The whirling, bumping, skate-scraping, non-stop action of a typical NHL game might create an illusion for new fans: Maybe hockey doesn't have actual positions? Well, except for the goalies. Otherwise, the five skaters all seem to be zipping all over the place, skating backwards, cycling forward and backward, exchanging spots with each other.
Kraken faithful, we're here to clear up any illusion of confusion. Yes, there are five distinct positions in front of each goalie: Center, left wing, right wing, left defense, right defense.
The center and wings are all forwards and typically form a line of three who play together for the game, often for weeks or months at a time if the offense is clicking. The left and right defense work in pairings, similar to lines. The defensive pairs also tend to be consistent from game to game (or over weeks and months) to allow those defensive partners to get accustomed to each other's playing habits. Here's a capsule look at each position:
While goaltender is arguably hockey's most difficult position to play and excel, particularly as the level of play accelerates, the center's role is the most important to the action on the ice. Centers are involved with most faceoffs (a puck drop between two opposing players to restart play).
They (most teams roll out three to four lines of a center and wings) have an idea where they want the puck to go from those faceoffs, how to move the puck forward (leading what coaches call "breakouts") for offensive scoring chances and devote just as much protecting against those goal opportunities on their team's defensive end.
It would be impossible to name a Stanley Cup championship that didn't feature a strong depth of centers (and even some wings who move over to center when injuries demand). Some NHL centers are both high goal scorers and playmakers earning assists on goals (Edmonton's one-two centermen punch of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl come to mind) while other centers (Colorado's Nathan McKinnon and Los Angeles' Anze Kopitar) get their share of goals but serve their teams as scoring catalysts, "two-way" players (just as active on defense) and undeniable leaders and role models.
Left Wing and Right Wing
There was a time when hockey forwards who played on either side of center were determined by whether they shoot left or right. A lefty would line up on the left side to help protect the puck from defenders with their bodies when skating toward the opposing team's goal with the puck. Right-handers same.
What's changed in today's lineups is coaches and players discovered left-handers shooting from the right-wing positioning (right side facing the goalie) have a better shooting angle, opening a more full set of target points when sizing up the goalie and open space in the four-by-six foot goal space. Ditto for some righties shooting from the left-wing side.
Exhibit A for the "off-wing" strategy is Washington's Alex Ovechkin, who shoots right and going into Sunday's games is the NHL's sixth all-time goals leader with 723. He's played some right wing earlier in his career. But his former coach and now New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz (who recently passed the 1,700 mark in wins as a NHL coach, third-highest ever) moved Ovechkin back to "LW" for the 2014-15 season.
The Capitals won the Cup in 2019 with Ovechkin on the left side. When he played "RW" in the 2013-14 season, he scored 51 goals to top the league but 24 came on the power play. Why is that significant? Ovechkin's favorite spot to shoot on powerplays is on the left side, where he can uncork his hard "one-timer" shot more quickly upon receiving a pass -- and with the improved shooting angle. His scoring success prompts players and media alike to call it "Ovie's Office."
When hockey talk about "playing hard or smart or both in the corners," it often the wings who are battling for puck possession on the other defensive end. They dig into those corners hoping to get a pass back or over to the center or defenseman on that side. Wings are equally expected to be physical, annoying visual block in front of the attacking net and the other team's goalie.
Like centers, certain wings or "wingers" can be deployed as forwards who excel at defending the other team's attack, especially when the opponents are trying to move the puck out of their own zone. Third and fourth lines are often filled with the better defenders to shut down another team's top line. Another twist: A line with two offensively gift players, say the center and right wing, might include a defensive-minded left wing who gets back on defense more reliably. These wings are often among the team's leading shot-blockers.
Left Defense and Right Defense
The list of duties for defenders in hockey is long and important. The two positions back up the forward line and prove to be the goaltender's best compatriots in stopping both goals and what hockey analytics experts call "high-danger" scoring chances.
Perhaps most critical on that list is a pairing of left and right "D" that works together. One common example: If one defender moves up into the offensive breakout or goal-scoring change, the partner makes sure to stay back for any reversal of puck movement.
What else? Lots: Fill passing lanes and stop passes when the other team has the puck; gain possession of the puck; start the attacking from as far back as behind the defending net; move the puck out of the defensive zone (clearing the blue line so the other team has to regroup before re-entering the zone) and, not least by all means, clear both opposing players and rebounds (deflections from a goalie's save) that are threateningly in front of the net.
Whew, but there's even more to the D-game. One is making quick decisions, such as where to send the puck once an offensive play is thwarted or when to move up into the offensive mix or even whether to head to the bench for a shift change without leaving the goalie isolated.
During powerplays, the move into the offensive is better defined. Defensemen in the NHL are typically the "powerplay quarterback" deciding to unleash a hard shot on goal that might get past a screened goalie (by an aforementioned winger) or possibly get tip by a stick or skate or whatever changes direction to foil the goalie. Florida's Aaron Ekblad handles the role expertly and his teammate Keith Yandle has done it well for the Panthers and other NHL teams.
Unlike the off-wing trend, most coaches and general managers prefer defensive pairings with left-handers on left D and righties on their natural sides. The concept is routine defensive plays are easier: passing on the forehand to clear the zone or start the offensive rush, attempting cross-ice passes in the neutral zone (between the two blue lines) or maneuvering in the corners to send a puck up the boards (playing off-D requires a backhanded play).
But statistics show roughly 60 percent of NHL defensemen are left-handed over the seasons. That leads to left-handers playing on the right side. NHL general managers tend to covet right-handed defenseman with star power and/or "shutdown"-caliber defensive skills (which can allow a gifted lefty defenseman like Vancouver's Quinn Hughes to boost the offensive effort -- and worry Kraken fans when rival Canucks come to Climate Pledge Arena).
While the hardest hockey position in elite play -- and maybe the toughest job in all of pro sports -- the goalie position is easiest to understand for newbies. Keep the puck from fully crossing the two-inch goal line and lighting up the dreaded (for goalies) red goal light.
While stopping shots is fundamental, goaltenders need to work at not allowing any rebounds from a saved shot to bounce back to oncoming attackers. Some young goalies struggle with that puck management early-career when adjusting to the hyper-fast NHL game -- and those that don't usually fall off rosters.
There will be times when the goalie needs to hold or "freeze" the puck to stop an offensive rush. Other times, the goalie might pass a loose puck to a teammate or stop it behind the goal so a teammate can gather it for an offensive counter.
The goalie needs to be a communicator, warning about who is in the line of vision in front of the net or to alert a teammate with his back turned that opponents are in pursuit of the player and puck.
There's more but all goalies must be adept at one common trait. Don't let allowed goals to affect how you play the next shot on goal or approaching puck. There's no room for remorse, just more shots on goal.