The Blueprint of a Defensive Zone Puck Retrieval & Exit – Part 1: Before Touching The Puck

How players can improve their chances of a successful puck retrieval and exit

One of the highest frequency plays and most important skills of being a defenceman is their ability to retrieve the puck and break the puck out of the defensive zone with possession. Or in other words, a controlled exit. If you’re unsure of the importance of controlled vs uncontrolled exits, reading this would be a great start.

Defenceman consistently retrieve a handful of pucks from their own zone under a great deal of pressure night in and night out. With this being said it would be a wise move for players to consistently work on this skill.

In this article I will be breaking down the most vital components of a defensive zone puck retrieval before touching the puck.

The beauty of this post is that it is timeless information that can be used by anyone, whether you’re a first year minor hockey house league player, or if you’re an NHL player.

Scan The Ice

When defending the rush against you, and in any situation really, having your head up is key. You not only need to know how to defend your check, but also knowing where the other opposing skaters are and where they’re headed.

Immediately after a puck is dumped into your zone and prior to you turning around, it’s crucial that you take a mental snapshot of the play ahead of you as this will assist you in determining your next play.

  • Are four of the opposing skaters off for a long change (2nd period when teams switch sides)? Consider a quick-up play to your forwards who might stretch out to the far blue line.

  • Is the opposition leaning heavily on attacking the strong side of the play? Maybe a D-D pass will suffice.

  • F1 & F2 aren’t nearly as great skaters as you and your defence partner? Maybe beating them out of the zone by skating the puck is the best option.

Backwards to Forwards Pivot

Just as how we like to cancel our crossovers out when defending the rush (Former AHL player Rob Lalonde shares his "no crossover" skating experience here), we need to follow the same rules when we pivot from skating backwards to forwards. One thing to keep in mind is to always pivot towards the puck, so we never lose sight of it.

Surprisingly many players (even NHL) still suffer through this bad habit. Although it doesn’t seem so harmful on the surface, the split second advantage of cancelling the crossover pivot, and using a simple push creates more efficiency.

David Quinn, former Head Coach of Boston University and current Head Coach of the New York Rangers runs his players through a drill back in 2013 to assist this becoming a habit:

Same thing when defending the rush: if you do happen to cross over your feet going the wrong direction, it can take a substantial amount of time to be able to recover, if even possible. Attackers who are allotted this extra time and space will be able to take advantage, such as McDavid here:

Shoulder Checks

When skating forwards to retrieve the puck, the defenceman still has to be aware of his/her surroundings. As the defenceman is turned away from the play, s/he still has to glance back as the play can change within a second.

To combat this, in a perfect world the defenceman should take three shoulder checks prior to touching the puck. Scanning the middle, the outside, then the middle of the ice again is ideal.

In this clip below, Drew Doughty does a great job at demonstrating this principle before a successful controlled exit which leads to a goal:

Attack Puck on an Angle

Depending on the situation and the amount of pressure, you may not always be able to attack the puck on angle. However if given the opportunity, accept it and use the angle to your advantage.

Attacking the puck on an angle allows you to:

  • Get off the boards quicker

  • Open up the number of possibilities to make a successful next play

  • Be in a less dangerous position for yourself

As you can see in this clip Sam Girard (COL49) skates slightly to the right of the puck, and does a crossover to the left prior to touching the puck. Due to his favourable angle, he can maintain, and potentially gain speed throughout the turn, whereas this wouldn’t be possible if he went straight into the puck. Even though his attempt to wheel and cut around the net isn’t successful, it still displays great habits and being able to think under pressure by Girard:

Moving Screens & Picks

If you’ve ever watched basketball before, you’ve probably seen either a screen or a pick being used by a team. Basketball screens and picks are most often used in the offensive zones when a player will be in a stationary position to legally obstruct the path of an opponent who is covering the ball handler like below:

In hockey, we can steal that same concept and put it to good use in the defensive zone when retrieving a puck. To slow down F1 (and even other oncoming forecheckers), using a moving screen or a pick is a skill which can be implemented with caution.

When looking to make a screen, you want your skating route to be as subtle as possible to hide your intentions from the refs as best you can, such as the New York Islanders here.

Focus in on NYI25’s skating route and notice how he pivots from backwards to forwards (the improper way), then faintly cuts into the way of NJD’s F1 before successfully exiting the zone with possession:

On the other hand, interfering and making too much contact with F1 could put your team shorthanded for a couple minutes, also which the NYI did here to end up costing themselves a goal against seconds after the penalty expired, which turned out to be the game winning goal in Game 1 of the 2021 Conference Finals:

Also, if a screen/pick is out of the question, but you are also still close enough to the play, tying up F1’s stick preceding the first touch of the puck would be of great advantage to your teammate.

Communication

Your goalie and teammates should be as vocal as possible once a puck is dumped into the zone. With them usually not being under as much stress as the puck retriever, they should have ample amount of time to read the play and communicate what they see.

A quick YouTube search of NHL Mic’d Up will show you dozens of clips of how vocal players can be with their teammates (and the opposition).


Finally, developing good habits is key if you want to improve as a team or player. Being able to nearly automate exits allows players to free up their mind, see the ice better and think the game more clear.


Continue onto Part 2: After Touching The Puck


If you’d like to learn the game of hockey from a new & different perspective, consider subscribing to get instant access to new posts!

Follow me on Twitter