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Hockey and Positional Play: A Primer


J. Wheeldon

1.0 Summary


This is a document intended to outline some key concepts in positional play. It is based on instruction and video examples provided by Ian Smith and Kellian Hockey ( It should not be seen as a replacement for on-ice instruction. Hopefully it will assist you to begin to understand the key concepts that inform positional hockey.


2.0 Positions on the Ice


2.1 Center: Center is arguably the most difficult position to play well. The equivalent of the quarterback of the team, the center focuses on the middle of the ice. This usually means staying away from the boards and occupying the interior section of the ice from goal to goal. The center must be a strong skater and be able to win face-offs. Typically the center is offensively creative and defensively responsible.

2.2 Wings: On defense and in the neutral zone, positional play for Wingers involves focusing on the area between the center of the ice and the boards. The right wing typically works the right side of the ice, while the left wing is responsible for the left. Wingers need to be able to dig the puck off the boards and make quick, clean passes. On offense, wingers are not limited to one side of the ice. However, they must adjust and be able to get back to cover their side on defense.

Traditionally the way players shoot is linked to their positions (i.e. the left winger is a left-handed shooter). Some more offensively minded players like to play on the opposite side (called the off wing). This changes their angle as they approach the goal in the offensive zone. It requires being able to take a pass on the backhand, however, and can be a challenge.  

2.3 Defense: There are two Defensemen in the game, one on the left and right side respectively. Their primary purpose is to stop the opposing team from taking a shot on their goal. Whether a player is defensively minded and seldom leaves the defensive zone or more offensively minded that likes to bring the puck up the ice, blueliners must always be ready to get back on defense when the opposing team has control of the puck.

Getting caught in the offensive zone and allowing an odd-man break the other way is a cardinal sin. Don’t do it.

3.0 Positions On the Ice – Defensive Zone


Here is a video that highlights strong coverage in the defensive zone. Watch it and then read about how a player’s role in the defensive zone is based on the position they are playing.


3.1 Center Ice in the Defensive Zone

Playing center requires skating ability and smarts because centers have the most area to cover. In the defensive zone, they generally match up and stay with the opposing center. They have a second job, however. Centers must support their defensemen in case they get beat out of the corner. Essential is their coverage in the slot or the area directly ahead of the goaltender - from the hash marks on each side to the top of both circles.

Generally, a defenseman will be the first to battle in the corners. This sets up the defensive coverage, or who takes the other forwards. The first D will take the first player in the corner, and the center (who is going to support the D), will take the 2nd offensive player who comes to help in the corner. The second D, covering the front of the net, is responsible for the 3rd player who should be in the slot.

REMEMBER: When defending… NEVER chase the puck. As tempting as it is to follow the pass made by the player you are defending, this will cause your teammates to get confused about who they need to cover.  Wheeling around and changing the player you are defending actually helps the offense. If your team’s defensive zone coverage is breaking down, there is a player who is open to score.

Figure 1: Visualizing the Center Ice Position in the Defensive Zone



3.2 Wingers in the Defensive Zone

In the defensive zone, the wings need to stay on their side of the ice and guard their defenseman. Usually, this means staying between the blue line and the middle of the circle, especially when the puck is on the opposite side of the play. Wingers must cover the opposing team’s defenseman. Consider the following:

·       Try to stop the other team’s defenseman from getting the puck and getting a shot off

·       Stay in position to block shots or passes from the other team’s defenseman

·       Look to intercept passes and break out

·       If a teammate gains possession, set up to get a breakout pass from the defense


REMEMBER: If the defenseman you are covering jumps down to get involved with the play or takes the puck into the zone, go with them. They are your responsibility.

Recreation league players often leave the defenseman they are assigned to cover and go down low to help those on defense. Players need to trust their teammates to do their job. Don’t get stuck in the corners. Stay above the middle of the circle. Wanting to assist teammates is understandable. However, there is nothing more difficult to deal with defensively than a shot coming in from the point. It creates the potential for screens, tips and bad rebounds. Getting stuck low leaves the opposing defenseman open. Don’t do it!

