Tips & Drills To Improve Your Defensive Zone Breakout

Tips and Drills to Improve Your Defensive Zone Breakout

Breaking the puck out of your defensive zone can be a tough and overwhelming task at any age level.

In the article below, we dive into tips for centers, wingers and defencemen to keep in mind when breaking the puck out of the defensive zone, along with drills to help you practice. There is a lot of information in the article but if each player simply remembers (and practices) the 3 coaching points listed for their position, their effectiveness in getting the puck out of the defensive zone will drastically increase. The simplified coaching points for each player to remember are listed here: 

  • CentersLow & slow. Support your defense and wingers. Communicate.
  • Wingers: Look up ice. Get to the wall. Get up ice & away from the wall.
  • Defense: Look over your shoulder. Retrieve puck at an angle. Pick head up & make a play.

To fully understand the concepts above, watch the videos and read the notes in the article below! First, let's start with the centers.

Breakout Tips for Centers

Breakout Tips for Centers

  1. Stay low and slow: It is important for centers to remember the saying, "Stay Low and Slow." This mentality helps the center with their timing and prevents the center from jumping out of the zone too early, ahead of the play and their teammates. If the center is too far ahead of the play, they won't able to support their teammates and they will create bad passing angles. Staying low will help the center be in a great defensive position and be in a position to support their teammates when needed. 
  2. Support your defense and wingers: Always be ready to support your teammates! Keep your head on a swivel to see where everyone is (including the opposing team). Be prepared to jump in to help your teammates out, or jump to space to become an outlet when your team has the puck!
  3. Communicate with teammates: As a center, it is important to communicate with your teammates. Let them know where you are, if you are open and if they have time to make a play!

Breakout Tips for Weak Side Wingers

The video above gives tips and options for weak side wingers when collecting a puck along the boards.

The same tips shown in the video will apply for a winger if they get a tape to tape pass from the defenceman or you are curling and heading up ice with speed.

Breakout Tips for Weak Side Wingers

  1. Look up ice: Always important for a winger to look up ice and at their surroundings before the puck comes. If you are only looking at the puck and play you will have no idea what your next move will be. Pick your head up and look around so you have an idea of what your options are. Do you have time? If so, you can decide to carry the puck or pass to an open teammate. Or is the defensemen pinching? If so, you can protect yourself and chip the puck out of the zone.
  2. Get to the wall: When getting ready for a breakout, it is helpful to get to the wall because it will give your teammate a better passing angle. Plus you can collect the puck if it is rimmed around the boards.
  3. Get off of the wall and up ice when you have the puck: After a winger gets the puck it is important for them to work to get up ice and away from the wall. Getting away from the wall will give the winger more skating and passing options than if they only stayed along the boards.

Breakout Tips for Strong Side Wingers

The video above gives tips and options for strong side wingers when collecting a puck along the boards.

The same tips shown in the video will apply for a winger if they get a tape to tape pass from the defenceman or you are curling and heading up ice with speed.

Breakout Tips for Strong Side Wingers

  1. Look up ice: Just like in the video above, it is always important for a winger to look up ice and at their surroundings before the puck comes. Do you have time? If so, you can decide to carry the puck or pass to an open teammate. Or is the defensemen pinching? If so, you can protect yourself and chip the puck out of the zone. Be aware of where everyone is and what your next move can be, before you get the puck!
  2. Get to the wall: When breaking out, it is helpful to get to the wall because it will give your center or defenseman a better passing angle. Plus you can easily spot and collect the puck if it is rimmed around the boards.
  3. Get off of the wall and up ice when you have the puck: After a winger gets the puck it is important to work to get up ice and away from the wall. Getting away from the wall will give the winger more skating and passing options than if they only stayed along the boards.

Puck Retrieval Tips for Defenseman

Puck Retrieval Tips for Defenseman

  1. Look over your shoulder: This is concept # 1 because it is most important. Looking over your shoulder will allow you to know if you have time, or need to protect yourself or make an evasive move to create time.
  2. Retrieve puck at an angle: This will allow you to keep your speed up while you are going to get the puck. Plus it is much safer than going head-on into the boards.
  3. Pick head up & make a play: After you retrieve the puck, it is important to pick your head up to make a decision. Skate it, pass to a teammate to begin the breakout, or chip it off the boards to space. 
  4. Bonus - Use Deception or False Information: Even if you have time, it can be helpful to use deception by using your head or body language to throw the forechecking. View clip # 1 of this Instagram video of Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche practicing deception during a breakout with his head and eyes.

Practicing Puck Retrieval: Have a coach or another player dump the puck in the corner so the defenseman can get comfortable with looking over the shoulder, retrieving at an angle and adding deception if there is a forechecker.  View a drill example here. Eventually, you can add a forechecker so the defenseman has to work on making decisions when getting the puck.

Game Like Drills to Practice Breaking Out

Drill # 1: The Continuous Breakout Drill: is a simple yet easy way to practice and get comfortable with breakout options. As a coach, you can set this up to be half-ice or full-ice. For full-ice, just follow the video below. For half-ice, have the team break out the puck and then pass the puck back to the coach at center ice.

Breakout options you can practice with this setup:

  1. Weak Side: Defenceman collects the puck and skates around the net to weak side wing. 
  2. Strong Side: Defenceman collects the puck and goes right back up the same side the puck was dumped up to and passes to strong side to wing.
  3. Skate to Weak Side, Curl Back to Strong Side: Defenceman collects the puck, skates behind net to weak side and turns back where he or she came from to pass to the strong side wing.
  4. D to D to Weak Side: Defenceman collects the puck and passes to their D partner, who passes the puck up the weak side.
  5. D to D to D to Strong Side: Defenceman collects the puck and passes to their D partner, who passes the puck back to them, and the defenceman passes the puck up the strong side.
  6. Additional Options: view the video below to view additional options, along with a Reverse Bank Pass!

Once your team is comfortable with a few options above you can add a designated forechecker, which is shown in the video below. 

Drill # 2: The Continuous Breakout with Designated Forechecker: is a great exercise to start to practice breaking out against the pressure. It will also allow forwards and defencemen to start to communicate and work with each other as they make decisions to get the puck out of the zone. Start with 1 forechecker and then you can add 2, then 3 and so on until it is a full 5 on 5. 

Drill # 3: Continuous Forechecking & Breakout: In this video below, Denis Savard explains a breakout and forechecking game that is continuous, includes the whole team and gives players the ability to practice their forecheck, backcheck and breakout.

The game above will allow you to work on a variety of concepts:

  1. Strategic dumps (into the corner and away from the goalie).
    • Note that many NHL teams are getting great at strategically dumping the puck in the zone. They are not just firing the puck so it quickly bounces to the other team. They are working at chipping the puck slowly so that the forwards have a chance to get to the puck the same time the defense does, which will make it harder for them to break out. View tips on how to establish puck possession in the offensive zone.
  2. Breaking out against specific forechecking systems. View 5 Breakout Strategies. 
  3. Practicing specific forechecking systems. View 11 Forechecking Systems.

Drills to Work on Breakout Skills

Below are 3 ideas to work on fundamental breakout skills.

Drill # 1: Wall Retrieval Station: this is a simple drill for forwards to practice the tips listed above. Look up ice, get to the wall, (collect the puck off of the boards) get up ice and off the wall!

Again, rimming the puck along the boards for a breakout pass is not the best option. A tape to tape pass is recommended, but it is helpful for wingers to practice picking pucks off of the board, which is a skill that is often overlooked.

Drill # 2: Breakout Pass 1 on 1: this is a simple station that helps defenseman practice retrieving the puck, make a breakout pass, while the winger can work on looking up ice, getting to the boards, then getting up the ice and off the boards. After the breakout pass is made, the winger turns back around for a high tempo 1 on 1!

Full Ice Drill # 3: Simple Breakout 1 on 1: an excellent drill for forwards and defenseman to work on breakout concepts. The defense works on puck retrieval (look over the shoulder for awareness & collect puck at an angle for speed), wheeling around the net and passing to the winger. The winger should look up ice, get to the boards, retrieve the pass in motion and get up ice and off of the boards! Then the drill turns into a 1 on 1 where the defense needs to work on gap control. 

Additional variations of this drill:

Conclusion: Improving Your Breakout

There is a LOT of information in the article above and there are lot of different ways to practice breaking out. However, as a player, simply remember the 3 coaching points for your position to help you maximize your ability to get the puck out of the zone. The most important piece of advice for all players is to keep your head up and look around. If you have your head up and know where the puck is, and where the other players on the ice are, you have the ability to be a step ahead of the game by making decisions before the puck comes to you! Below is a reminder of what each player should remember:

  • Centers: Low & slow. Support your defense and wingers. Communicate.
  • Wingers: Look up ice. Get to the wall. Get up ice & away from the wall.
  • Defense: Look over your shoulder. Retrieve puck at an angle. Pick head up & make a play.

Simply remember and implement those concepts when breaking out of your defensive zone and good things will happen! Worst case, you will be in a position to chip the puck out into the neutral zone to fight another day. This simple chip can reduce the offensive pressure or allow your team to take a line change and get fresh legs on the ice!

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