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Josh Brook, Jordan Harris, and the challenges a defenceman faces playing his off-side

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Nearly every aspect of the game is affected when a defenceman switches sides on the ice.

Moose Jaw Warriors v Calgary Hitmen Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images

It’s looking more and more likely as we follow the evolution of Team Canada’s training camp ahead of the 2019 World Junior Hockey Championship that Josh Brook will start the tournament on his off-side, meaning that he would be slotted on the left side of the ice as a right-handed shot.

The national under-20 team has four right-handed blue-liners, and only three who are left-handed. As most of their strongest elements shoot right, in the perspective of having the most talented lineup possible, the move to other side of the ice makes sense for Brook.

In the latest practices, the Habs prospect was lining up on the top pair next to fellow right-handed defenceman Noah Dobson. This is a duo that might allow Brook to move freely on the ice to support the attack — what he does best. Things may very well change, and it early to predict what the opening-night formation will look like, but this is what the coaching staff is currently running with:

One thing is for sure: if Brook does have to play on his weak side, it will not be a small challenge.

He does have some familiarity with the position, having played it for part of certain games with the Moose Jaw Warriors. He will be paired with a player that hasn’t played with him for a long time. Generally, right-handed defencemen aren’t used to playing next to a right-handed partner. Their handiness is rarer in the hockey world, and most of the time, it is their left-handed counterparts that have to play with a partner on his off-side.

Brook mentioned his comfort level playing on the left, but the details of the game, many little things, become slightly harder from that position. It is not much for a shift or two here and there, as has been the case in his time with the Warriors, but playing it consistently could lead to mistakes.

Players are at their best when they don’t have to think about execution. When you switch them to a new spot, it can take some time before they regain their confidence and find their marks on the ice, the best angles from which to approach plays, or how to defend with one hand, which is no longer the one closest to the middle of the ice. Pretty well all facets of the game are affected.

We’ve seen another Habs defence prospect in this situation as well. Jordan Harris s has been slotted on his off-side this season with Northeastern University. The team has more left-handed shots than right-handed ones — a more typical scenario — and Harris was the one to make the switch in his freshman year.

Let’s look at how the play is transformed for both of these prospects on their off-sides, taking each aspect of the game one by one.

Transition play

The switch forces defencemen to use their backhand a lot more, and it is usually the face of the stick that players are less proficient with, having to handle the puck on the outside of the curve.

When the puck sits on the side boards, waiting to be retrieved by players racing to it, a defenceman arriving first will have to use his backhand if he wants to pass the puck up the boards or shoot it out of the zone. It’s the same when he exits his end with possession; if he wants to pass the puck over while skating up the boards, the backhand will be the most efficient option. Bringing the puck back to the forehand creates a risk of it being taken by opponents tracking back, and also makes for awkward passing angles.

Another disadvantage for defencemen on their off-side on retrievals is that picking up the puck from the boards often means turning their body away from the play, which can expose them to more hits.

On the flip side, the one benefit is that defencemen have the opportunity to cut around the net tighter to chase a forechecker due to the position of the puck (away from the net) as it is moved from the weak-side to the strong-side.

In a regroup situation, having two defencemen with the same handedness on a pairing can also cause problems. When the puck has to be switched to the side with less pressure via a D-to-D pass, the defenceman on his weak-side will have his forehand behind him in receiving position. He can’t accelerate toward open ice and receive in front of him like a blue-liner of opposite handedness would. If he wants to do that, he will have to absorb and control the puck with his back-hand, which is, once again, a more difficult task.

There is also the fact that partners don’t have time to think about where to send their pass relative to their partner. In that common D-to-D situation explained above, the tendency for the blue-liner on his strong-side would be to slide the puck in front of his partner, as he expects him to be able to receive easily in that position. That can also lead to poor receptions and mishandles if the receiver is on his off-side.

Here are a few clips illustrating some common difficulties in transition for defencemen on their off-side.

Defending the rush

Defencemen usually have a foot on which they can more fluidly pivot. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t happen, but we hear a lot of stories about even top NHL defenders like Erik Karlsson having trouble switching from skating backward to forward on a certain side. This more problematic side is often the one opposite to the handedness.

So defencemen in that position have to use their weak foot a lot more in their off-the-rush defence. Some can do it just fine, but it can definitely be a problem for others. They also have to steer the incoming attackers to the boards with one hand on the stick as two hands would have their stick pointing toward the opposite side of the ice, ineffective.

They can’t prevent access to the wide-lane as well with that one-hand compared to defencemen on their strong-side who can move laterally and use two-hands to pokecheck instead of one. Pokechecking with one hand is more of a sweeping motion that is more avoidable.

This is a sequence where Josh Brook manages his one-on-one quite well despite defending from the left side.

Offensive play

This is where playing on the off-side can have the most benefits for defencemen, the obvious one being the one-timer from a cross-ice pass. By virtue of their stick pointing toward the middle of the ice, the shooting angle is much better from there.

But even in the offensive zone, there is some complexity to off-side play.

The main difficulty is picking up pucks rimmed up to the point by the low forwards. Usually, blue-liners can place their stick on the boards to intercept it, immediately starting to drag the puck to the middle of the ice, shoot it on goal, or pass it to their partner on the other side. Defencemen with the opposite handedness have to turn toward the boards — losing sight of the play for a moment — to use their backhand or even their skates to deflect the puck up to their forehand before they can do the same.

There is nothing that can be accomplished upon first touch with a backhand by a defenceman on his off-side except rimming the puck back the way it came; a less than ideal play.

When they do get the puck off the boards, they have a better lane for a shot closer to the centre of the ice. It is just that it requires an extra movement. This movement can be turned into an effective fake to get the space to go down the boards, lower into the zone, or be part of a sprinting forward motion along the blue line to reach mid-ice for a shot, yet it remains an extra movement, and every second matters in the fast game that hockey has become.

Bringing the puck across your body is an occasion for a quick defender to steal it if close enough. It is easier to protect the puck on the strong side at the point.

Some defencemen can manage the difference in the play that comes with playing on their off-side just fine. Some even see the position as fitting their game more, the benefits out-weighing the downsides for them. But, generally, it is just a bit harder to do everything when your handedness doesn’t fit your side of the ice, enough that it can throw some players completely off their game.

Some coaches, like Mike Babcock, have been pretty vocal about wanting defencemen on their strong side (as much as possible) to facilitate transitions. And there is definitely merit to the arguments.

There is also a study that shows that defence pairs of opposite handedness have significantly better possession numbers than those with blue-liners of the same handedness.

This is not to say that Josh Brook and Jordan Harris won’t find success on their weak-side if they end up staying there for the long run. Chances are they will. If it happens, it will be that much more impressive due to the challenges they have overcome to get there.