The defensive role of wingers, and why some centres don’t do well on the wing

The role of the winger in the defensive zone is often underappreciated and requires some very specific skills. It isn’t always easy for a natural centre to be moved to that position.

After the 2014-15 lockout, coming out of the clutch-and-grab era, the NHL approved a series of rule changes that emphasized ‘‘entertainment, skill and competition on the ice’’.  The primary objective of those rules was ‘‘to reduce the scope of defensive tools a team may effectively employ [...] allowing skill players to use their skills and increase the number and quality of scoring chances in the game.’’

One of those changes made was to the rink. The neutral zone was reduced in length, which in turn increased the dimensions of each end zone.

The number-one duty of a winger is to cover the opposing defencemen at the blue line in their defensive end. They have to prevent the puck from getting to the point.

When the end zones were smaller, it could be done by being on top of them in the defensive coverage. But, after the changes made to the rink, the wingers were now standing higher in the zone covering the d-men and opposing forwards down low suddenly had a lot of space to work with to beat the defence. If the opposing attack escaped pressure in the corner, they could drive to the slot by skating through the faceoff circles to fire shots on net.

Teams adapted by having their wingers sag in the defensive zone, effectively collapsing on the other team on one side of the ice and regrouping all of their defenders in the same area. This had the goal to protect what’s really important in the defensive zone: the slot, where high-danger scoring chances happen.

It often feels like the winger position has a reputation of being less demanding away from the puck, but the truth is that it’s evolved through the years. The changes in defensive structure has increased the responsibilities of the position significantly; playing winger now requires much of the same awareness and sound positioning of the centre role, in addition to very specific skills that are developed with experience.

Away from the puck

The role of the winger in the defensive zone depends on where the puck is situated. There are two possible positions — on the side of the puck (strong side) or on the opposite side of the puck (weak side).

Strong-side wingers (F2)

When the puck is in the corner or the low boards, the strong-side wingers’ role is twofold.

They are first responsible to come down to help the centre and defencemen. They prevent opposing players, if they were to escape the corner and skate along the wall, from cutting through the top of the circle to reach the slot.

The second role is to cut passes to the point. As they are sagged to defend the slot, they can’t be on top of the opposing defenceman they need to cover. They then have to read the play down low to know when to place their stick, or even better, their skates in the passing lane to the blue line to intercept the puck along the boards.

Weak-side wingers (F3)

The weak-side wingers are responsible for an entire side of the ice, the one without the puck. They have to prevent passes from reaching an opponent on that side and can often be the sole defence against backdoor play, something that can be deadly against overload or collapse defensive formations.

When the puck is in the corner or the low boards, they come down to help outnumber the opposition on this side of the ice, leaving a lot of space behind them. They have to keep shoulder-checking constantly to locate the defenceman that is on the other side of the puck to make sure that defenceman is not attempting to get behind their back to receive a pass to the slot.

When the puck is behind the net, they can get as low as the goal line to cover passes to the slot.

Shared duties

Wingers exchange their duties every time the puck switches side. A winger that was previously weak side (F3) will become strong side (F2) as soon as the puck crosses to his side of the ice.

Passes to defenceman are often less dangerous than forwards cutting to the slot. But if the puck does get to the point, wingers have to rapidly get to the point to to block the blue-line shot or the D-to-D pass.

If the puck gets behind the cage or below the goal line without the other team clearly possessing the puck, both wingers will come down to limit the options of the opposition. Again, they have to rapidly get back on their defenceman if the puck is moved back to the point.

This clip integrates the role of both wingers.

Sherbak and Hudon switch between F2 and F3 a few times. As they miss on certain plays, the pressure of the other team is kept in the defensive zone and it takes a while for Montreal to regain possession.

On breakouts

With the game speeding up and the importance of transitions, wingers are now called upon to be key elements in the breakout. The less comfortable your defence is at moving the puck, the more demanding the role of the winger becomes in zone exits.

Defencemen that are good at handling the forecheck can escape it for a second to make tape-to-tape passes to their centreman directly in the middle of the ice, allowing the forwards more options and often to leave the zone with speed. Those defencemen can also reach their wingers in the same way, making the breakout much easier for them.

But generally, against a heavy forecheck or with defencemen who have a harder time dealing with pressure, the wingers will receive rimmed puck after rimmed puck. This is where their job becomes the hardest.

They stand on the boards, preferably between the top of the circle and the blue line, ready to receive a pass from low in the zone.

In this position, they often face pressure from both a forward supporting the forecheck and a defenceman behind them. It’s hard to manage a good play when having a 225-pound defenceman on your back while fighting a supporting opposing forward who’s trying to take your stick away.

Those are situations that require a ton of skill to get out of in a positive way.

Strong-side wingers have to:

  • Identify the breakout situation and get in position along the boards;
  • Check for where the forechecking pressure is coming from and where the passing options are;
  • Make a quick peak behind to see the distance they have with the opposing defenceman;
  • Make a decision as to what play is best, carrying it, and making a pass or a dump out of the zone;
  • Receive or dig the puck out of the boards;
  • Find friendly sticks with a pass or an opening to chip the puck to an area where teammates can skate into./

A controlled exit through a pass or a carry is always best. But sometimes, if the setup isn’t right, just having the puck exit the zone is good enough.

The weak-side winger, or the winger on the side of the ice that is not used for the breakout, usually skates out of the zone diagonally to reach the boards behind the strong-side winger, in case he has limited time to make a play and has to chip the puck out of the way.

Below are a few video examples of winger breakouts:

Well executed breakouts can lead to completely beating the forecheck and, as a result, a great rush offence where the team outnumbers the opposing defenders and creates immediate scoring chances. Being able to create controlled zone exits against pressure is a real skill that is not given to everyone.

Look at the perfect chip by Brendan Gallagher to Jonathan Drouin in the clip below that allows his centre to carry the puck out. This is not always an easy thing to do.

Why centres don’t always make great wingers

There’s often a misconception that if a player doesn’t work at centre, he can always be moved to the wing. In reality, it can have a real negative impact on that players ability to play his game.

Some can do it without much problem, but others who are used to acting as pivot and controlling the play, might not be as comfortable with their backs constantly turned to their coverage and fighting the pressure that comes with it.

It’s true that centres help the defence dig the puck out down low with the defencemen, but they don’t need the same physical element that’s often required out of wingers; they have to be able to battle and establish body positioning over opposing players on the board to get the puck out.

If they try to rush their play, don’t seal possession from opposing players, or don’t keep track of the forecheck and pinching defencemen, they can miss on the breakout and create dangerous turnovers.

Looking at just the Habs, there are a few examples of players who were comfortable at centre, but a lot less on the wing like David Desharnais and Lars Eller.

Does that mean players who have trouble on the wing should always be placed at centre?

Not necessarily.

Just because someone is more comfortable in a position, doesn’t mean they are playing it well. They might really enjoy the advantage that comes with it (i.e more puck touches, less board battles, being able to accelerate from down low on breakouts and attack the middle) without being effective in the demands of the role.

This speaks to the difficult task of finding the right chair for everyone on a team, but also the importance of exposing players to multiple positions as they develop, helping them work on the finer details of each one.

Wingers are now an integral part a team’s defensive and transition game. Crisp execution is a must in the NHL. A defensive role well done from a winger could mean the difference between a team spending a few seconds in their zone and rushing on the attack, or being stuck on defence and forced to change without having any offensive opportunity.

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