Brian Engblom

Message Board

ESPN Auctions
Wednesday, January 23
Position transition takes talent and timing

By Brian Engblom
Special to

Just because Detroit temporarily moved Sergei Fedorov out of his natural position, don't think teams can do that with any player. Very few NHL players are capable of changing positions.

When a player plays his normal position, he can play off natural instincts. He is familiar with where he needs to be and what he needs to do to be an effective player. However, when the same player is moved to a different position, he becomes less comfortable. Mentally, he will begin second-guessing himself. Where am I supposed to be? When am I supposed to be there? Who am I defending? A position change takes away from the natural flow of a player's game. Any time a player has to stop and think, the level of difficulty increases. He will need time to adjust to the new position.

Changing positions, especially going from forward to defense, takes a special player. That is why Fedorov was able to make such a seamless adjustment. Shorthanded on the blue line, Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman moved Fedorov to defense for seven games until Fredrik Olaussen came off injured reserve from a respiratory infection last week.

While several NHL forwards are excellent skaters, most are not proficient at skating backwards, reading the rush and doing the job defensively. It is foreign territory for forwards. However, Fedorov was trained in the Russian system, which always places a lot of pressure on the center ice man to be conscientious defensively. Therefore, his transition to defense was fairly easy because he has played defense his entire life.

In addition, Fedorov has the ability to judge plays coming at him, to turn and go at the right time and to avoid getting beat in one-on-one situations. Plus, in some ways he has an advantage over someone who has been a defenseman all his life. He has a knack for making offensive plays for himself and can lead the rush.

Scotty Bowman has seen almost every different system the NHL has to offer, and most systems in today's game are defensive-minded, making it even more difficult to score goals. He also didn't like the way the puck was being brought up the ice. Because teams play Detroit so tough, the defense has to get involved in the rush to be successful offensively.

Using the talent he had, Bowman was looking to get some scoring from the back end. Putting Fedorov, one of the league's best two-way players, on the blue line made a lot of sense. There is nobody better than Fedorov at moving up on a play and recognizing a scoring opportunity. He immediately gave the Red Wings speed, talent and goal-scoring ability coming from behind with the puck. He could act like a fourth forward and not hurt the Wings on the back end.

It is easier for a defenseman to move up and forward, rather than the reverse. Normally, a defenseman moving to forward won't be a big-time scorer. Most of the time they become third- or fourth-line forwards who are moved up for their size and physical play. Colorado's Eric Messier, a natural defenseman, has played forward the last two years and has done extremely well. He only plays defense now if the Avalanche are injury-riddled. Over time he learned how to think like a forward and get the job done. Ottawa's Chris Phillips is back playing defense again after playing a fair amount at forward.

In Washington, coach Ron Wilson has been trying a 2-1-2 alignment; he plays three defensemen with one acting like a rover. The two players Wilson has been using in the rover role are Ken Klee and Sergei Gonchar. Klee, although not a player with tremendous offensive skills, has experience at forward, playing it off and on for several years in Washington. Meanwhile, Gonchar -- the league's top scoring defenseman -- is being used for his offensive ability.

Much like Fedorov in Detroit, Gonchar is able to jump up offensively and act as an extra forward. He can get scoring chances and capitalize on them. At the same time, as a trained defenseman, Gonchar knows how to read the rush and can do things in the neutral-ice are area to jam things up better than other forwards could.

Detroit was able to accomplish the same effect with its left-wing lock, something similar to what Wilson is doing. With the 2-1-2, the Capitals are looking to play defense and be more active near the center red line instead of doing it the classical way, waiting until the opponent reaches the blue line to make a defensive play. The Capitals' rover can quickly turn and generate offense the other way.

The Capitals have struggled this season. In recent years they have been strong defensively, but not this year. Only two teams -- Carolina and Atlanta -- have allowed more goals. Wilson was getting desperate because the Capitals were well behind where they should be in the standings.

With the third defenseman in the 2-1-2, Wilson has been trying to use his talent in the best way possible and to shore up his team's problems. For now Wilson's solution is having an effect in that it has caught teams by surprise.

Bowman and Wilson are only two coaches who have taken personnel risks to improve the quality of their play, but not every team has players like Fedorov and Gonchar who can make such a positional transition go so smoothly.

Brian Engblom is a hockey analyst for ESPN. He played 11 seasons in the NHL as a defenseman and won three Stanley Cups in six seasons with the Montreal Canadiens.

 More from ESPN...
Heika: A change of place
Switching from center to ...
Volunteers, anyone? asked around the NHL ...

Brian Engblom Archive

 ESPN Tools
Email story
Most sent
Print story