In the 80’s and 90’s, when being physical in front of your net was the norm, defensemen were expected to be the last player between their own goaltender and an attacking forward. Since the lockout of 2004-2005 and the elimination of cross-checking and interference in front of the net, coaches have needed to resort to different tactics. Thus, fronting defense was born.
As its name suggests, fronting is all about defensive players positioning themselves in front of the attacking player and simply get into shooting and passing lanes, and applying direct puck pressure in order to facilitate mistakes and create turnovers.
Since the butterfly style of goaltending was brought to the forefront by Patrick Roy and goaltending guru Francois Allaire, coaches have tried to find ways to limit scoring chances by limiting the amount of shots that got through to their net. Blocking shots has always been a huge part of the game, but often required a player to lay out flat on the ice, thus taking themselves out of the play if the offensive player faked a shot and stepped around them.
As long as your defensive zone philosophy is to get in the shooting lanes, blocking shots or pressuring the puck carrier without hesitation, then a fronting defense becomes almost impenetrable. The problem, however, is that without a complete commitment to closing down shooting lanes, your goalie is faced with the challenge of having above average rebound control.
If your goaltender has excellent rebound control on shots that hit him in the chest and can redirect shots off his pads into the corners of the rink, fronting is a very effective defensive system since the opponent is left unchecked in front of the net.
Many fans clamor about the number of players that are pushed into Canadiens’ goaltender Carey Price, and that is a direct result of rebounds that fall between the last defenseman and the net-front attacking forward. Defending from the wrong side of the puck is never easy, so defensemen are often forced to take penalties on wayward rebounds.
At the end of the day, fronting is all about the numbers. Not only does it decrease the amount of clear shots that get through to the net, but it can assure the defending team can always play with even numbers in the defensive zone.
For example, when the opposition team is on the power play and decides to leave at the net-front position for a potential screen and/or rebound, the defensing team in a fronting defense can concentrate their effort on the other four players in the attacking zone, limit their options, and oftentimes force turnovers and the ability to clear the zone. It limits the amount of in-zone odd man situations the attacking team can create in order to get quality scoring chances.
At even strength, teams that establish possession in the offensive zone instead of attacking off the rush are at a distinct disadvantage since the defending team can engage all five players in the fronting defense, and give themselves a numbers advantage in their own zone.
The most important number in a fronting defense and gauging a team’s effectiveness is the calculation of shots on goal minus blocked shots and shots that miss the net. So long as a team can keep the total of the aforementioned number is +/- 5, then you can reset assured that your team’s commitment to fronting is where it should be.
Canadiens’ head coach Michel Therrien is all about defense first, so using a fronting defense falls into his philosophy of limiting scoring chances. So long as his team remains relatively mobile in the defensive zone, this system will work fine, but the bigger and less mobile a defense corp becomes, the more ineffective fronting becomes.