Play 1on1’s like an NHL Defenseman – Gap Control

I want to write this article for players at about the Bantam and Midget level who want to improve their defensive 1on1 play off of rushes. I have noticed that players at this level struggle with setting and reducing their gap against forwards effectively. Not being far removed from Bantam and Midget myself, I remember well the learning steps I have gone through recently, specifically watching and learning from NHL defensemen that I’ve had the opportunity to skate with.

“You need a tighter gap!”

Coaches say this all the time. Very rarely, however, do I hear coaches then tell the players how to get a tighter gap. This post seeks to deconstruct how the best defensemen in the world play 1on1’s and keep a tight gap…it is the how to that many players are missing.

To deconstruct keeping a tight gap, we need to define a few terms I’ve begun using:  Lateral Gap  and Linear Gap.

Lateral Gap: This is the distance between the defender’s outside shoulder (shoulder closest to the boards), and the offensive player’s inside shoulder (shoulder closest to the centre of the ice.

Linear Gap: This is the distance between the chests of the defender and the offensive player. (The picture does a better job explaining)

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 9.37.40 AM

Now that we have defined and shown you what I mean by Lateral Gap and Linear Gap, we need to discuss their properties:

Lateral Gap: This gap is easiest to change during a 1on1. The player doesn’t need to adjust their speed, they just need to adjust their path to adjust their lateral gap.

Linear Gap: This gap is harder to set but it is crucial for the result of a tight gap and taking away an opponents space. We will explain the two ways by which defensemen can set their linear gap.

Common Coaching Cues, Common Responses

Coaches will often tell their defensemen to “gap up” or “keep a tighter gap”. Younger, less experienced players will often respond by decreasing their linear gap by skating forward or slowing themselves down while skating backward. Both of these strategies are suboptimal. Skating forward and toward an attacking team while they are in transition may cause you to be stuck going one direction while the attacking team quickly goes the other way. Slowing yourself down while skating backward to close the linear gap is also suboptimal because the attacking player could accelerate around you.

Common Coaching Cues, NHL Responses

I’ve been lucky enough to skate against NHL defensemen. The result of their tactics is that as soon as I’m receiving a puck from a teammate, their gap is already set on me, and I have no room to skate. They force me into making a good move, or losing the puck purely by their positioning. It took me a while to determine exactly what they were doing differently than me to obtain this result. Here is what they do:

  • They get up ice quickly and right behind the forwards from the other team.
  • Once the other team has control of the puck and is in transition, NHL defensemen rarely skate forward. Instead, they skate backward, using pivots and lateral movement to maintain a tight linear gap.
  • NHL defensemen always remain towards the middle of the ice relative to their opponents.
  • As soon as the puck begins moving up the ice against them, NHL defensemen create a tight linear gap by adjusting their lateral gap. If their linear gap is too large, they increase their lateral gap while maintaining speed. To increase their lateral gap, they pivot and skate backwards towards the middle of the ice.
  • Once their linear gap is set, NHL defensemen will take away their lateral gap by moving toward their opponent while skating backwards laterally. Better defensemen take this gap away more quickly.
  1. Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 4.39.49 PM
  2. Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 4.42.03 PM
  3. Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 4.43.03 PM

The key to this approach is that having a large gap, initially is okay…so long as it is a large lateral gap, and the defensemen is positioned closer to the centre of the ice than the forward. Widening the lateral gap to reduce the initial linear gap, then decreasing the lateral gap with direction change is the key to this whole process.

Mistakes Using this Approach

You can run into trouble using this approach in a few ways:

  • To create to large of a lateral gap that you never narrow.
  • You time your pivot incorrectly or your pivot the wrong way

To prevent or address these common errors, here is what you need to do:

  • Keep your speed up as you are pivoting and changing directions. When you have a speed disadvantage, you are unable to close the lateral gap because you are purely trying to maintain your linear gap. When you maintain your speed, you can close the lateral gap with ease. Backward crossovers will help to keep your speed up while you are setting your gap.
  • Maintain your positioning in the middle relative to your opponent with the puck. Try to pivot with your opponent’s direction changes.

I’m hoping this article is helpful for younger defensemen. I was lucky that I was naturally a good skater when I was younger, so I was pretty decent at keeping a tight gap. But when my coaches pushed me to create tighter gaps, I had to upgrade the tactics I was using. My goal with this article was to make these tactics accessible. Please let me know if I can add or clarify anything in order to do this.

Best Wishes,



Published by

Jason at Train 2.0

2.0 was born from the belief that 1.0 isn't good enough. The way we're approaching coaching, training, and development for hockey needs to be rethought. My own lessons have led me to rethink the way it's being done and I can't help but write about it. I'm writing for my 12, 13, 14, 15 year old self who didn't have this resource. I'm writing for parents who are putting their dollars and trust in coaches who are wasting all of it. I'm writing because I hope it can make a difference.

2 thoughts on “Play 1on1’s like an NHL Defenseman – Gap Control”

  1. Hi jason, I am an amateur hockey player and it was by coincidence that I discovered this blog. I have yet to read all your posts but many of which are very inspiring. I started playing hockey a few years ago at the age of 20 but I had fallen in love with it since then. Because of the lack of resources (facilities and coaches) it is fairly difficult to learn about hockey system or game tactics. There are a lot of questions which I would like to ask but I do not know where to start. Do you mind to answer them if I leave my questions on the next reply?


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