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NHL defencemen talk benefits, drawbacks of playing their off-side


TORONTO — Rasmus Dahlin is comfortable feeling slightly uncomfortable.

The Buffalo Sabres all-star defenceman actually enjoys it.

A left-shooting Swede, Dahlin has staked his claim to the right side of the ice on his club's top pair the last few seasons.

It was an adjustment — and a move that isn't for everyone.

"If you're on a team with a lot of lefties someone's got to do it, right?" he joked. "But I like it. When you have the puck on your forehand on the right side, you see the whole ice."

Dahlin's point is well-made on available personnel. Most NHL coaches prefer an even lefty-righty mix on the blue line, but that's often not possible.

For whatever reason, the majority of hockey players shoot left instead of right.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, dressed six left-shooting defencemen Tuesday because of injury against Vegas.

The Golden Knights, meanwhile, had five of six blueliners on their natural sides, with the offensively gifted Shea Theodore the only outlier for the defending Stanley Cup champions as a lefty on the right.

The blue-line balance discussion takes up a lot oxygen, but what are the potential benefits and pitfalls on the off-side?

"It's challenging," said Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly, who volunteered to slide over Tuesday with Toronto in a bind. "It has pros and cons. In the offensive zone, it's a bit easier to walk the blue line. But if the puck comes up the boards, you're in one and you've got to take it on your backhand.

"It's just how your body position is compared to the rest of the ice."

Colorado Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar shoots right and plays on the right, but enjoyed time on his off-side in junior.

"I like the transition game," said the 2022 Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's top blueliner. "Especially as a young kid coming up, it's so important to not just play one side. Whether it's the pivoting, opening the hips or that vision to see both sides of the ice.

"A huge key in today's game is versatility."

The reality is, however, many defencemen stick to one side, while forwards tend to have an easier time flipping positions.

And the defensive zone — especially when quick decisions with the puck are required — is where things can get hairy for a player not accustomed to that mirror-image perspective.

"You have to get it to your forehand or you have to manage real tough situations where you're on your backhand," Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "Any time the puck's along the boards, it's certainly more challenging.

"You have to be very good and very smart."

Vegas head coach Bruce Cassidy said there can be opportunities to exploit a defender playing the opposite side.

"Sometimes if you can take a good angle, you can limit where they go with the puck or force a quicker play," he said, adding that teams also need to be wary of one-timers from an off-side blueliner.

Rielly finished minus-4 against the Knights, but two of the goals against came with the game out of reach.

"The opposite of what you're used to," he said of being a lefty on the right. "It's just trying to get familiar with it."

Despite the benefits going forward, Makar does feel at a disadvantage when he gets caught on his off-side in the defensive zone, especially when killing penalties.

"My stick's a little bit lower," he explained. "It's not protecting the middle of the ice as much. It's a little bit harder to take away that far side of the net or the inside of the seam."

Dahlin, who's making his living in hockey's equivalent of the upside down as a right-sided lefty, isn't keen to go back.

"Defensively, it's a little bit different," he said. "But offensively a lot of good stuff comes with it.

"You get used to it."


Cassidy got a chance to see the Hockey Hall of Fame display in Toronto honouring the Knights' Cup win last spring.

The visit came at the right time with Vegas just 1-4-1 over its last six games before Tuesday's 6-2 victory over the Leafs.

"You're thinking, 'Boy, I can't coach a lick,'" Cassidy said. "Then you go in there and you see your team's ring and the little stall ... it gives you a little confidence boost."


The Ottawa Senators have given their fans plenty to cheer about through the years. The team has also played some miserable hockey.

Tuesday night was another check mark in the latter column.

For the first time in franchise history — a total of 2,416 games — Ottawa failed to register a single shot in a regulation period after failing to direct a solitary puck on target over the final 20 minutes of a 4-1 defeat in Nashville.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 28, 2024.


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