“Position is 9/10th of the law. If you are in the right position they come to you.” – Chris Pronger
Fronting and net-side positioning are two different defensive tactics used by defensemen to support their goaltender in front of the crease. I will briefly discuss the merits of each technique. I believe this topic needs to be addressed between the head coach and goaltending coach so that everyone is on the same page.
Net-side positioning involves the defenseman being positioned between the goaltender and the opponent. The opponent is trying to establish himself for the purposes of a screen, deflection or different types of rebounds. The main benefit of net-side positioning is that your defenseman is in a position where he hopefully can move the attacker left, right or knock him down. He should also be able to prevent the attacker from moving in to the blue paint. These options should hopefully re-establish clearer shooting lanes through which the goalie may track the puck! Net-side positioning also should allow your defence to maintain most, if not all, threats within their field of vision. A disadvantage may be in worsening the degree of screen by your defenseman or allowing secondary scoring chances by not tying up the opponent’s stick.
Fronting involves your defenseman establishing a position in front of the opponent. The principle advantage is to get out in the shooting lane and block the shot. It allows your defensemen to more quickly side-to-side and north – south to engage attackers in the slot or to the sides of the net. The disadvantage is that you are leaving an opponent unchecked right in front of the crease. If a rebound were to occur, then you are really not in a position to help your goaltender much.
I have no problem with fronting if your defensive zone approach is consistently to get in the shooting lanes and block shots or pressure the puck carrier; however, what I frequently see in minor hockey is fronting without complete commitment to closing down shooting lanes. If this does not occur, the goaltender is faced with the challenge of superb rebound control since the opponent is left unchecked for anything that comes off the chest or, more likely, the pads. I often see fronting with a shot getting through to the net with a resultant off-square rebound. The defenseman is often knocks the attacker into my goaltender since he can’t really grab him around the chest and pull him away from the crease. My goalie gets knocked down and is not in position to make another save, if necessary. Clearly no infraction will be called if our defenseman knocks an opponent into our goalie! If the fronting is too far from the blue paint, I also see opponents moving in down low to either side of the net with my defensemen not necessarily being aware of this; however, I would say it is incumbent on my goalie to verbal communicate this to a team-mate. The half effort to get into the shooting lane has also been mentioned repeatedly by Don Cherry on HNIC. If you are not going to block the shot then get out of the way!! Placing your stick in the shooting lane, or doing the flamingo, only leads to tips that make things worse for a goaltender that would otherwise have made a standard save.
Another thing to consider is using both techniques at different times based on your own personnel and that of your opponents (For example, if your have a 150 Lbs. 5’ 9” defenseman playing against a 200 Lbs. 6’2” forward, net-side positioning may quite likely not be effective due to gross differences in height and mass. This is likely an un-winnable battle and the defenseman may be more effective fronting, keeping his feet moving, closing lanes with his stick and having his head-on-a-swivel).
In conclusion, I generally prefer net-side positioning. Just remember to discuss both of these individual defensive tactics with you head coach and come to a consensus. Communication is vital and they both have their merits!