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The evolution of the forward position or: Why Nick Suzuki can be both a centre and a winger

Hockey is getting more fluid every year and positions matter less and less. Nick Suzuki’s deployment last year was a good example.

Vegas Golden Knights v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

In the modern game, forwards are being asked to know how to play every position. We are moving further away from corridor hockey, where the centre stays in the middle of the ice and the wingers on the boards, which is something that was taught to very young hockey players.

While we are still far from the five completely interchangeable players that make for the Total Hockey style, now teams tend to use “F1,” “F2,” and “F3” to designate defensive duties, rather than assigning players tasks by their more familiar positions.

F1, F2, and F3 do not designate specific players. They are fluid positions that depend on the situation on the ice. Forwards are continuously required to anticipate the play away from the puck to know where to pressure, as they can change from each F-position multiple times in a shift.

In the defensive zone, F1 is often the first player crossing the blue line on the backcheck. That player has to keep applying pressure against the opposition rush all the way into his team’s end. It can be the centre, or one of the wingers.

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Here’s an example from a Montreal Canadiens game.

A faceoff is lost in the offensive zone and the backcheck starts. Paul Byron is the first player into the defensive zone, pressuring the puck-carrier. He descends down low to help his defenceman and then assumes the centre’s role for the whole defensive sequence. Jonathan Drouin, the designated centerman, came in later and plays in Byron’s usual place higher in the zone, covering the point.

Certain NHL teams, like the Habs, usually like to stick mostly to traditional positions, and will, most often, ask players to switch places to fill their traditional duties when they have a chance. But other organizations are getting more adventurous.

When you have multiple players who are defensively capable and can easily fill both the defensive duties of the centre and the wingers, you don’t really have to exchange positions once established in the defensive zone. The goal of the opposing team is already to create breakdowns in coverage with puck movements, so requesting position changes on top of that from your forwards can add unnecessary confusion.

Nick Suzuki’s OHL club, the Owen Sound Attack, usually just went with the flow on the ice. With Suzuki and Kevin Hancock both defensively responsible and able to play the centre position, they just used the F-system and stayed with it, usually to good outcomes defensively.

Take a look at this clip from the Attack’s playoff series against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

Suzuki (#37) is chosen to take the faceoff in the offensive zone, with Kevin Hancock (#16) to his left. It makes sense as Suzuki is on his strong side; as a right-handed shot, he is on the right side of the ice.

On the dot, you usually want to win the puck back toward the boards so that it doesn’t slide into open ice. It is then easier to win faceoffs on your strong side as you can just invert your grip and pull the puck back to the boards.

Coaches like having options when it comes to faceoffs. Being able to rely on a left-handed player in Hancock and a right-handed one in Suzuki maximized the chances of the team gaining possession after a draw.

Same above clip broken in three parts.

In this sequence, the puck is won briefly by the Attack, but after an uncalled trip, they lose possession and set up in their forecheck.

This is where things get interesting.

The Greyhounds manage to recover and start the breakout. They head to Owen Sound’s zone while being pursued by the Suzuki line, with the new Habs prospect leading the backcheck. He pressures the puck-carrier, and as the play descends into the defensive end, settles as F1.

He stays there for an extended period of time, following the play from one side of the ice to the other, constantly staying in a support position for his defence and helping in battles when he can. Hancock stays in the ‘‘winger’’ spot in the top left of the screen and never switches with Suzuki.

Suzuki ultimately manages to cut a pass to the slot. The broken play looks like a chance for a breakout for his team, so he skates to the top of the zone looking to get the puck out, but it just escapes him. He has to circle back down, skating outside of the blue line.

Hancock recognizes that and immediately heads down low as the new F1. Suzuki re-enters the defensive situation as F2, or in a ‘‘winger’’ position. They maintain their new positions until the puck is finally broken out.

This is just one sequence, but it illustrates well the kind of system Owen Sound used for their top line.

Hancock may have been the designated centre, but it didn’t really matter once the puck was dropped as both he and Suzuki were trading off F1 duties, remaining in the spot until the puck was in their possession again.

As mentioned in the Suzuki analysis article, the new Habs prospect was more than exposed to the centre position during the season and has absolutely no problem playing it well. He can also play wing just as proficiently if asked.

He is part of the new generation of players who are coming in with the experience of playing multiple positions away from the puck. There are more and more coaches, especially at the Junior level, who are willing to use interchangeable positions in the defensive zone. It gives young players different perspectives and develops their versatility, which is always an advantage for whichever team they play on.

Pushing the concept further and with the evolution of hockey, by the time the Canadiens’ new centre prospects are ready for their top roles in the NHL, that position might just not really exist anymore. Instead, they will be interchangeable with their fellow forwards, with their position labels being replaced by simple numbers.