The Vicious Cycle of Conservative Defensive Structure

In the Defensive Zone and even in the Neutral Zone, recovering the puck requires an aggressive mindset. Everyone can recall a time when a player made a bid to get the puck from an opponent only to miss and be caught out of position defensively. These are usually seen as reckless plays because the other players did not anticipate the risk that their teammate was going to take and scramble to cover for him. There is a way to avoid this though. A defensive zone system that builds in aggressive puck recovery ensures that the other players will shift their coverage to fill in for the player who is battling to get the puck. These systems take an “attack the puck” approach to defensive zone play. They provide for support on the boards to battle for the puck as well as a “recovery position” player whose job it is to retrieve the puck when it comes out of the board battle.

Building fail safes into the defensive zone system turns what is often viewed as a reckless abandoning of defensive position to make a play for the puck into a systematic approach to puck recovery and helps avoid players being caught drastically out of position. When this systematic approach is not used, teams often start to think they need to tighten up their defensive zone coverage because these reckless plays are resulting in players being caught out of position and the attacking team taking advantage of that to get a better shot on net. This essentially creates a vicious cycle of more and more conservative play in the defensive zone. *click the image to enlarge

conservative dz structure

Hallmarks of Conservative Defensive Zone Play:

  • Passive blue line defense allows controlled zone entries
  • Stand up blue line defense allows easy recovery of dump ins due to commitment to protecting the slot instead of aggressively contesting recovery of the puck
  • Prioritizes “preventing a goal against” over puck recovery
  • “Stay in position” trumps aggressive coverage to cause turnovers and loose pucks
  • Allow opponents to cycle the puck both low and high with relative ease
  • Try to prevent interior passing and shots
  • Preach shot blocking as best method of shot suppression
  • Spend long periods “hemmed in” the defensive zone
  • Emphasize “Clearing the Zone” as opposed to regrouping to go on the attack
  • Dump the puck out of the zone due to needing to change personnel (long defensive zone shifts, tired players)
  • Fatigue causes lapses in defensive zone coverage thus allowing the “quality” shots they were trying to prevent
  • After a shot, players stay in defensive positions instead of attacking the puck to recover


Teams that are conservative in their defensive zone approach often do not recover the puck from the attacking team unless it comes loose inside of the box shown in the illustration above. This is due to the fact that the majority of their personnel are committed to staying in position defensively inside the faceoff dots and covering the slot. This leaves a lot of room for the attacking team to work with. The rationale behind this is that shots will come from the perimeter and be less dangerous. As I’ve stated above, this may work for the initial shot, but as the defense tires, it becomes easier for the attacking players to gain separation from their checks and get time and space to work with even within the coverage zone.


Teams that use a more aggressive approach in the defensive zone prioritize puck recovery. Their system anticipates that players will move outside of the faceoff dots and slot to challenge for the puck. This system requires that other players cover more ice in the defensive zone when a teammate commits to a puck battle. Personnel involved in a board battle must be supported by a player in a position to recover the puck when it comes loose. There is risk associated with this method of course because a particularly good pass may find open ice in a prime scoring area; however, the thinking is that with enough personnel committed to puck recovery and support, the chances of that pass happening are drastically lowered.

chi-low-zone-coverageTo the left is an example of aggressive defensive zone coverage that prioritizes puck recovery. D1 and F1 commit to battling for the puck along the boards. F2, while aware of what the point player is doing, stays in a position that provides support to the players down low and is ready to recover the puck when it comes out. D2 does the same, while ever mindful that one of the low attacking forwards may cut back behind him for a pass from the strong side point or from one of the forwards on the boards. This is where passes across the slot and shots to the front of the net can cause problems; however, players in these types of systems know to anticipate this type of attack and are on the lookout for it.

The keys to being aggressive in the defensive zone are anticipation, support and discipline, above and beyond what is required of players in a conservative system, in my opinion. That discipline goes above and beyond because not only must the defending players be watching for what the attacking players are doing, they must react and respond quickly to support their teammates who are committed to puck battles.

Coaches who feel compelled to use conservative defensive zone systems are often responding to a perceived weakness defensively in their team. As I noted in the cycle above, this usually leads to even more defensive problems, when the answer to the perceived defensive problems is actually to have all of the players in the defensive zone be more aggressive.

After being hemmed in the defensive zone and getting exhausted, players tend to “clear the zone” by dumping the puck out as opposed to completing a controlled zone exit. This one element of their play does more to destroy the team’s ability to go on the attack than anything else.

When you watch good shot suppression and generation teams play, nearly every exit from the defensive zone is controlled. In the game tracking detailed in “Crucial Habits: Shot Generation & Controlled Zone Exits”, Chicago and Anaheim exited the defensive zone by carrying the puck out or using tape to tape passes approximately 70% of the time. They limited “bad” exits, those that went straight to an opponent in the neutral zone and icings, to far less than 15% of their trips out of the zone. Uncontrolled exits, such as dump outs or chip outs that required serious effort to recover, were limited to under 20%. Comparatively, Colorado had much higher uncontrolled and bad exits from the defensive zone in the games tracked.

