Individual defensive play off the ball is a variation on the same theme. The defender can relax the physical stance somewhat and sag off his/her player to track the movement of the ball, keep a stick interposed in likely passing lanes, and be ready to help a teammate or intercept a careless pass.
Different scenarios demand somewhat different off-ball techniques. For a player parked in front of the goal, the defender might try “fronting” (the self-explanatory title taken from the low-post basketball play of the same name – tennis hockey has no ready equivalent to the hardwood counter of a lobbed entry pass). Or, play strong behind, body to body, and reach the racquet around to harry a feed. By contrast, on the perimeter, such boldness is liable to result in a back-door cut, so the defender should stay off the mark, sag a couple of steps toward the ball, and perhaps present the racquet as a potential barrier between the two players, encouraging the offense to keep its passes on the outside. The different off-ball approaches are difficult to prescribe in any but the most general terms, but are best learned through play. This is doubly true since defensive units are often shorthanded, and off-the-ball individual play can only be assessed in the context of team defense.
Prescriptions for team defense are somewhat problematic, owing to the game’s plasticity. One night, a team might need to play 3 against 4, with the smaller team (fatigued from increased running) organizing a two-person defense. The next, a robust 6-on-6 game fills the court with flailing limbs and racquets and depresses scoring opportunities by default. Too, within each game, the interest of players to hustle back on defense, join the rush on offense, or take up goaltending duties, repeatedly alter the dynamics on both sides of the ball.
Caveats stated, in a normal game in which both teams have equal numbers, and all players are participating in play on one side of the court, the defense will be shorthanded: one of their number must play goalie, and cannot defend an offensive player straight-up unless the offense is generous enough to station one at his/her side.
The ballhandler must, of course, be defended one-to-one by someone, at least when possessing the ball in a position that is in any way threatening. The remaining players need to organize off-ball coverage with zone principles – that is, coverage of space on the floor as opposed to offensive bodies (and many bodies in the game are offensive indeed, ta-boom).
Typically, the defense should concentrate most of its players around the most dangerous areas of the court – the area close around the goal, and the prime shooting lanes in a cone from the goal towards the nets. Distribution of the offensive players (who have been known to line up, generally without conscious intent, exclusively on the perimeter, exclusively on the left side of the court, and in every other configuration scornful of reason which one can imagine) may affect this somewhat, but the center of the court is abandoned at the defensive team’s risk. In the absence of much coherent team organization, or even consistent communication on the court, it is understandable that much team defense is done on a wing and a prayer, and understandable for the same reason that on some nights, goalies become quite accustomed to the duck-and-cover drill.
Ideally, however, the defense should attempt to effect most of the following (beyond the obvious need to cover the ball):
Coverage of primary passing options
The off-ball defense can be summarized by a single rule: no player should receive an uncontested pass that permits an uncontested shot; at least one of the two must be ably challenged. In this vein, it has two priorities in terms of the opposing off-ball players: first, the next likely pass recipients; and second, the players who would be in the most dangerous position if they were to receive the ball.
When the same offensive player fits both descriptions (perhaps, steps in front of the goal, on the same side as the ball, and calling for an entry pass), that player deserves almost as much attention as the ballhandler, and tight one-on-one coverage if the defense can spare the numbers.
Players in somewhat less dangerous positions but still capable of receiving a direct pass need to be accounted for – the defensive team should have a player in position to step into man-to-man coverage should that player receive the ball. As a corollary to this, organization should (we sigh wistfully!) be such that exactly one defender will do this when the pass is made, and never zero or two defenders. A prime example: when the offense is shuffling the ball around the perimeter, the perimeter players to the ballhandler’s immediate left and right are the next logical “steps” for the pass.
The circumstances of play and the philosophy of the player will dictate whether a defender taking up such a position has the intention of making a pass impossible, baiting and then intercepting a pass, or simply being in position to control the player when the pass is made. Obviously in many cases, a lunge for the pass is an all-or-nothing play that, if unsuccessful, will create an immediate opportunity for the offense.
Players who are in a position with no offensive potential, or who cannot receive a direct pass from the ballhandler, are obviously a tertiary priority, and in some cases can be ignored altogether. In general, any offensive player on his or her own (defensive) side of the court fits this description. To a lesser extent it could also be said of a player diametrically opposite the ball in the offensive court, though this will depend on the situation, and in particular the evening’s roster sizes. The playing space being what it is, nearly any player on the attacking half could theoretically receive a pass – but some plays are such low-percentage options that they can be safely neglected (even tacitly encouraged): while a player might successfully pass the ball through the teeth of the defense to a teammate streaking into a shooting position, a hard-struck ball skipping through midnight shadows (you aren’t playing in daylight, are you?) and flailing sticks can be very difficult for its intended target to read and play cleanly, even if perfectly placed.