Figure 2: Visualizing the Winger’s Position in the Defensive Zone


3.3 Defensemen in the Defensive Zone


One key concept when playing defense is balance. If one D is on the left side, the other D should be on the right. If one D is in the corner or behind the net, the other should be in front of the net. If the left D is playing the person with the puck and they go behind the net and to the right side, the right side D should move over to the left side. Success on defense is all about balance and communication.

 If the play is near the boards, the weak side D should be watching out for:

·      Where the 3rd offensive player is… that is the person they need to cover;

·      Players trying to sneak in "backdoor."

Defensemen should be talking whenever possible to let their partner know “I got the puck,” “two coming,” or "watch backdoor."


NEVER chase the puck up the wall to the blue line.

Figure 3: Visualizing the Defensemen’s Position in the Defensive Zone

















4.0 Defensive Zone Breakout


There may be no more important set play than the defensive zone breakout for understanding the importance of playing your position in hockey. Defensemen can make quick and more accurate passes when they know where their teammates are likely to be on the ice. Here is a video of a textbook breakout.


4.1 Role of Defense in a Breakout


A basic breakout play begins when a defenseman gains control of the puck.  They should immediately begin skating to a soft area of the ice, often the “quiet zone” behind the net. The goal in the defensive zone is to keep possession and give the forwards time to get set up in a breakout formation. Defensemen also need to give themselves time and space to make a good first pass. If one defenseman has the puck the other needs to release from the front of the net, and get behind the net for a pass from their partner. There is no need to be in front of the net when your team has the puck. A great break out option is a pass to a curling center skating up ice.


No matter the level of play, a good breakout requires that defensemen find empty space, control the puck, and make a pass to an open player. Here are three breakout options for defensemen.


Some things for defenseman to remember:


·       Always clear the “danger zone” (the area directly in front of the net)

·       Try to get possession. If you can’t, get the puck to the walls

·       Before you gain possession, LOOK around first. Looking first speeds up your decision-making. You can set up a fake to give yourself more            time and/or protect the puck better

·       Move your feet.  A standing target is a lot easier to track and defend against

·       Don’t skate to traffic. If unsure, head to the “quiet zone” (behind the net).

·       Pass only once you are clear of pressure; Don’t force a pass to covered players

·       If no clean pass is available, Clear the zone

·       Put it high and off the boards or glass. Never clear it up the middle blindly;

·       Rim the puck (shoot it around the boards) as a last resort only

·       Once a pass is made up to a forward, the weak side defenseman can jump in the rush.  But remember… you are a defenseman first.  You            must always be able to get back

·       A D should never forecheck after a puck is dumped down the ice.  Your teammates playing forward sometimes (often!) forget to cover a                defenseman who skates up ice.



4.2 Role of Wingers in a Breakout


Wingers should set up near the top of the circle with their back to the boards. If one of their defensemen gets the puck they will be looking to make a good first pass. Be ready! They will need assistance to get the puck out of the zone. Here are some situations wingers should watch out for:


4.2.1    Defense passes to defensive partner: made if there is pressure or a lack of other options. Wingers should stay on the sidewall and look for a pass from the defenseman


4.2.2    Defense passes to right/left winger on the sidewall: Once a pass gets made, the receiving winger may choose to take it out of the zone on their own, or pass to the center who is breaking up the ice. Ideally, the winger with the puck will look for the other winger breaking down the opposite side of the ice


4.2.3    Defense passes to center: When the center curls back in their own zone and gets a pass from a defenseman, wingers need to break hard toward the neutral zone. They should stay on their side of the ice and stay wide to force the opposing team to make a choice about what player to cover as the forwards enter the offensive zone.


Things to remember:


·       Stay on your side of the ice.

·       Set up with your back to the half wall near the top of the circle. Don’t get too high.

·       BEFORE you get the puck, BEFORE… quickly scan the ice for where your center is, and where the opposing defenseman is.  

