Hockey 101: Defensive Zone Breakout Basics

This is one of a series called Hockey 101, addressing the basics of hockey positioning and systems appropriate for a beginner to intermediate player and their team.

Basic Breakout Strategy

The defensive zone breakout is a fundamental part of hockey team systems.

In short, the breakout is a set of positions and decisions that structure the act of moving the puck from the defensive zone to the neutral zone.

Why Breakout?

Playing within a system for breakouts allows teammates to use the ice better and to better anticipate the movement and position of teammates.  When a defenseman knows that she has two or three options and approximately where they will be located, she can more quickly and accurately make decisions, freeing her mind and body to execute the pass or play on the puck.  Forwards will be able to move in concert, as well, exploiting common weaknesses in forechecking opponents.

A well executed breakout can directly result in an attack on net or a goal.

The breakout is comprised of several fundamental positions and passes.


This type of basic breakout play begins with defensemen gaining control of the puck.  Defensemen should immediately begin skating to a soft area of the ice, often the “quiet zone” behind the net.  This often involves skating back toward your own end.  It is a common mistake in beer leagues to feel like skating forward is the only good play.  The goal here is to give the forwards time to get free from defenders and set up the breakout formation and give yourself time and space to make a good pass.

In an advanced system, there are a number of set plays for defensemen.  At its most basic however, defensemen must simply find empty space, control the puck and make a pass.  The defender away from the puck should remain near the net, but may step behind the goal line to provide an outlet pass for his partner.


The forwards usually swing low to initiate a breakout.  This will usually involve skating deeper into your own zone, often just below the faceoff dot.  If you’ve never done this, it may seem insane.  The goal is to make space between the attacking team’s defensive positions and to set up to move as a single unit up the ice.

Not swinging low is a common mistake in beer leagues everywhere.  When the puck is controlled by the defenseman, the wrong play is to turn your back to him and rush quickly up the ice, unless your defender is completely absent.  It is nearly impossible to make a clean pass to you from deep in the zone, over the red line, through multiple defenders, and even if it gets through, it is extremely difficult to catch a pass with your back to the puck and there is no puck support on a turnover.

If your skating skills allows, keep your upper body facing the center of the zone as you curl.  In this way, you avoid turning your back on the puck at any time, while remaining aware of the defenders position as well.

Having your back directly to the passer is rarely a good choice.  Also (and especially in full-contact hockey), skating backward up the ice to catch a pass can be risky and dangerous to your health.  

The First Pass

The “strong side” WING (the side with the puck) and the CENTER should both make sure they are available to receive the puck as they cross the hash marks (see diagram).   Normally, the defender will pass to one of these players.  This pass must happen quickly.  The defender should not wait or skate with the puck longer than necessary.

If the defender is under pressure, he may want to execute a delay move (quick turn), or pass to a partner.   He may also “rim” the puck to the winger, although a tape-to-tape pass is preferred.  He may also pass to his defensive partner (generally BEHIND the net).

If both forwards are out of position or tied up and a d-to-d pass is not available, the final option to to put it high off the glass.

Passing across the slot (in front of the net), or trying to clear the zone up the middle third of the ice should be regarded as too risky in most situations.

Exiting the Zone

Options when defender pinches

A winger who gets the puck on the boards is usually face to face with the opposing defenseman. The defender has two options that dictate how to play.

  1. Defender Backs Out – In this scenario the defender backs off the blue line in the face of a breakout.  Wingers can skate with the puck, or pass across to a streaking forward.
  2. Defender Pinches (see diagram) – In this scenario, the defender tries to jump up to challenge.  The winger must move quickly and may pass to the middle, or simply chip the puck off the boards for the center to retrieve.

Trouble & Pressure

If the defender gets delayed, or challenged, wingers must be prepared to drop back into normal defensive zone coverage.  A delay may also mean that the forwards will have to repeat the pattern (see diagram), trying to remain close enough to their defensive position to return in the case of a turnover.

The center may go to support or assist the defender in a battle along the boards or in the corner.

As always in hockey, try to avoid standing still.

Standing at the blue line waving your stick around is a common beer league strategy.  Don’t do this, you’re not a spectator.

Aggressive Strategy (fly the wing)

For an aggressive strategy, when a defender gains clear control of the puck and it is obvious to which side the breakout will move, the weak side winger can try to leave the zone early.

The breakout should proceed normally to the strong side wing on the boards, or the center up the middle.  These players then have the option to chip or pass out to the weak side winger for a breakaway or rush.

The flying winger often moves diagonally across the ice to be more available for a pass and to reach any pucks chipped up the strong side boards.

Recap (TLDR)


  • Gain Control of the Puck
  • Find Space
  • Make a pass (five options)
    • Boards Pass (usually to wing)
    • Middle Pass (usually to center)
    • D-to-D (behind the net)
    • Rim
    • High off the Glass
  • Minimize Risks
    • No stretch passes
    • No dirty dangles in your own circle
    • No passes through the “scoring area”


  • Swing low
  • Curl to strong side
  • Face the middle (the puck and potential defenders)
  • Make a quick pass, or chip off the boards
  • Maintain awareness of your defensive position
  • Avoid standing still

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