The evaluation of defensive play in hockey lags far behind offensive play. The vast majority of shot-based metrics are far more useful when it comes to measuring offensive contributions. Even the eye-test leans towards offensive players, as it is much more noteworthy to make a nice pass, score a goal, or do something to create offense. Defense is more difficult to judge, as oftentimes the best defense isn’t noticeable. I liken it to some of the best goaltenders the NHL has ever seen. We all love a flashy save, but the best goaltender’s make difficult saves look easy by being in the right place so they don’t have to make the crazy save.
Gap control is one of the many aspects of defensive play that we have no way of measuring, is rarely talked about, but is vital to being a good defenseman. Before we get into the glory that is Drew Doughty, let’s just simply talk about what gap control is. It’s fairly self explanatory, as it is just how the defensmen control the gap between themselves and attacking forwards on the rush. Seems straightforwards but the nuances are tremendous. Obviously, players can skate faster forwards than backwards. So when the opponent comes skating up the ice, the defensemen need to back up far enough so that they don’t get beat wide. However, they also can’t back up so far that they provide the attackers too much space to operate in the defensive zone. They also can’t back up too far too quickly, as then they risk standing still when the forwards get to them. The ideal gap in the neutral zone is however much space the defenseman needs to be approximately a sticks length or two away when the forward hits the blueline, while still skating fast enough backwards to not get beat. Obviously there is not hard and fast rule on any of this, as the gap control necessary changes based on the attacking player, where on the ice the attacker is, where the defender is, how quickly the defenseman can pivot from forwards to backwards, and many other variables. The point is to be close enough to not allow the forward to cut to the middle, not allow them to skate in close enough to shoot, but still not get burned wide.
On this play we have what should be a pretty straightforward three on three. The Kings have three forwards rushing in, while the Flyers have two defensemen and a backchecker. This should not be a dangerous play. However, look at how deep Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald is when Tanner Pearson crosses the blueline with the puck.
Check out all that space that Pearson has to work with. It allows him to move into a space to shoot, get a shot off, and nearly bury the rebound of the block. Look at the end of that play. The Flyers have five forwards deeper than all but two Kings, yet Pearson nearly scores.
Okay, we’ve now looked at bad gap control, let’s see the master at work. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to find clips of Drew Doughty being awesome with gap control. Those kinds of plays are the types to get pulled for highlight clips. Making it even tougher is the sheer volume of times opponents go at Doughty. And by sheer volume, I mean they are practically non-existent.
First off let’s look at some good gap control from December’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
As the play moves through the neutral zone, we see good gap control by both Doughty and Derek Forbort. Forbort is close enough to William Karlsson and Matt Calvert that neither is going to be able to carry the puck into the zone. So they pass the puck over to Sam Gagner, who has no choice but to go wide with the puck, as Doughty is occupying the middle of the ice and moving with him. Doughty stays close enough to Gagner that he can’t do anything with the puck, and is moving quickly enough with him that Gagner can’t beat him wide. The play ends with Gagner harmlessly throwing the puck away.
Watch that clip again and just focus on Doughty. He starts out at the right point in the offensive zone, skates forward into a position on the left side of the ice to take away Calvert as an option, pivots to skating backwards and moves across the ice with Gagner, keeping perfect gap the entire time, before pivoting back to forwards to make sure Gagner can’t get around him. This play illustrates all the tools that Doughty has to be so good at defending in the open ice. The skating, the smoothness of his pivots, his stick, and more importantly how quickly he can read his opponents speed and angles to regulate his own speed and angles to stay in position. It’s easy to judge a player skating straight at you while you are backing up. It’s much more difficult to change who you are defending, move laterally across the ice, and still maintain perfect gap.
Next lets take a quick peek at a simple entry play from Doughty against Colorado last week.
This play doesn’t really look like much, but I really wanted to show an example of Doughty just forcing the opponent to turn a rush into offensive zone possession. On this one, Long Beach native Matt Nieto skates right in at Doughty, who is in perfect position. Doughty is close enough to Nieto, that there is no chance for him to cut back inside without losing the puck. However, Doughty is also moving quick enough that he can pivot and move with Nieto if he tries to take him wide. So Nieto just stops and drops the puck to Francois Beauchemin, who fires a harmless shot on goal.
You see this kind of thing happen all the time with Doughty. Once or twice a game, a play will look like a rush, only for the attacker to find nowhere to go once they cross the blueline. Doughty is then either able to poke the puck away, or force the forward to stop and wait for his teammates to gain the zone, just to have an option.
Finally, lets take a look at some neutral zone gap control. This is something that Doughty is possibly the best at in the entire NHL. He quite often is able to force dump-ins, or force opponents to regroup, simply by being in the perfect position and having the perfect gap control in the neutral zone.
Again, another play that doesn’t look like much but only happens because of Doughty’s gap control. Most defensemen would be backed further off on this play, while Doughty is up on it. Doughty gets his body in Brayden Point’s path, and as soon as Point cuts to the center of the ice, he has him. With Point now moving horizontally, Doughty can attack with his stick and force a dump in.
It helps that Brayden McNabb is back for support, but Doughty’s positioning is what turns this into nothing. If the defender had deeper gap, Point could have pushed the play to the outside when he picked up the puck, or if he did cut inside, he would have had time to put the puck into space for Joel Vermin to pick up on the right wing. Instead something that maybe possibly could have been something for the Lightning was nothing.
That in essence is what gap control does. It turns a play that could maybe be something into nothing. Often there is nothing noted by the broadcasters about the play itself, as there is nothing spectacular there. Good gap control doesn’t get fans out of their seats or anything, but bad gap control sure can. Good gap control is what allows a player like Doughty to control so much of the play, even when he doesn’t have the puck. Bad gap control, on the other hand, it brings the opposing fans out of their seats, provides us with highlight reel goals, forces highlight reel saves (see Neuvirth, Michael), and general nervousness/agony/<insert negative emotion> for the defending fans. Fortunately, with Doughty on hand Kings supporters can avoid the latter more than most fans.