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

Comments (7)

  1. This describes one of the major differences between what I see on TV and rec hockey (aside from skill levels, fitness levels, and pretty much everything else).

    Do you think it’s feasible for a rec team to try to adopt some of this, instead of the standard stick-to-your-point mentality? That soft spot at the top of the circle can be enormous…

    • Rec league teams are 100% dependent on the level the players played before. You will have some players that can perform this and do it properly, then others that will constantly miss assignments and basically blow up the plan.

      These types of recognition are based on repetition and continual exposure to this to know what to do. If you have practices with the rec team I believe you can teach the lower levels of this and expect over the course of a season to get some results, but nothing executed at a high level.

      Just my 2 cents.

  2. My rec team couldn’t do it. I play D and we have a solid group of Dmen and are great first line. Our second line, however is very limited skill wise. If you have a talent gap on your roster it just gets exploited. Something like a defensive system would probably be impossible.

    Last night we got killed because our centers were not covering the slot so the other team was working the puck low then high to an open guy in the slot every time. I pointed this out, but it didn’t matter. We just didn’t have the right mix of players that night.

  3. The other thing about rec – nobody is as good. A pro goalie isn’t getting regularly beaten with 55-foot drive, guys in my po-dunk league are. Likewise, there aren’t twelve guys on every team capable of curling off the wall and popping the water bottle in one motion with their wrister… but you only need one big shooter from the line to the top of the circles to set up for that kickout pass. So as the wing in your own zone, you have to measure the odds and know the other team. Collapse on the bigger threat, whether he’s coming off the sidewall or setting up a bomb from the point. If both are legit threats, then you need a little extra help.

    • This. Rec leagues are always a game of “spot the ringer”. Usually the one not wearing shoulders or face protection. Cover the the ringer where ever they are.

  4. Nobody wants to learn systems in a beer league. I have the luxury of playing with a bunch of guys from college, so we essentially kept the same system without even thinking about it. The thing about learning is a system is practice. You can’t teach someone something new on a whiteboard. It comes from on the ice practice. Repetition. The easier way to win more games in a beer league is to get a better player. He’ll be responsible for more win than any system you try to put in place.

  5. On the rec league note:

    This is a great entry, and I do desperately wish that my rec-league team could at least try for some kind of defensive system (although I would never be the guy to enforce it. We’re way too laid back for that).

    I’m trying to think of ways that the system could be broken down though into very basic, intuitive concepts, so that a “layer-like” system becomes implemented naturally. That is to say, it comes into being as a whole through each player having a similar concept of defensive zone play.

    Sort of like just telling your players this:
    1) one guy on puck carrier, other guy covering his tail
    2) if you see a guy streaking to the net w/ puck and you’re closest, go to the puck carrier.

    Think that might cover the nuances in a very rough form? (not assuming of course that it will be even a good execution of the system, just a pseudo-execution of it).

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