Hockey Talk

Coaching the Defensemen

Shannon Miller_coaching, ice hockey
Coach Shannon Miller

Coach Shannon Miller takes us through her training and tactics when coaching the defensemen with specific moves and this week’s sidebar offers five tips for being a great mentor

Hockey Talk, sponsored by ugo Wear is presented by Shannon Miller

Podcast length: 27′ 29″

Shannon’s coaching lesson this week is teaching the game using the “Whole, Part, Whole” method. We present the game as a whole, break it down into pieces to teach, and then put it all together as a whole again for competition. We do that over and over again, week by week teaching “pieces” within the game. Shannon explains that individual work must be done specific to every position: FW, DEF, G and that it’s important to work “specialty sessions” into some of your practices on a regular basis. The sidebar is 5 Tips for Being a Great Mentor: Helping positively shape someone’s development is one of the most rewarding things we can do. As mentors we don’t always have the right answers, but we can act as a sounding board and guide for the mentees, and encourage them to find their own answers.  Scroll down for Shannon’s notes below.

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Shannon’s Notes:

Episode 17: Coaching the Defensemen

Coaches, as we teach the game, we use the “Whole, Part, Whole” method.

We present the game as a whole, break it down into pieces to teach, and then put it all together as a whole again for competition. We do that over and over again, week by week. Today I’m going to talk about teaching “pieces” within the game.

Individual work must be done specific to every position: FW, DEF, G.

It’s important to work “specialty sessions” into some of your practices on a regular basis. Divide players by position; work in 3 different areas of the ice, with a coach assigned to each group. You can also divide the ice in half w G/FW in one half and G/Def in the other – then alternate in G drills while you’re doing specific work with the FW or the DEF – it’s important to work with each specific position- part of the whole.

Today I’ll address working with the DEFENSEMEN. There is a lot to teach, and so today I’ll share some important things to pay attention to and teach:

Play w the Puck – Attacking

  • good skating skills – FW; BW; lateral mobility; tight turns for escapes/to be evasive; heel to heel technique opening up the hips to see the ice on the breakout, or in the NZ….
  • good puck movement – short passes; long passes (hard cross ice passes or long North/South passes); FH passes; BH passes; one touch puck movement (no dust); saucer passes; making a good first pass on the breakout; transition p movement/quick up/no dust…
  • ready to shoot – lock and load – one timers (goalie doesn’t have time to stop and set)
  • deception with puck movement and shooting – not telegraphing
  • good shot selection – wrist shot, snap shot, slap shot, BH shot
  • good puck control – not over-handling the puck – beat the first fore checker and then move the puck
  • good puck protection skills – turning away from pressure, keep away, ….

Play without the Puck – Defending

  • good skating skills – FW; BW; lateral mobility; transition skating for gap control; heel to heel technique to back off a check that is on the wall, to get back quickly and stay on defensive side – like running backwards up a ladder, lifting skates, toes out/heels in, keep eyes on your check (versus turning and using cross overs).
  • specific to D: mobility in transition + ability to move laterally
  • good gap control
  • ability to read the rush Ex: 3v2 or 3v2 w a tight back check? Read the rush, then communicate with the back checker
  • ability to close the gap and create checking opportunities
  • ability to angle and steer; contain and pressure
  • good positional play on the wall, in the corners and net front

Coaching philosophies vary – some like to keep the unit of 5 together while on the attack and while defending – others like to stretch the ice and have the unit of 5 spread out. I’ve talked about stretching the ice by flying the wingers out of the zone in earlier podcasts – today I’m going to talk about keeping the unit of 5 together as they move up the ice.

It’s important for DEF to be able to:

  • read the play with out the puck – anticipate
  • hold the defensive blue line – “don’t give them the river!”
  • pressure by closing the gap and checking
  • transition play – defending, possession, and quickly create counter attacks (eyes up/awareness, no dust, quick puck movement)
  • follow up the attack – join the rush – prepare to shoot, pass, rebound
  • On the PP – QB the PP – vision, puck movement, repeat passes, deception, quality shot selection

It’s important to develop defensemen in the different areas of the ice:


