EL SEGUNDO, CA — From the start of the 2022-23 National Hockey League season until the Los Angeles Kings turned things around several weeks ago, defenseman Sean Durzi’s defensive zone play stood out…
…mostly for all the wrong reasons.
An offensive defenseman, Durzi was often too aggressive up the ice, trying to push things on the offensive side of the red line. He often got caught out of position, and he turned the puck over a lot.
But as the Kings have turned things around, something you may have missed is that Durzi has also turned things around defensively.
“Durzi is probably a good reference tool to our game, because I thought, earlier in the year, a little bit of the offense was chased by him and everybody else on the team,” said head coach Todd McLellan. “Now there’s a more balanced approach to his game, and it hasn’t hurt his offensive output. It has increased his defensive awareness, his game management skills, his reads—when to pinch and when not to—are getting better. So it kind of matched our team play.”
“I think the whole group dragged each other along,” added McLellan. “I don’t think it was a Sean Durzi thing. I think it was, to this point—what’s [the phrase]? High tide raises all boats? That helped Durzi. That helped a lot of the players. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic change. If you flip it just a little bit—a two percent improvement, if everybody does that, that adds up pretty quick. So perhaps everybody put the time and effort in to being a little more aware of [their defensive responsibilities] and he was part of that.”
But there is more to the story, as Durzi has put in a lot of hard work to improve his defensive play while also rising to meet the challenge of moving to his off [left] side.
“Playing the right side is a lot different when you’re defending, whether it’s squeezing guys out, gaps, angling—so moving to the left side has been a whole new learning point this season,” he said. “It always needs work. You can continue to get better. But when I started in the NHL [through the end of last season], I was comfortable defending against top six forwards. But now, playing on the left side, [everything is] new—moving pucks, angles, things like that.”
Not having to play defense is Durzi’s best defensive weapon…and yes, that makes perfect sense.
“Part of my defending is being good enough at breaking pucks out [of the defensive zone] that I wouldn’t have to [defend], he emphasized. “If I can break pucks out cleanly on the left side, I can play on the offensive side of the puck more, and now that I’m getting used to breaking pucks out [from the left side], I’m also putting myself in better situations to defend. I’m learning new ways to squeeze guys out on the left side, and I’m learning about gaps while watching video. It’s all a learning process—watching the older guys.”
Playing on the left side also means that for the right-handed Durzi, he often has to play the puck on his backhand, especially along the boards. But he’s getting better at that, too.
“I’m a lot more comfortable on my backhand than I’ve ever been in my life,” he noted. “I never thought I’d have to work as much on my backhand. But I’ve gotten to watch guys like [center] Anze Kopitar, who, basically, has two forehands, so I’m a lot more comfortable on my backhand now.”
“Deception is important, too, and it’s different on the left side,” he added. So it’s really just learning things on the left side. It’s a new experience for me. But I’ve learned a ton. Now I’m comfortable on the left side, and I continue to get better.”
Durzi has also learned a few things about positioning.
“I think it’s realizing that the best players want to suck you out to the non-dangerous areas and then slip pucks into the guys who are ready to shoot, so it’s just being able to identify the danger zones and not get sucked into the wrong areas on the ice,” he said. “Working with [Kings pro scout and former Kings defenseman] Matt Greene and [former Kings defenseman and current member of the Kings development staff] Sean O’Donnell, I learned to identify danger areas on the ice—whether or not it makes sense to attack a guy who’s not in a spot where he’s going to score instead of staying where the more dangerous guy is. What I took from them is that what I think offensively, think the opposite. What would I do? What would I see?”
“A lot of these guys are world class players,” he added. “Sometimes they’re going to make plays, and you have to tip your cap to them. But realizing what the passes guys want to make might be is what you want to do. When I’m coming down the ice, I want to make a guy think one thing and then I’m doing the opposite thing. So it’s using my own experience as an offensive player to be more effective on defense.”
Durzi stressed that having a good stick—where he has his stick on the ice at any given point in a game—is also critical.
“A big part of my defensive game is having a good stick and being active with it all the time,” he said. “[Kings center] Philip Danault probably has one of the best sticks in the league. He showed me a few things about where he puts his stick.”
“Me not being the biggest guy, it’s having a good stick,” he added. “So if I can get a tip on a puck, or make a good read, forcing guys to go where I want them to go, then I can put myself in better situations to defend.”
In short, Durzi has really turned things around in the defensive zone, like the rest of his teammates, so much so, that he is now playing in all situations—even strength, power play and penalty-killing.
“You’ve got to have a complete game,” he noted. “You’ve got to be willing to block shots. You’ve got to be able to defend well. I’m trying to improve that part of my game. If I continue to do that, the offensive side of my game will also improve.”
“Everything has gotten better,” he added. “But I’m going to continue to work on my game to improve. There’s a lot of work ahead. I’m just past 100 games in my [NHL] career now. I’m learning more every single day, things that I never thought I would learn. You just keep working on your game.”
Stick tap to Bally Sports West’s Carrlyn Bathe, who gets credited with an assist for this story.
LEAD PHOTO: LA Kings defenseman Sean Durzi celebrates his power play goal during Game 6 of the Kings first round playoff series vs. the Edmonton Oilers at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, California on May 12, 2022. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Kings.
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