For defensemen in the NHL, times have changed. Gone are the days of aggressively running at forwards with the puck in the corner and going for the "hit-and-pin."
Hit-and-pin was just about the most widely taught (and accurately named) defensive strategy when I was a young buck coming up through minor hockey and junior. When you think back to what the move actually was, it's almost comical we ever allowed it in our sport.
"Yeah, that's it, just drive your knee into the boards between the forwards legs, wrap him up with your free hand and basically hold him there until his shift's over. Awesome. That's terrific defense."
I remember being a smaller 12-year old and getting dry-humped against the boards by some 13-year old with a mustache, flailing to get free, and eventually just giving up and waiting until he decided to set me free from the trap.
Since they've been stripped of that "tool," smart defensemen have started playing more soft in the d-zone — and rightfully so.
Smaller, more talented forwards like Zach Parise and Mike Cammalleri want nothing more than to play a defenseman who somehow still thinks it's a good idea to run at them in the corner. What options does that defender think he's going to have after he's attempted his hit? Other than trying to slap at the puck (a not-so solid strategy against NHL all-stars), he's just stuck in no-man's land.
It gives the forwards the opportunity to juke them, step around and get to the net unimpeded. They may get hit seven out of 10 times (which doesn't even mean they lose possession), but over the course of the game, they're going to get a few uncontested looks, which is usually all guys like them need to pot one.
The best defensive strategy these days focuses on body position.
When you play that guy who defends "soft" — think Nick Norris of the Detroit Red Wings — it's a steady stream of almosts and smothered shots and frustrating, half-hampered opportunities.
It's a difficult thing for young defensemen to master, because it requires a certain amount of patience, something that doesn't always come naturally to 20-year old men in an aggressive sport.
When you first get your chance to impress coaches and scouts as a young guy, it's tough to convince yourself that the best method of showing them your skills is to sit between the net and the offensive player and not doing anything extraordinary. It'd be a lot easier to try to smash said forward, and have the scouts all go "hmm, yes, aggressive and tough, we like him."
Only nowadays, that just looks like you don't have a head for the game.
When you play aggressive and tough all the time, you get a label, so guys know to be prepared to have to jump when you're out there. And since you're a guy who gives up the odd opportunity because you're aggressive already, that label is only going to get you beat more often. Without me singling out any particular defensemen, I'm sure you can think of a guy on your favourite team who can't learn to be patient, tries to kill guys all the time and gets roasted at least once a game.
As a forward, there's nothing less appealing than a guy backing up with me who has "good stick" on the puck as I try to get from the corner to the net. We get hit all the time out there, nobody's afraid of that, so I'd much prefer to take my chances against the dude who runs around.
I expect we'll see more skilled defensemen in the future, more offensive threats who used to be perceived as too small or weak to play D in the NHL because of the shift in effective styles. You don't have to be able to crush guys like Scott Stevens now if you can think the game positionally, which means guys like Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski can play smart on the d-side and then go do their thing when the puck is headed the other way.
The word "soft" in hockey has always been one of the last words you wanted to hear associated with you as a player, but times have changed. There's value in being a defenseman who's smart enough to play soft.
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