  • playing with partner – “Pair play”  – puck side D is deeper and ready for pucks up the wall, high cycle with the D, take over w the D, etc… Partner supports high, middle, safe.
  • when D1 slides along the blue line with the puck, D2 hinges to support
  • have the ability to shoot quickly – quick release in stride while moving makes it more difficult for the opponent to block the shot
  • use repeat passes as part of “pair play”
  • be playable – reading the play, getting open to be an option, getting involved on offense, and having the creativity and freedom to be interchangeable


  • play with confidence, step up and close the gap on the attackers
  • make contact at own blue line/protect the river – this requires balance, timing and good skating skills)
  • work from inside out towards the boards and get back to starting position quickly
  • work with your partner to have depth, not in a straight line


  • D want to close the gap quickly
  • If it’s a situation where the D can pressure and engage in battle, separate the player from the puck and allow a teammate to come in for possession – we call this “second in quick”.
  • If the opponent has their back to the defender, close quickly, initiate contact with hands, arms and upper body, staying strong and balanced
  • Pin the opponent using legs and hips
  • Stay on defensive side, meaning in between the opponent and your net
  • Get off the wall or out of the corner quickly, never allowing your check to beat you off the wall, out of the corner and to the net
  • IF it’s a situation where it’s smarter for a D to contain – use transition skating to approach w control
  • When opponent is coming out of the corner with puck control and the D is two stick lengths away, control skate, but close the gap quickly – stay on defensive side – one hand on stick, one off to play body – steer the puck carrier low below the goal line or high towards the blue line and boards
  • If your check drives behind the net and the D is a “half-shaft” away, she goes with the check – if not close enough to stay with and pressure, cut net front, containing the opponent
  • If the opponent is standing behind the net and has control, be patient, make sure you have support – coordinate w the goalie to cut off passing lanes with the stick, then pressure them to their backhand, while your teammates box it up in behind
  • Flush the attacker to your partner who will now take over pressure on this check

DEFENDING 1 on 1’s:

  • Body position – align the body with the opponent to protect the net – outside shoulder of the D vs inside shoulder of the attacker
  • Anticipate the speed of the offensive player
  • Use the stick to influence the attacker in a certain direction and to challenge the puck at the right time. Have the top hand on the stick and elbow bent to increase the potential checking range (poke check), and keep the stick in front of the body
  • If the attacker drives to the outside with speed, assume inside position and force puck carrier outside the dots and close the gap while skating BW
  • When it’s time to attack the puck carrier, avoid using a cross-over – use the technique of opening the hips with a heel-to-heel pivot
  • Have awareness if the puck carrier is on the off-wing (LH on right side or RH driving in on the left side) and be aware of a “change of speed”
  • If the puck carrier attacks right down the middle, force the attacker outside, protecting the prime scoring area (preferably to their back hand)
  • If the attacker cuts in front of the D, catch up with FW skating, attempt to lift the stick and deny access to the net. Try to get in between the attackers stick and body
  • When the attacker delays (turns away from pressure by curling out towards the boards and up) – control the gap and keep the attacker to the outside. Step up, close the gap and make direct contact so the puck carrier cannot cut to the middle of the ice
  • When playing a 1 on 1 and the puck carrier cuts to the middle of the rink, close the gap. If the attacker slows down, the D must slow as well to maintain a good gap. Stay with the check and attack the stick.
  • If the attacker crosses up high in the NZ or DZ, and there is not a tight gap, hold your lane and switch checks with your partner
  • Read the play, have awareness of where your support is and where the other attacker are

There is much more to playing DEFENSE, but this is a good start. Teach your defenders to properly play 1v1’s, 2v1’s, 2v2’s, 3v2’s, etc…AND how to be evasive on the breakout and make a great first pass!


5 Tips for Being a Great Mentor:

Helping positively shape someone’s development is one of the most rewarding things we can do. As mentors we don’t always have the right answers, but we can act as a sounding board and guide for the mentees, and encourage them to find their own answers.

  1. Listen and Observe before Advising.
  2. Enable Quick Wins – establish short term goals together that can help motivate as well as measure some of the progress.
  3. Challenge Excuses that are clearly excuses – Open, Honest conversation – help the mentee see the situation in a more honest light.
  4. Share Your Experiences – the best training resource a mentor has to offer is our own experience. Share the experience with humility, and encourage them to learn from their own experiences.
  5. Celebrate Progress – Shine the light on their positive changes, and embrace their success. Re-visit the goals, the progress and celebrate!






Photo: Shannon Miller coaching Minnesota Duluth
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