Pittsburgh Penguins v Boston Bruins - Game Four

The concept of defensive “layers” is not unique to the Boston Bruins; in fact, it’s pretty ubiquitous around the NHL at this point. I first came across the system in the ECHL when I played for die-hard layer afficianado Davis Payne, now of the Los Angeles Kings. As far as the terminology goes when it comes to explaining it, the language of hockey is not universal, so it often feels like one coach is teaching something different when that’s not the case at all. Some people call a delay an escape, some people call a mid-lane drive a net-lane drive, and some people call layers “stacking,” or whatever the heck they feel like. Either way, variations of what we’re about to talk about (with different points of emphasis) exist all over.

The Bruins execute using layers particularly well, so I figured today would be a good day to explain the concept so you know what you’re looking for tonight.

On its face the idea is basic: just because a player on your team gets beat one-on-one doesn’t mean your opponent is free and clear. Without layers, that’s how it was for me in Junior B, the BCHL, and the NCAA. You had your responsibility, and if you blew, you were giving up a grade A scoring opportunity. You were killing the team.

As a right winger playing that older style, the left d-man was my responsibility. Black, white. I was to be within a stick’s length of him when on the strong side, and he was not to get a shot through to the net (mild exaggeration below, but you get the idea).


He often did because I was really not that fond of getting hit with frozen hockey pucks, but I faked doing my job pretty well.

That also meant that I was drawn out particularly high (and in turn, d-men tended to stretch the zone as much as possible to pull wingers up higher), so if an opposing player managed to walk off the wall or beat his d-men out of the corner, your team became your goalie’s biggest fans. There was no help. D-men (and low centers) played tight man-on-man entirely, so opposing forwards usually got smothered, but sometimes got a step and that trouble ensued.

Beautifully drawn offensive lane:


A layered essentially means you’re playing a similar system with more sag, and with more awareness expected of you. No easy buckets.

Where defenders in the corner used to play tight…


Now one plays soft.


You have a d-man or center man playing as aggressive as ever on the puck carrier, but the second defensive player in the corner doesn’t need to get too aggressive and risk getting picked. He plays soft in case his partner gets beat, then he becomes the second layer to thwart the offensive player from getting to the net. He’ll make the switch to prevent the free ride. It’s not “win your one-on-one battle and you’re in,” there’s another obstacle.


If the puck moves from one opposing player to the other and coverage is still good, the soft player moves in aggressively, and tight player steps back.

Still, sometimes there are total meltdowns where both players get smoked coming out of the corner, and there needs to be more safety measures.

When you’re playing in “layers,” the weak-side slot forward helps out on breakdowns a lot more than he used to when all his junior coaches told him “for the love of god don’t let YOUR d-man shoot.”

As coaches know, you’d much prefer a shot from 60 feet over letting a guy go one-on-one with your goalie, so basically, you concede a pass out to the three point line to contest the easy layup, given that the “three point line” is not a thing in hockey. That means that the d-man in front can challenge free players off just-won battles knowing that with the break-down, the weak-side slot forward can collapse down to help in front. Anyone who chooses to make that kick out pass also gives a scrambling defense an extra second to get back into their appropriate lanes, and grab onto any men they may have lost. So, you encourage that.


(LW has collapsed, so the other D can no challenge the threatening forward.)

Another way in which layers work is by allowing strong-side wingers to help on “cycling” forwards. When those wingers only pay attention to “their” d-men, there’s a soft spot above the low defenders and below the high wingers that can be exploited for one-timers and net-drives. With layers, those wingers are encouraged to sag and help on anyone who tries to cut in, because again, you’d rather force the kick-out pass up high than allow a guy to slash the lane.

Without layers, if your center or low d-man got beat, you could create a shot for yourself:


But with help, that lane no longer exists. The offensive player, again, can drive and kick it out, which is a great offensive play, but with the right sag that right winger in this example shouldn’t be too far from the shooting lane.


It’s not remotely unique that Boston does this. What is unique is that they have a team of players who “buy in,” who’ve seen it work for them before, and who are constantly responsible in providing help defense. Other teams seem to have a number of players who get distracted, or get too locked-in on the idea that “this is my guy, this is the area I’m supposed to stand, so I’m going to stand here,” instead of “HOLY CRAP THAT GUY IS ABOUT TO SCORE I SHOULD PROBABLY STOP HIM.” It’s common sense at some point.

Positional play provides guidelines; they shouldn’t lock you into a track like a bubble hockey player.

bubble hockey