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Coaches Room

Active defensemen becoming key to success

Lacroix discusses how teams are asking for more from back end

by Daniel Lacroix / Special to NHL.com

The Coaches Room is a weekly column by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher.

In this edition, Daniel Lacroix, former assistant with the Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders, discusses how defensemen have been more active offensively this season, which has contributed to an increase in scoring League-wide.

Through the first three weeks of the NHL season we've seen an increase in scoring compared to last season.

Through games Tuesday, the League was averaging 6.22 goals per game, including deciding shootout goals, according to NHL Stats. That's up 0.28 from last season's average of 5.94 goals per game.

I think one of the reasons for this increase is defensemen have been more active in the offensive attack.

Per NHL Stats, defensemen were averaging 4.19 points per game through Tuesday, an increase from 3.95 points per game last season.

 

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The Washington Capitals' John Carlson (five goals, eight assists) and the Toronto Maple Leafs' Morgan Rielly (three goals, 10 assists) each had 13 points in their first eight games, making them the first defensemen with that many points in that span since Bryan McCabe had 13 (two goals, 13 assists) through eight games for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2005-06.

Erik Karlsson led defensemen (who played more than two games) with 0.87 points per game for the Ottawa Senators last season; he had 62 points (nine goals, 53 assists) in 71 games.

It's a small sample size, but through games Tuesday there were 12 defensemen (who have played more than two games) averaging more than that. Carlson was first at 1.63 points per game, followed by Rielly (1.56), Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins (1.29), Thomas Chabot of the Senators (1.25), Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks (1.11), Keith Yandle of the Florida Panthers (1.00), Justin Schultz of the Penguins (1.00), Scott Mayfield of the New York Islanders (1.00), Jeff Petry of the Montreal Canadiens (1.00), John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars (1.00), Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild (0.88) and Maxime Lajoie of the Senators (0.88).

Video: NYR@WSH: Carlson cranks home blistering slap shot

Getting more defensemen involved in the offense has been a trend the past five seasons. But I think more teams are doing it now and we're seeing it pay dividends early this season.

It starts in the offensive zone.

People used to talk a lot about the swarm in the defensive zone, where teams would try to outnumber opponents around their net or in the corners defensively. Coaches now are asking their players to swarm more, or shrink the zone, on the offensive side.

When they're in the offensive zone and lose the puck, coaches want their defensemen to pinch down from the blue line to the hashmarks and sit there on the opposing forwards. The defensemen are asked to be very tight and not give as big of a gap to the opposing forward as they used to, so they're relying on their third forward to be back and cover for them.

They're almost swarming offensively on their forecheck to outnumber their opponent and not give them time to get the puck and have a proper breakout. So opponents either must rim or flip passes to create races in the neutral zone to get the defensemen to back off.

I've seen a lot more of that so far from teams such as the Maple Leafs and the Calgary Flames.

It might not look like offense, but that's one of the ways they work aggressively to get pucks back in the offensive zone and not spend as much time in the defensive zone.

Even clearer is that the weakside defensemen are as active as ever on breakouts. It's not just the limited few who are getting involved in the rush. Teams are asking that from all their defensemen.

Most teams are going to have two defensemen and one forward back, so if you just have your forwards go, it's 3-on-3. There's no odd-man rush.

If you activate your weakside defenseman, you can come up the ice with four, sometimes five skaters.

Defensemen are so agile right now that they enter the offensive zone, look for a scoring opportunity and then find the backdoor. Lajoie is a good example of a player sniffing in offensively and capitalizing on some long rebounds to the weak side.

And if the puck doesn't come toward that weakside defenseman, teams must figure out their exit plan from the offensive zone right away.

Every coach now wants their defensemen to be active, finish the play at the net and support the offense. And they're asking their forwards to be responsible and back up the defensemen.

They're not always reading situations as a forward and as a defenseman, but as an offensive situation. You count numbers, you get above the puck, and then when you do have the puck, you know where the net is.

Whether you're a forward or a defenseman, if you're the second man and they're asking you to drive the net, you're driving that net.

The question remains whether this scoring surge will continue and whether teams will want to keep having their defensemen be aggressive throughout the season. Teams usually adjust as the season progresses.

Per NHL Stats, the average goals per game was 6.19 during October 2017, but by the end of last season it had dropped to 5.94. That still was the highest season average since it was 6.24 goals per game in 2005-06.

The last season when defensemen averaged more than 4.19 points per game was 1993-94, when they averaged 4.34 per game.

Teams that have success will continue what they're doing. Offensive confidence is a big thing for defensemen, and when they are confident they make strong plays. If they're not confident, they're on their heels a little more.

It's always a balance between risk and reward, but a confident defenseman and a confident team have a way to make it work while also living with the shortcomings. You need the points on the board or experience as a coach to say, "You know what? We've lost our last couple of games but it's not because of this. We've got to continue to play at a high pace and get our defensemen involved."

Not everybody is in a situation where they can do that, but it sure is the way the successful teams are playing.

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