Jeff Schultz and John Erskine were both somewhat taken aback when the Washington Capitals’ new coaches shared details of the defensive strategy they want to implement. Not by the emphasis on quick puck movement or support in their own zone, but because every defenseman on the roster has been given the green light to join the rush up ice if the situation presents itself.
Both Schultz and Erskine are stay-at-home defensemen and throughout their careers, coaches instructed them to remain in their own zone at all costs, usually to cover for their more offensively inclined partners. They’ve never been trusted with the ability to read a play and to make the decision to jump up with the offense.
“I noticed that right away when I talked to them. They looked kind of surprised,” assistant coach Calle Johansson said. “It’s our job to tell them to and if they screw up, who cares? Mike Green screws up when he joins the rush too. You can’t be afraid of it. You’ve got to let them make a mistake and keep playing.”
Erskine is happy to have the freedom and trust from his coaches.
“You have to make a hockey decision with jumping up in the play,” Erskine said. “But to be able to make that decision and know you’re not going to get in trouble is going to be fun.”
Players describe the foundation for Coach Adam Oates’s pressure-based, aggressive system as quick puck movement out of their own zone, avoiding reverses and adding extra support from back-checking by the forwards. Throughout the first week of training camp, Oates has stressed that strong play flows from the defense out.
“The system is really based on keeping the D from taking as much contact as possible. They are the lifeblood of the team. I really believe that,” Oates said. “They got to obviously help us in our own end, but they got to help the forwards score. The way teams back-check now and play all three zones, our D [is] vital to us. So the system really is based on them.”
The Capitals want to bring four players up in the attack, Johansson explained, and the defensemen are needed to add an element of unpredictability to the offense.
It’s a stark contrast from the conservative style Washington played under former coach Dale Hunter, but not completely unfamiliar either. During Bruce Boudreau’s tenure, some defensemen were encouraged to jump up. Karl Alzner said it will take a little time for everything to become instinctual, but he added that Oates’s strategy is designed to allow for calculated risks while protecting against odd man rushes.
“As long as everyone’s in the right spot, there should never be anything like that. It should be the opposite, we should be getting a lot of turnovers for,” Alzner said. “It’s just remembering where you are. We do have a little bit more of a safety valve back there. I think it should be good — just make sure guys remember their assignments.”
Unlike many former forwards turned coaches, who often delegate defensive instruction to assistant coaches, Oates is comfortable working with the blue-liners alongside Johansson because of the defensive instincts he developed in his 19-year career as a Hall of Fame center.
The direct line of communication is critical to ensuring that defensemen understand the plays they might be jumping into offensively as well as their responsibilities in their own zone. It’s also important when trying to get players who have filled specific roles most of their careers not to reinvent themselves, but simply to add a few wrinkles to their games.
“The three of them have seen everyone play. It’s nice they know how you play and they are bringing up different aspects into your game for you to work on,” Schultz said. “Jumping up in the play, being an option and stuff like that is something they’ve told me they’d like to see a little bit more of and that’s kind of encouraging to be able to do that.”