Often, teams with really speedy forwards think they can get away with dumping the puck out of the zone and trying to chase it down to regain possession. This is seldom successful and also adds to the shot suppression problems of the teams employing it.


dump out chase

D1 (defenseman) for the Blue team dumps the puck up the boards to clear his defensive zone. The Blue team forwards give chase, while D1 recovers to a defensive position and D2 moves up in the defensive zone to support the forwards if they gain possession or defend against an offensive attack if they don’t. The defensemen for the Red team already have a territorial advantage in terms of getting to the puck first and D2 (red) recovers the puck in his defensive zone. As soon as the Red team forwards see that D2 is going to gain possession of the puck, they start a lane regroup to go back on the attack. The Blue team’s speedy forwards have been tasked with getting the puck back so at least two of them pressure the defensemen hoping to cause a turnover.

D2 (red) has drawn the forwards toward him and now the middle of the ice has opened up. Now, D2 can read the pressure and determine his best course of action:

  • pass to D1 (who can then carry the puck or pass it to one of the forwards),
  • use the boards to make an indirect pass to F3,
  • make a stretch pass to F2.

Even if D2 decides to make a directed chip toward the offensive zone for one of his forwards to get, he’s still got numbers on his side with D1 and all the forwards having a territorial advantage and built up speed to get the puck. If D2 or D1 can get the puck to F1 or F2, they may be able to create a rush isolating D2 if F3 (blue) over-commits. If F3 gets the puck, he will be have his linemates rushing into the zone supporting him in an, at worst, even 3 on 3 situation with D1 as the late man and if F3 is out of position, a 3 on 2 situation with D1 as the late man. Either way, two forwards for the blue team are caught having to skate hard to backcheck after they just sprinted out of the zone to chase down the dump out.

It’s not hard to see why dumping the puck out to chase it down hurts shot generation and with the example above, shot suppression as well. Not only does the dump out and chase hurt overall shot suppression, but it leaves the door open for high danger scoring chances particularly on the rush.

Conservative Defensive structure extends beyond the defensive zone. Even in the offensive zone, the fingerprints of conservative defensive play can be seen. When the team gets the puck into the offensive zone, they need to keep it there and keep shooting. Recovering the puck is imperative to doing this. All of the players on the ice are necessary to an aggressive puck recovery structure.

Conservative forechecking systems keep the defensemen at the blue line when the puck is below the goal line and at least one in the neutral zone when the puck is near the faceoff dots. These systems are designed to avoid getting caught on a breakaway or an oddman rush by having at least one defending player in the neutral zone most of the time.

The problem with these conservative systems is that by committing fewer players in the offensive zone to get the puck back, you lower your chances of getting the puck back. The other team gets the puck and because there’s so much open ice between the forwards who were forechecking and defensemen in the neutral zone, a pass to a forward streaking toward the offensive zone is easier to accomplish. Essentially, the thing you wanted to avoid, ends up happening.

It’s easy to see how a coach could be lured into getting more and more conservative to stop this and end up making the problem worse. The right answer to this problem may actually be to make your forecheck more aggressive in the offensive zone and make those “reckless” plays in the defensive zone the priority of your defensive zone structure. Both of these changes actually help suppress the opponent’s shots despite the fact that they are often seen as leading to shots against by teams lacking an aggressive puck recovery focus and fail-safes to prepare their players for how to handle those situations.

8 thoughts on “The Vicious Cycle of Conservative Defensive Structure

  1. As someone hoping to get into coaching youth hockey in the next few years, I’ve bookmarked this so that I can call it up and use the charts as a way to teach d-zone systems. Great article!

  2. Just had a thought. I was reading this on mobile and got a little lost in your second example. Could you colour code d1 (blue) or f2 (red) so that it’s easier to tell which team you’re talking about?

    Loved the article. Breakdowns like this make me feel super smart and totally let me show off to my friends when we’re watching games. 10/10 would read more.

  3. Is there a team you believe does things correct from a systematic standpoint but just doesn’t have the personnel to be a contender?

  4. Great article. Definitely agree with the concepts and importance of maintaining puck possession while exiting the DZ. It would be interesting to dive more into:

    1) the value of initial zone exits (first time done exits on puck recovery)
    2) putting a quantitative value on controlled exits vs dump outs vs no exits – while controls exits are the goal, obviously that isn’t going to happen 100% of the time. It’d be interesting to see the impact of a UC exit vs turning the puck over and having high danger chances against.

    Another interesting note, Nashville had some success flipping pucks into the feet of Anahiems D-men and aggressively pursuing. Obviously a small sample, but interesting to see.

    Really enjoy the articles, Jen!

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