·       Don’t try to pass while standing still…LOOK…take two quick steps… LOOK…and move the puck:

·       The center will probably be your best option … knowing if they are low, high, moving quick or slow will help you decide whether your pass               should be banked off the boards, sent directly to them, or just chipped to an open area of the ice

·       Knowing where the opposing defenseman is will directly affect how much time you have when you get the puck… because you are this                  player’s mark

·       Look for opposite winger breaking up the side of the ice. That pass needs to be very hard… it has a long way to go!


Here are some additional breakout skills for wingers to consider.



4.3 Role of Centers in a Breakout


Centers need to swing low to initiate a breakout. This will usually involve skating deeper into their own zone and mirroring where the puck goes. Timing is everything. Centers need to take their time by skating away from the direction of the pass just before curling up ice and looking for the breakout pass. The goal is to create space and open up a lane for a defenseman to get a pass to the center. Ideally, a breakout allows everyone to get set up and move up the ice as a single unit. 


When the puck is controlled by a defenseman, the center should NEVER turn their back to their teammates and quickly rush up the ice. It is nearly impossible to make a clean pass from deep in the zone, over the blue line, through multiple defensemen. Even if it gets through, it is extremely difficult to receive a pass with one’s back to the puck.


REMEMBER: If you find yourself always looking back for break out passes, that means your timing needs to be adjusted.  A good approach is to mirror the puck (or follow it with your body). Next, take a step away from the direction of the pass. This can help establish good timing and set you up for a successful breakout. Here is a video focused on the role of centers in the breakout.


Figure 4: Visualizing the Basic Breakout



Watch this video of a textbook breakout again. Here are even more breakout options.

5.0 Positions On the Ice – Neutral Zone


The neutral zone is the middle area of the ice rink that lies between the two blue lines. It is called the "neutral zone" because it's the only section of ice that does not belong to either team. Maintaining possession in the neutral zone is key. Turnovers here often lead to breaks the other way. Here are a few ideas based on positional play to maintain possession and get to the offensive zone for a scoring chance. Keep in mind that once the puck is turned over, players need to be prepared to take on a defensive role immediately. 


5.1 Role of Center Ice in the Neutral Zone


On offense, the center usually skates quickly through the neutral zone and tries to gain the offensive zone. They should look to pass if their teammates are ahead of them. The general rule is that a player takes a couple of steps and then moves the puck ahead (“headman the puck”).  Don’t go offside by skating over the blue line before the puck enters the zone.


On defense, cover the middle portion of the ice and try to force the puck carrier to the outside and toward the boards. They should keep the opposing center in their sights at all times.


5.2 Role of Wingers in the Neutral Zone


On offense, the wings should skate through the neutral zone to gain the offensive zone. They should stay on their own side of the ice. They should look to pass if their teammates are ahead of them. The rule is: two steps and headman the puck. Don’t go offside by skating over the blue line before the puck enters the zone. 

On defense, both wings should cover their side of the ice. Try to stay between the opponent and the puck. If the puck is turned over at the opposing blue line, wingers need to back check hard and cover their side of the ice.

5.3 Role of Defensemen in the Neutral Zone


On offense, D need to support their teammates by playing their position and looking for back passes to initiate a neutral zone re-group (see 5.4 below).


The weak side defenseman can jump into the forward rush… but they need to be careful not to get ahead of play. D must always be able to get back on a turnover.


On defense, each defenseman plays their side of the ice, again trying to keep opponents and the puck in front of them at all times.

5.4 Neutral Zone Regroup


One skill in the neutral zone is called the neutral zone regroup. Here is a video to help players get started. Watch the forward pass back to the defense, one defense pass back to the other, and then look for an option to turn back up ice. It is a common misconception in recreation league hockey that the only play is up the ice. Turning back can actually help a team enter the offensive zone more easily. A neutral zone regroup is valuable when the offensive team hits pressure and can no longer advance. It can also be useful when the puck is turned over but cannot be immediately advanced.


