In his mailbag on Tuesday, Dan P. from The Cannon fielded a question from jkcpwilkin regarding which left handed shots will be playing on the right side, either as right wingers, or as right defensemen. Dan P. did a good job of catching a lot of the elements of playing the off-side, but after a couple hints in the article and a conversation on Twitter, I decided to delve deep into all the finer points of playing on the right side versus the left side.
The major difference, and one not commonly thought of is how your body opens to the play and your range of vision. Let’s do a little exercise. Stand parallel to the nearest wall you can find, with your right shoulder about a foot away from it. Pretend you are holding a hockey stick (with two hands) and bend over and place the imaginary stick on the imaginary ice. Now look at the angle of your shoulders. Those who shoot right will be opened up slightly away from the wall, making it very easy to see everything in that direction. Lefties will have their shoulders angled towards the wall, and to open their range of vision they either need to look over their shoulder, drop one hand off their stick, or turn their shoulders to the opposite angle (which would put the blade of the stick behind them). When learning to play the game this is a huge difference, and for a player not comfortable on their off-side it could force them to have to think about everything they do, as opposed to just reacting. Now onto the specifics of hows the off-side impacts forwards and defensemen.
Break-out on the half-wall: Wingers are impacted on the half-wall break-out in two ways. The first problem is when planted on the wall waiting for a tape to tape pass. When on the strong side, the winger’s stick is facing up ice and his body is open to the play. This allows the player to see the whole ice while waiting for a pass, as well as to start moving up ice in tandem with the defenseman if he decides to start skating the puck up. When on the off-wing, the winger either has to have their stick pointing back towards their own end to stay open to the play, or they have to take the pass on the backhand, which closes off their body from the open ice, making it more difficult to know where everyone is and make the best play. The second way is on wraps around the boards. Players on their off-wing can use their stick to pick it up, while still maintaining an open field of vision. Wingers on their strong side must either use their feet to stop the puck, or curl lower and skate into it, momentarily turning their back on the play.
For this and all the other pictures, the red arrows represent the movement (or possible movement) of the puck, the blue lines represent the edges of the players range of vision, while black arrows represent players skating.
Swinging on break-out or regroup: Many break-outs and regroups include the winger moving off the wall and switching with the center. This provides the defenseman with the puck with two passing options, both of whom should be moving into space. This is simple on the forehand side, as the natural body position when opening up for that pass allows the winger to see both the defenseman and the space in front of him. On the off-wing, this has to be taken on the backhand. That requires the winger turns his head to look over his shoulder at the defenseman, which means he can’t see the space he is moving into.
Chip and chase on the break-out: This is actually a positive of playing the off-wing. With the puck on the forehand, it is much easier to get it up and out with the wingers stick in the middle of the ice. You can put a little more angle on the chip, get it up a little higher, and control it a little more. This gives it a better chance of getting past the defenseman, and a better chance of the winger (or a swinging center) chasing it down. On the other side, the chip is either on the backhand, which is tougher to get up and control, or it is a poor angle which reduces the chance of your team chasing it down (worse angle means puck deflects out further towards the opponent’s end, and it likely picked up by the other defenseman).
Shots on the rush: Dan P. covered this in his post, but I’ll touch on it here. The main difference is the angle of the shot. Look at the difference between the two shooters in the picture below. Both of their bodies are in the same spot on the ice, but look at the angle the puck takes to the net. This forces goalies to challenge shooters more to reduce the angle, which pulls them out of the net and makes them more susceptible to being beat by a pass to a teammate. Playing the off-wing simply gives a winger more options on the rust.
One timers: Also covered previously. Playing the off-wing allows a winger to open up for an easy one-timer.
Stopping on the rush: A common (and smart) play when breaking into the opponent’s zone is to stop quickly and allow the other forwards to push the opposing defensemen deep and make a play from there. This is usually done by guys playing their off-wing, as they can stop hard, keep the puck on their forehand (better for a quick pass), and still have their body opened up to the play. On the other side, the winger would have to sacrifice something to make this work, either by keeping the puck on their backhand (making a quick pass more difficult), or by keeping the puck to the outside, which doesn’t open up as many passing lanes.
Break-out passes: This isn’t exactly something that is effected by playing on the left side versus the right side, so much as a reality of playing defense. No matter which side a player plays on they will encounter breaking the puck out to the winger on each half wall. However, the defenseman on the right side tends to be responsible for the right corner of the ice, so they are much more likely to be making the pass up the right side. This allows for an easy forehand pass, and the difference in angle allows for the pass to be an easier one to make without getting broken up by a forechecker.
Cutting the net: The picture below is somewhat convoluted, and the tactic itself is somewhat more advanced, but this is definitely something to consider for NHL defensemen. Many times a d-man will cut around the net and use it as a pick on a chasing forechecker. When cutting around on the forehand, the player is open to the play and able to make a pass to any area of the ice. When cutting the net on the backhand, the body is turned away from the play, and less of the ice is available for a pass.
Keeping the puck in at blueline: This comes up often for a defenseman, and is often a prime reason for players wanting to play their natural side. It is much, much easier to keep the puck in with your stick against the boards than to try to use your foot/body to keep the puck in. Not only that, but a play can be made on the puck immediately, as opposed to having to kick the puck to your stick, or try to fish it out from the boards.
Neutral zone regroups: This is another situation where the problem isn’t necessarily forehand versus backhand, so much as field of vision. A defenseman on his strong side is open to the play and can see the entire play developing. A d-man on his off-side either has to turn into the play and cut off part of his vision, or he has to make the play on his backhand. While most NHL players can do this on the backhand, it is much easier to send a cross-ice pass on the forehand versus the backhand.
One timers: Same as forwards. It is much, much easier to rip a one timer when playing the off-side. You can really step into it, and it makes a defenseman more dangerous in the offensive zone.
In reality, every single one of these factors isn’t something that is necessarily difficult for an NHL player to do. Put any of them into a practice or lower level game and they could do every single one of these things on the off-side perfectly. Give them extra time and space and they can think about the differences in playing the off-side. The problem is the NHL game is so fast, and every inch/second is so important. Every advantage needs to be used. This means playing a scorer like Cam Atkinson on his off-wing is a good idea, as those extra few feet of angle he gains are something he would otherwise have to fight for. For a defensive forward like Derek Dorsett, you want him playing his strong side, as it is easier playing in the defensive zone. On defense, Marc Methot famously preferred to play his strong side, which makes sense as the defensive and transition elements are easier. A player like Nikita Nikitin may prefer his off-side, as it allows him to unleash his cannon of a shot a split second sooner than if he had to stop it before he released, like he would on his strong side. In the NHL, that split second can mean the difference between a blocked shot and the rippling of the twine.