Ulf Samuelsson and Wayne Gretzky share a laugh behind the Coyotes bench. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
BY ULF SAMUELSSON
The typical NHL defenseman has undergone a transformation since the lockout. The biggest difference I see is in mobility.
Since the rule changes that crack down on obstruction came into effect in 2005-06, an increasing number of smaller defensemen have found success playing in the NHL. It’s a really significant change. Defensemen can’t use their size and strength as much as they could before the rules changed. Now, it’s more about positioning and lateral movement and a defenseman’s ability to mirror the forwards.
Some of the bigger defensemen – especially those who relied upon their strength, reach and physical presence – were hurt by the new rules. You can see a quick trend in the way teams are drafting; a lot of smaller players are getting more looks than in past years. Plus, last June’s entry draft was the best draft in a long time for defensemen, so it’s definitely a unique thing that’s happening right now.
As a coach, you’re trying to improve each player to be the best that he can be. Nowadays, players are so focused and so driven that any kind of help and information they get, they’ll take it and run with it.
You have to be patient when you’re working with younger players. Other than goaltending, I think defense is a position that takes a while to fully understand. To be able to use your experience to your full advantage and become a good defensemen is difficult. In my opinion, it typically takes a little longer to develop a solid understanding for playing defense than it takes to play forward.
Of course, there are a few areas where it might be a bit easier to play defense today. For example, I think defensemen are getting more help when they’re going back to get pucks. All the hitting from behind is really frowned upon by the league. The new icing rules should free up some good defensemen to go back there for more pucks.
The way I played, I would’ve been close to being in jail. I did try to take full advantage of the rules and I wasn’t a terrible skater, even though (Phoenix coach) Wayne (Gretzky) tells me everyday that I am…
I never played in the new NHL, but I think nowadays you need pure skating skills if you’re a defenseman. You can’t get by with grit and hard-nosed play. You need to be able to dance with the forwards or you won’t be able to stay in the league. Simply, you need to be an exceptional skater in today’s NHL.
Of course, you have to be able to play the game; that’s No. 1 and that’s going to be No. 1 no matter what the rules are. You have to be able to see the game, process quickly and execute the right play on the ice. That will never change, but it seems like we have a trend in our business to sort of overreact when things change. So now we’re all of a sudden looking for smaller, quicker, faster players.
But as a coach, you’ll take a smart hockey player any day of the week.
Ulf Samuelsson was a defenseman who played on the edge in the NHL from 1984 until he retired in 2000. After a few years out of hockey, Samuelsson returned to the game when he joined the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack as an assistant coach. This is his third season as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes.