck in the corners, and that often requires physical play. Open-ice checks are important, too, as they can cut down on the rushes for faster, skilled attackers.
“Bigger, stronger teams can physically wear down smaller, skilled teams if they come out strong and hitting,” Layton said. “You want to hammer the opposing player when you get the chance so he thinks twice about coming in your area again.”
The final thing that helps a team is depth. Being able to roll two or three pairs of solid defenders is a luxury all teams desire. Take, for instance, Salem, N.H., which in mid-February sat in first place in their state’s Division 1.
Salem defensemen Alex Ring and Paul Antkowiak are both point-per-game players, outstanding production for blueliners. More importantly, Salem allowed only 21 goals in its first 13 in-state games for a strong average, under two per contest.
Communication between defensive partners contributes to success in all three zones. The job of a defenseman is expansive, and it can be overlooked. It’s the blue-collar aspect of high school hockey; the less flash the better.
“For me, when I think of defensemen, if I don’t remember them in a game they probably did their job,” Hanson said. “If you’re remembering a defenseman after a game it’s probably a mistake that led to a goal.”
What are the things defensemen themselves look for to evaluate their own play?
“For me, I’m happy if my passes are clean,” said Mendeszoon. “The breakout is the most important part of hockey. If you can’t break out of your zone, you can’t score and the other team can.”
“For me it’s not always about points,” said Layton. “If I have a good game, I think about how my gap control was, how physical I was and definitely how well I played in the transition game.”