One approach is for a forward who cannot advance the play to pass back to a defenseman. They should immediately pass to their defensive partner. The goal is to create time and space for the players on your team to get open, receive a pass, and move back toward the offensive zone. As soon as the first pass gets made back to the defenseman, wingers should try to find a spot on the boards (similar to how they line up for a breakout) and look for a pass. Wingers may need to move further back toward their own zone to get open for a pass.


Centers need to swing back toward the defense and mirror the path of the puck. They should take their time by skating out and away before curling up ice and looking for the regroup pass. The defense needs time to get set up to make a good pass. Don’t rush it.  This is another instance where taking one step away from the path direction of the puck will give players a better sense of the timing needed to get in a good lane and receive a pass.


Figure 5: Visualizing the Neutral Zone Regroup



Here is another video with some additional options for the neutral zone regroup.


6.0 Positions On the Ice – Offensive Zone

6.1 Role of the Center in the Offensive Zone

When carrying the puck the center looks to pass to one of his/her wings. If carrying the puck over the blue line, he or she delays before the top of the circle and looks to pass to a wing or take a shot. Smart centers draw a defenseman towards them and dish it over to one of the wings. Here is a video of how to enter the offensive zone through the middle of the ice.

If the center does not have the puck, they should trail the puck carrier at the top of the circle and look for a back pass. This is one of the most difficult things to defend against. If a player drives the defense deep, and then passes back to a player in the high slot, it often results in a good scoring chance. If the puck gets deep, the center should break to the net to look for a pass, a tip, a deflection, or a rebound.

6.2 Role of the Winger in the Offensive Zone


If carrying the puck, wingers should try to break into the zone around the top of the circle. Then they can either break to the net for a shot, pass back to the trailing skater or pass to the weak side wing, They can also do a quick stop and/or loop back at the top of the offensive circle to gain time for teammates who are coming late.


If not carrying the puck, wingers try to get and stay open when skating into the zone. Skate first into the faceoff circle and then start to angle toward the net.  Players should either be moving their feet… or in a wide leg stance that allows them to change direction faster and get open for a pass, tip, or rebound.


6.3 Role of Defensemen in the Offensive Zone


In general, the role of the defensemen in the offensive zone is to keep the puck in the zone. They also should try to get open to receive a pass for a long distance shot. When the puck is low, the strong side defenseman moves to the top of the circle and the weak side defenseman moves to just inside the blue line on his or her side of the ice and holds there.


High skilled defensemen sometimes move down on the weak side (the side of the ice where the puck is not) and looks for a backdoor pass. This can work well but is dangerous. Getting caught in the offensive zone and allowing an odd-man break the other way is a no-no. Don’t do it.

6.4 Offensive Zone Strategies


There are a variety of offensive strategies. Here are some to consider.


6.4.1 Forecheck


A forecheck happens when a defensive team is trying to initiate a breakout. What can the offensive team do to try and stop the break out?  Any coordinated system that the opposing team uses to try and disrupt the break out can be called a forecheck. The goal is to turn over the puck, gain possession, and generate a scoring chance.


The forecheck can have different formations:  2-1-2 (two forwards deep, one forward high, two defenseman on the points); the passive 1-2-2 (one forward up, two forwards on the tops of the faceoff circles and two defenseman on the points); the "left-wing lock" (1-1-3); the neutral zone trap; and many others. Generally, using the 2-1-2 and the 1-2-2 are the best all around forechecks that everyone knows. They often make the most sense. 


Remember that formal positions for the forwards in the offensive zone are not based on the side of the ice they play in the defensive or neutral zones. Instead, it is about who enters the zone first, second, and third. The concept  “TWO ON THE PUCK” refers to the idea that the first two forwards (no matter their position), work together to get to the puck, get possession, and support one another to keep it. Meantime, the third player, should stay in the high slot and look for a pass. Don’t crowd the net. The third player (F3) should be willing to shoot. The non-shooting forwards should get to the net for a rebound, tip in, deflection, or pass.


Figure 6: Visualizing the 2-1-2 Forecheck


Here is a video focused on the 2-1-2 method. Here is video of the pros in action.


