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Joining the Rush

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
Hockey's "job description" of a defensemen has changed over several generations.  From the beginning, defensemen were to keep the puck out of their own net and let the forwards take care of putting it into the opposing team's.  In the new NHL, the job of a defenseman has morphed into defensemen now jumping into the play to contribute to the offense. 

Defensemen are expected push the play, meaning support the forwards in the offensive zone to create more scoring chances. 

“We want to have four man attacks, just like a lot of other teams in the league,” Islanders interim head coach Jack Capuano said. “It’s a matter of our forwards identifying when the second wave is coming. But it’s something that we have in our game plan, just like a lot of other teams.”

As Capuano stated, the offensive rush is a big part of today’s game. Teams across the National Hockey League encourage their defensemen to join in the offensive play, catching unsuspecting teams off guard with odd-man rushes. Today, defensemen not only defend their own zone, they help create 4-on-3 advantages and sometimes 3-on-2’s when an opposing forward is trapped down low.

“As defensemen, we trail the play, hoping to get any loose pucks dropped back or if the other team breaks the play up, we can keep the puck in the zone and keep the offensive play moving forward,” Islanders defenseman Jack Hillen said.

When thinking of a defenseman’s duties on the ice, it’s keeping the puck out of the net and helping to push the play back up the ice.  To get offense out of his young blue-liners is a bonus that Capuano has preached the team needs to consistently put pressure on the opponent’s defense. 

“When you’re asked (to be an offensive player), it’s a little bit more work, but it’s nice not to have to sit back and just defend,” second year Islanders defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. “You want to be part of the rush and part of every play. When you’re up on the play and you get more touches with the puck, you gain confidence.”

While many offensive defensemen, like MacDonald, get points on the power play, these types of players find ways to earn points while even strength as well. To chip in points sounds great in theory, but players must pick and choose their spots as this type of play isn’t always in the cards or even beneficial.

“It depends on the situation and time in a game,” Hillen said. “You really don’t join as much when you’re on a penalty kill or if you don’t have a one or two goal lead in the third period.”

After nearly a month of Capuano tweaking the Islanders already established system, avid Islanders fans and the players notice the transformation.  The adjustment also promotes gap control which is a key in how defenseman keep opposing forwards from attacking the zone with speed. 

One player that has liked Capuano’s system is Travis Hamonic, who made his NHL debut this season after he was recalled by the Islanders on an emergency basis, November 23.

“I think Cappy’s (Capuano’s) system fits my game very well,” Hamonic said. “I thrived under it in Bridgeport and so far, I think I’m doing pretty well here. I don’t think Cappy is as defensive as everyone thinks. We’re just trying to be responsible out there and I think when we need an opportunity or we need a chance, we switch things up.”

While the league standings may not show the Islanders improvement, there is definite chemistry brewing out on the ice and the players are completely trusting of the changes in their system.

“He’s (Capuano) a smart coach,” Hamonic said. “He definitely knows the technical details of the game better than most coaches but he can also be a players’ coach at the same time. Hopefully we can keep pushing the pace with his system and really try to take advantage of the opportunities we’re creating.”

The system has also benefitted Hillen’s play. Even though he said he doesn’t really consider himself an offensive defenseman, Hillen has been playing with added confidence since returning from his concussion this season and is enjoying the added responsibility.

“When I was out, I really dissected my game,” Hillen said. “I diagnosed what I need to do better and I watched other defensemen play. I felt like (joining the rush) was one area of my game, that before the injury, I wasn’t doing as well. That’s one thing I’ve really focused on, is when the time is right, when the opportunity is right, I try to get up in the play.”

The defensemen on the Islanders roster are some of the largest supporters of one another and Capuano’s system. One thing is for certain, when a defensive player is taking chances to join the rush, good things start to come.

“We’re like a group of six back there and we always cheer each other on,” MacDonald said. “Whenever a defenseman gets a goal, we get pretty excited about it, so I think you can look to see us joining the rush a lot more.”
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