Even after an uncharacteristic 8-2 drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, the New York Islanders remain one of the best defensive teams in the post-season. And that shouldn’t be shocking, since the Isles were top-10 during the regular season, too.
A big reason for New York’s penchant for defense is coach Barry Trotz, who took over the worst defensive team in the NHL and turned it into 2018-19’s top unit. But what exactly is Trotz preaching on Long Island? To be sure, you need forwards to come back and help, plus solid goaltending, but Trotz laid out some of his fundamentals this summer as part of the NHL Coaches’ Association‘s virtual global summit.
“To me, the make-up of a modern defenseman, the No. 1 thing is the processing skills,” Trotz said. “You can be a great skater, you can have really good puck skills, but the ability to problem-solve is, to me, key.”
And there certainly are a lot of problems to solve if you’re an NHL defenseman these days. The game is faster than ever thanks to the crackdown on clutching and grabbing (or “water-skiing” as Trotz so deftly put it), so defensemen also need the courage to take hits, box out in front of the net and get into shot lanes. A competitive nature is also an obvious plus in Trotz’s opinion.
But what are some of the specific hallmarks of a Trotz defense corps? Let’s take a look at some of the points made by the two-time Jack Adams Award winner and Stanley Cup champion.
When going back into the defensive zone for the puck, a defenseman should keep skating hard until the hash marks; this gives you the maximum amount of time and space from the incoming forechecker. Check over your shoulder to process options and the pressure coming from the attacker. Trotz prefers for his blueliners to do two shoulder checks when they retrieve a puck.
If you are the retrieving D-man’s partner, make sure you are available and have your body open towards the puck as much as possible.
After getting the puck, cut as close as possible to the net when possible and try to get to the middle of the ice (between the dots) as you proceed toward the neutral zone; this will give you more passing options than if you’re near the boards. New York’s Nick Leddy was singled out for praise a number of times in the breakout category.
“Having a wheel mentality is paramount,” Trotz said. “It gives you time and space.”
Line Rush Against
Gap control (the amount of space between you and an opponent) is a very important part of defending and Trotz had a lot to say on the matter.
“The best gaps for most times are anywhere from 10-12 feet,” Trotz said. “Through the neutral zone, you want about half the zone as a gap. And you want to be able to hold pressure areas. We want to make those stands at the blueline: that stick-on-puck mentality forces them into a situation where they get nothing out of the rush.”
Taking a stand at the blueline can really trip up the opposition and puck-carriers can also be baited by a defender’s active stick. Trotz wants his blueliners to defend rushes with one hand on their stick and have that stick near the puck (“stick-on-puck mentality”). You also want to angle your attacker to your outside shoulder.
One drill that Islanders coaches do with their defensemen at practice is to flip pucks towards the D-zone. The defensemen’s task is to try knocking those pucks out of the air. Do it successfully and what could have been a dump-in can now potentially be a transitional puck going towards the offensive zone.
“To the casual fan it looks lucky,” Trotz said. “But we work on those things.”
And while crossovers are crucial to building up speed as a forward, Trotz advises that blueliners avoid them when they’re skating backwards and defending: otherwise, it’s a good way for a Connor McDavid or Nathan MacKinnon to blow right past you. Instead, defensemen should stay square to the attacker. Trotz cited Islanders veteran Johnny Boychuk as someone who does this well.
“Johnny’s not the most fleet of foot,” he said. “But he’s pretty structured when it comes to defending and he’s pretty determined.”
Defensive Zone Play
The key to owning your own zone? Be quick and physical in the first seven seconds, according to Trotz. Leverage is also crucial when battling for a puck, as the player who gets lowest usually comes out on top. Defensemen should box out early in front of the net, too.
One trick that Trotz believes in is a six-inch crosscheck to an opponent’s hips. This knocks them off-balance and can often lead to them coughing up the puck. Naturally, if the cross-check is too hard or too blatant, you’re going to get a penalty – so there is some subtlety to this art.
“The best in the league and the best I ever coached for this is Ryan Suter,” said Trotz, who had Suter in his Nashville days. “It just separates the player from the puck a little bit.”
The Islanders have a tall task on their hands against Tampa Bay, but the fact they have already knocked off three teams in the post-season speaks to the effectiveness of the team and its coach. And it all begins with defense for New York.