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Tuesday, November 12, 2002
Updated: November 14, 2:21 PM ET
Timing, positioning dictate offensive risks

By Brian Engblom
Special to ESPN.com

Joining the rush means choosing the right time and spot to jump in and not get burned. If you want examples of how it should be done, check out Paul Coffey or Ray Bourque footage. The two top-scoring defenders were the best at knowing how and when to make an offensive impact. But there are also some active players who've developed the savvy to know that timing is everything.

Nicklas Lidstrom
Nick Lidstrom scored nine goals last season. This season, he already has seven.
Here are my elite five:
  • Phil Housley, Blackhawks
  • Brian Leetch, Rangers
  • Mathieu Schneider, Kings
  • Nicklas Lidstrom, Red Wings
  • Sergei Zubov, Stars

    There is also a cross-section of young, speedy defensemen you'll see up the ice a lot. Some have been around longer than others, but they've all got the offensive skills to consistently make an impact.

    Five more guys to watch:
  • Sandis Ozolinsh, Panthers
  • Sergei Gonchar, Capitals
  • Tom Poti, Rangers
  • Ed Jovanovski, Canucks
  • Andy Delmore, Predators

    This season's crackdown on obstruction has changed the face of hockey. And while things are shifting and sorting themselves out, some teams are struggling in their own end and their defensemen aren't jumping up from the backline as much. Tough defenses are being challenged and beaten -- all of a sudden, it just doesn't look right anymore.

    There is a lot of reassessing going on. Each team is going through its own individual changes trying to work out the kinks. Some teams have it down pretty good; others are still struggling to read plays. So, until players have some time to figure out what's going on, it's tough to tell what trends will stick.

    Meanwhile skilled forwards are certainly thrilled by the ability to get consistent penetration. Because they're not being hooked and held as much, they're having more success getting in the zone. It seems like some players are just floating past would-be great defenses. Just ask Mario Lemieux, Mike Modano, Martin St. Louis (or any of the top ten scorers in the league) who've been outspoken about the noticeable differences.

    In previous years, forwards were held and checked so closely, once they managed to get in the zone, they could never seem to get in. So, because of all of the clutching and grabbing, defensemen often jumped in to lend a hand and came into the play as a last effort to get to the goal.

    Many coaches encouraged their entire staff to jump on a play if and when they saw fit. For example, Bob Hartley gave the go-ahead to his entire defense -- not just Rob Blake and Adam Foote -- to make the read and jump in when needed. If everyone else was tied up and the Avs needed offensive help, Hartley advised his players to pick their spots and be smart, but jump in there and do it. As a result, we saw guys like Greg de Vries, who's normally not known for offensive talent and production, have a terrific year and post career-highs in both goals and points.

    Keep in mind that defensemen getting up in the play doesn't necessarily mean coming all the way out of their own zone or using all 200 feet of the ice. Teams like the Minnesota Wild and Tampa Bay Lightning are particularly good at the overall transition game, which is a combination of the defenseman throwing the puck up to the forwards and supporting the rush.

    During neutral zone transitions, fast defensemen with offensive savvy get good chances when teams turn it over at the red line and suddenly -- BOOM! -- everyone is going the other way. In a half-ice situations, defensemen are more willing to gamble.

    Brian Engblom is a hockey analyst for ESPN. He played 11 seasons in the NHL as a defenseman and was on three Stanley Cup-winning teams in six seasons with the Montreal Canadiens.