Aerial passes deserve special note here: a three-dimensional game may be more or less acceptable among different playing groups, because lobbed passes, while they open up new possibilities and can create beautiful plays, also bring stickwork to a dangerous elevation (and for the budget-conscious, create new possibilities for lost balls). If these are a regular part of the game, or a known part of a player’s repertoire, they must be accounted for. Although it may be a sound defensive play, it is not recommended that playing groups countenance defenders making intentional stick-to-stick checks on the intended recipients of high passes, at least not unless all players are outfitted with protective equipment and dependable health care plans.
Help on the ball
Whenever possible within the game’s free flow, other defensive players should be prepared to help the on-ball defender if s/he is beaten. Generally, this is the defensive player closest to the ball as the play develops – so it could be one of several different players depending on which direction the ballhandler moves (keep in mind that playing the ball between a defender’s legs a la “nutmeg” in soccer is one possibility). It is the lot of the defense to prepare for myriad possibilities that never materialize; with a bit of communication, off-ball defenders should decide amongst themselves who will make this move, and communicate to the on-ball defender. Players also should be conscious of off-ball situations developing – for instance, a dangerous attacker who does not have the ball but has taken up a position in front of the goal, or has begun a cut into a dangerous shooting position – and work out responses among themselves.
For optimum effect, this needs to happen with every pass, or every significant offensive evolution, as both teams continually reorganize.
As an example, a player behind and to the left of the ball (as the on-ball defender, or the goalie, looks at it) might call out “help left”, and one behind and to the right would call out “help right.” Now the on-ball defender knows that s/he is protected on each side; those who have made the help calls are ready to get into position. Other players should realize where the slides will come from, and be ready to react to pick up the players or spaces vacated by the helping defenders. The principles are extremely similar to both basketball and lacrosse, sports whose defensive arrangements likewise respond to the basic offensive tactic of beating a defender one-on-one (generally with the ball, but sometimes without) in order to break down a defense and create scoring situations.
It should be apparent that half a loaf is better than none here; even if the local sociology or noise ordinances prevent active communication, off-ball defenders must still slide to pinch off opportunities the offense creates for itself, even at the risk of exposing new passing lanes to the offense. Allow a pass for a good scoring opportunity in order to obstruct a good scoring opportunity; the pass might always be misplayed.
Force the ball out of dangerous positions
The defense is always interested in channeling offensive plays to the corners, to the fences, back to the nets, to lower angles, longer shots, off-hands, weaker players or – holiest of holies – to the opposite side of the net.
The defenders consistently serve this interest by their individual and team play, the way they allocate resources, the opportunities they present to the offense, and those they attempt to neutralize. This is why the defense must generally concentrate its off-ball strength around the central cone – to make these areas difficult for the offense to penetrate unmolested, and to encourage moves to less-threatening spots on the floor.
When picking up the ball one-on-one, this can sometimes be a consideration. Whether by compulsion or choice, the defender might incline to shade one side of the ball – that is, to take away the left side at the expense of potentially opening up the right, or vice versa. In such a case, give the offensive player a chance to beat you with their weaker hand, or channel the play into a thicket of defensive help, or away from the center of the court and towards the fence. Some of these prospects will inevitably conflict, and it is up to the defense to decide how the risks and benefits balance at any moment.
If a defender is able to get a racquet on a dangerous ball without controlling it, or control it momentarily without being able to gain firm possession, there must be no hesitation to throw the ball to a “safe” part of the floor. While there is glory in effecting a clear through obstacles, situations sometimes dictate boring percentage plays. Poke the ball into the corner, swat it back out to the net (or, even better, under or around the net), even surface it – there is effectively no penalty for this infraction if one is about to concede possession anyway. A ball kept safely in play can create loose-ball scrums that the defense might win; they are wins for the defense even if an offensive player can regain it uncontested, because they end threats and permit rest and reorganization.
Gain favorable matchups
It is the nature of the game that mismatches routinely occur between the individual skills of a defender and the attacker whom s/he covers. When this mismatch favors the defender, the defense can press this advantage as a team: aggressively locking off passing lanes can assist a defender selling out for a takeaway by denying the harried ballhandler options. More importantly, when the mismatch favors the offensive team, off-ball defenders need to be especially conscientious of the situation and ready to help; indeed, the defense should switch assignments at opportune moments to ensure that the best defenders available are marking the attack’s top threats.