6.5 Offensive Strategies


6.5.1 The Attack Triangle strategy:  Drive the defense down and hit the high forward. 


The first video shows step by step how players position themselves as they attack the net. This involves the puck carrier taking the puck to the net and the second forward taking the outside lane to create pressure on the net. The third player (usually the last forward) trails, looking for a pass or a possible rebound.


In the second video, a turnover at the blue line results in a 3 on 2 rush the other way. The forwards take advantage of the transition and attack with speed. F1 and F2 drive to the net while F3 supports in a tight triangle avoiding the back checker. The defenseman commits to the puck carrier allowing a pass to the trailer. Attacking with speed, skill, and support, the play results in a goal.


6.5.2 The Crisscross strategy


In this video, the winger enters the offensive zone on the left side. The winger then breaks to the middle of the ice while the offensive center moves to the left side. Finally, the winger drops it to the streaking center. The center looks for an open shot on net.


6.5.3 The Smart Offensive Rim


There are times when trying to enter the zone can best be served by using a dump or offensive rim. Smart Dumps and Shoot-ins can result in gaining possession and creating offensive scoring chances.




6.6 Additional Skills


Here are some additional skills. Some are conceptual, while others are more tangible.


6.6.1 Supporting Teammates


A key skill for players to learn is how to support their teammates. Please watch video 1 and video 2. Focus on the position you play and watch what these players do when their mark DOES NOT have the puck. Ask yourself the following: How are they supporting the defensive effort if the player they are supposed to cover isn’t active with the puck? 


Hopefully, you will notice that they are ready to act, in wide leg stance, and how their heads look at the puck, then at their mark.


6.6.2 Wide legs


In every Kellian clinic, players have heard Ian shout “WIDE LEGS.” Why? A wide legs stance gives you stability and better balance. It allows for quick and deceptive turns. This is useful for going into the corners, setting up in front of the net, or once you enter the offensive zone. The trick is to spread your legs wider than you thought possible. Here is an example.


6.6.3 Winning Face-offs


Most recreation leagues don’t focus much on face-offs. Here is a video with some considerations to help centers win more face-offs.


6.6.4 Shooting and Passing


Here are some tips on how to shoot. It is all about weight transfer and speed. Here is how to enhance your shot. Scoring goals is great. Setting up a teammate with the perfect pass is even better. Get inspired right here.




6.7 Putting it all together


Here is a video from Game 7 of the 2018 NHL Playoffs between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins.


6.7.1 Watch for where the shots are taken... two players attack the puck in the corners... the 3rd player isn't too close to the net.  When the puck is low... the 3rd player is high... when the puck is at the point... the forwards slide towards the net.


6.7.2 Focus on how the players are shooting... shooting while keeping your legs moving. Some players can shoot from their outside leg. Others focus on inside leg shooting.


6.7.3 Watch for wide legs. Pay attention to the battles in the corners. If one player can't beat the other with speed (North/South speed), they try to manipulate them with East/West wide legs.


6.7.4 Defensemen…Watch how the defensemen play. When an offensive player is coming down, the D actively tries to pick up speed (North/South backward speed). When the offensive player gets close, the D do a backward wide leg stance.


7.0 Final Thoughts


Readers should now have a basic understanding of hockey positions and roles, and how these roles relate to both the offensive and defensive sides of the game. Keep in mind this piece was written for newer hockey players. There are many more advanced plays that a coach can teach. For more see:


There is something else worth mentioning. Hockey is the fastest sport that people play. It is played in a confined space and most players are competitive. This means many will try to do everything they can (based on their skill set) within the rules to stop the other players and win. Players will "battle" each other for position and possession and inevitably bump into each other from time to time. 


At Kellian Hockey the goal is to support competitive play within a safe and secure environment. Remember, most players are at the intermediate or advanced-beginner levels. This means few have complete control of their sticks, skating, or shooting ability. Accidents will happen. None of them are done out of malice. If you make a mistake, own it immediately. It’s all about grace. If you are participating in a Kellian Hockey event you can trust that Ian will recognize problem and step in and handle it if/when necessary.


Stay positive, work hard, and Elevate your skate!

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