Fundamental Skill Development is Key for Elite Defensemen
I think everyone agrees that talented Defensemen are in short supply. It is perhaps the most important position when building a blueprint for a Championship team. But what do teams want out of their defensemen? What are coaches and managers looking for? Lets break it down and also take a glimpse at why Sweden seems to be leading the way in the Elite defensemen category.
First and foremost, defensemen must be able to defend. Defensemen can no longer hook, hold and wrestle their opponents in the defensive zone. Defensemen must now defend by taking away the opposing team’s time and space. They must defend with good body positioning, stick positioning and being close to your man. All of these gap and stick skills begin with skating. Skating agility, acceleration and edge work are all key components of becoming an elite level skater which is mandatory to be an elite defenseman in hockey.
Teams want to play fast. Teams must skate well and put pressure on the opposing team shift after shift if they want to be successful. Coaches want defensemen who can help their teams play this fast paced game. To do this, D-men must get to the puck first. They also need to be able to skate it out of trouble when possible and make accurate, crisp passes up the ice to teammates. D-men with quick feet are also able to jump into open spaces to create offensive opportunities. The ability to make this quick transition to offence is crucial to a team’s success.
Modern hockey teams want defensemen who can be trusted to play in all situations. Power play, penalty kill, when your team needs a goal and when your team needs to protect a lead. In the past, teams would have their # 1, 2 and perhaps 3 top defensemen as skilled, mobile puck moving defensemen and fill out their remaining 6 with big bruising rearguards with limited skating and puck skills. Now teams need all of their defensemen to be able to play at a high pace and make plays as the skill and depth of forward lines has increased. Teams are now building four strong forward units that can attack over and over, so you must counter that with a deep defence core that can defend, skate the puck and make solid, smart plays.
The Sweden effect
Sweden is pumping out some of the top young defensemen in hockey year after year. Starting with the legendary Nicklas Lidstrom, to Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Erik Karlsson and most recently Rasmus Dahlin to name a few. Lets explore a few contributing factors.
Skill focus all the way up to the pro level
Youth hockey in Sweden is all about letting the kids play and have fun. Being creative and trying different things with the puck is promoted. It is a development first model. All of the focus in Swedish youth hockey is on the basic fundamental skills. Skating, puck handling, passing, shooting. Repetition of fundamental skills during practices, so players can grow and progress to higher levels with those established skills. Prior to age 13 or 14 there is very minimal system teaching. Kids don’t pick a specified position until a later age as well. Allowing the kids to develop and play all different positions exposes them to more situations on the ice and different surroundings. I believe this contributes to the growth of hockey sense. They also don’t specialize in hockey before teenage years, with most kids also playing soccer, floorball, tennis, handball and other sports.
One thing I've noticed when watching some professional Swedish teams is that their defensemen NEVER shoot the puck out of the zone when under pressure. Their way of playing is to keep puck possession. Even when it might mean a turnover in your own zone, or continued pressure by the other team, players will keep the puck and move their feet to try and find a passing option. Even at the pro level it seems they encourage young player’s development over wins.
Small area games
Another aspect of developing elite defensemen is the use of small area games and youth cross-ice hockey. These games are beneficial for all ages, even the pros. Swedish hockey players are raised through this system and I believe it is a big reason why as a whole they are so strong on the puck (anyone remember Peter Forsberg?!!) Many of the skills used in small area games are extremely helpful for defensemen. In a small area the player will encounter many more battles where he will be on the defensive side of the puck and will have to defend with good positioning and close in on his opponent early using a good stick and angling. Conversely, on the offensive side the player must move their feet as soon as they get the puck or someone will be there to take it. Plays happen quicker in small areas, so d-men must make quicker decisions and move the puck at a faster pace. Players will get comfortable being in uncomfortable situations competing in the body-on-body areas.
In Sweden (and most other European nations) youth hockey players begin playing for their local hockey club and may continue with the same club all the way up to the pro level. They will start with a learn to skate program for beginners and move up through the ranks as they get older. After playing on the U9 team they will move up to the U11 team and then U13, U15, U17 and the U20 team until they make it to the pro team, all of this is usually under the umbrella of a pro team. I believe this has some great benefit to the players as they have continuity with the same players and established relationships with the club’s coaches and staff. They have role models in older players and a camaraderie with all the players belonging to that club. Many of the teams have exceptional facilities (weight rooms, tracks, strength coaches) that can be used by not only the pro team but the younger athletes as well. Another advantage these European teams have is the ability to move exceptional players up age groups. Notably when players reach the junior levels, they might get called up to the pro team and gain some experience. Rasmus Dahlin for example played with his U20 team and also the affiliated pro team (Frolunda Indians of the SHL) at the age of 16 before playing exclusively with the pro team at age 17 and then making the move to North America. Frolunda gave him the opportunity to play against grown men, so his jump to the NHL was not as steep. Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman completed a similar path as well.
Elite defenseman all have one thing in common: Elite Skating Skills. Becoming a strong skater with and without the puck is absolutely mandatory to be an elite defenseman. In my opinion, the best chance for development is a “skills first” focus and skating should always be at the top of the list. High level skating skills, along with puck skills can be developed through skills practices, along with games in a fun and creative way, especially in a confined space like cross-ice hockey. These games contribute to a defensemen’s hockey sense and the ability to make smart plays. Any development plan should focus on these key fundamentals to create elite defensemen that any successful team would love to have.