Why the best defencemen have to be proficient on offence

Elliotte Friedman breaks down the intriguing tale of Shayne Gostisbehere's journey to the NHL and whether he may earn some Calder Trophy nods despite having missed time.

I’ve done a lot of work this season writing about the minutiae of a defenceman’s contributions in helping his team gain a territorial advantage during the run of five-on-five play. The crux of it is an individual blueliner is responsible for a lot of subtle plays over the course of any given game, which can go a long way towards putting the rest of his teammates in a more optimal situation to succeed.

The most important of these are own-zone breakouts, which in essence transition from defence to offence. It can be easy to lose sight of the fact a defenceman generally acts as the first line of attack for his team. Much like a quarterback in football, he has to read the coverage, maneuver his way through oncoming traffic, and fling an accurate pass that will ideally hit his receiver in stride.

This year’s Pittsburgh Penguins are the perfect example of this idea put into practice. There are a couple of reasons why they immediately took off after making the change from Mike Johnston to Mike Sullivan, most of which point back to the facelift they gave their transition game. It’s no surprise their performance spiked once they shed Rob Scuderi, cut back on Ian Cole’s inexplicable usage on the top pair, and supplemented a finally healthy Kris Letang and Olli Maatta with another legitimate puck-mover in Trevor Daley.

Watching this transition game in action against a polar opposite Rangers team in Round 1 was jarring. The Rangers couldn’t seem to string together two consecutive passes unless Keith Yandle was on the ice. New York’s counterattack was stifled by its inability to break out with any consistency. Had they been able to move the puck from the back end to their skilled forwards more regularly, they surely would have been more competitive.

With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of how each individual defenceman performed when exiting their own zone in Round 1 of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Click for Interactive Chart)

Here are the players who appeared on both ends of the extreme (players who appeared only once weren’t included because their low counts threw things out of focus):

Possession % = the percentage of all exit attempts by that defenceman that left the zone either by him carrying it, or successfully passing to a teammate. Failed % = blatant turnovers in the defensive zone, or icings.



It’s fair to say most of the names that appear at both ends of the spectrum are ones you’d generally expect. I’d highly recommend keenly watching a player such as Nick Leddy or Drew Doughty operate in his own zone. They seemingly never get flustered, regardless of the position they’re in or the forechecker who’s bearing down on them. While they carried out a significant percentage of exits on their own, an ability to patiently skate out of trouble and look for a better passing lane is just as important to their sustained success.

The most interesting dynamic is in Nashville. Roman Josi is one of the league’s very best at moving the puck out with a purpose while his partner Shea Weber is one of the worst. This trend wasn’t lost on the Ducks, who seemed to make a concerted effort to slow Josi down as the series went on.

After the smooth skating Swiss defender carved up their neutral zone presence in the first couple of games, I noticed they started to shadow him whenever he retrieved the puck deep in his own zone. As a result, he either had to make a quick stretch pass (which he’s admittedly not as proficient at), or allow Weber to create himself (which isn’t one of his strengths). The Predators eventually persevered, but the Ducks at least temporarily neutralized their attack with an astute game-plan.

The interplay between score effects and zone breakouts was the other noteworthy revelation here. It’s amusing to see how frequently teams with late leads shoot themselves in the foot. A conservative nature becomes apparent when the team that’s up abandons everything it was doing to get there in the first place.

Take Roman Polak, for example, who I would imagine is viewed in many circles as an ultra-reliable, safe option on the blueline, despite where he appears amongst his peers on the list above.





Polak had 28 such attempts to get out of his zone over the course of San Jose’s five-game first round series against the Los Angeles Kings. He managed to successfully make a play that retained possession for his team just twice.

Plays like this aren’t necessarily the worst outcome in isolation. Getting the puck out of your zone is obviously favourable to the alternative of staying hemmed in if only because it decreases your immediate risk. Polak didn’t have an in-zone turnover that immediately led to a scoring chance or a goal against. I suspect a player of his type is considered to be safe and reliable because there are few instances of plays going completely haywire that are directly traced back to him.

That doesn’t mean he is safe, though. Plays like the one captured above are the norm for Polak and countless other defencemen with similar skillsets (like a Brooks Orpik or a Luke Schenn). When that becomes a recurring theme, it’s generally a red flag of a more troublesome systemic issue. By working hard to get the puck and then willingly giving it back to the opposition, all he really did was get a few seconds reprieve before having to defend again. The difference is this time he and his partner are tired and playing against fresh legs.

There are countless examples over the course of a game, a season, and a series, where a purposeless play triggers a cascade that eventually leads to the same negative results, but in a more roundabout way. It’s not quite a fatal wound, but over time it bleeds the team dry.

Being able to effectively transition the puck out of the defensive zone is an essential quality for a blueliner to wield. Hockey is a fluid game and it can be difficult to differentiate between the different phases of action.

It’s remarkable how much one distinct sequence, like a simple breakout, can affect subsequent plays.

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