Left is right for Canada’s D
by Chris Jurewicz|25 DEC 2021
Olen Zellweger - same as all other defenders on Team Canada - shoots left.
photo: Ryan McCullough / HHOF-IIHF Images
Dave Cameron has never seen it before. He’s never coached a team with eight defencemen who all shoot a certain way.

But this is the (left) hand he’s been dealt.

“I have no choice whether I like it or not because it’s the reality of it,” says Cameron, head coach of Canada’s National Junior Team that will try to win the gold medal on home ice at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship in Alberta. “The challenge is … for four defencemen to play their off side. We had to identify the guys that gave us the best chance to do that and make adjustments as we go. It’s probably more of an awareness thing more than execution.”

Ask the youngsters who made up Canada’s defensive core and you will get a sense that this isn’t too big of a deal. Many players grow up with the chance to play on either side as defencemen. Canada has long been known to have an overabundance of left-handed shooters (estimates are in the 60-70% range of left-handed sticks purchased in the country versus righties) but this year’s junior team has brought that to another level.

Eight defencemen. Eight lefties. Four players always practising or playing on their off side or weak side.

Olen Zellweger, one of those lefties, provides some good insight into the pros and cons of switching over to his off side.

“I’ll start in the offensive zone,” says Zellweger, who hails from Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, about a 34-minute drive to Rogers Place in Edmonton where Canada’s games will be played. “If you get a puck on the wall, it’s probably harder to pick it up on your backhand but then, once you have it on your forehand, it’s easier to walk in the middle in to shoot. On your strong hand, you would pick it up easier but then it’s probably harder to pull it and shoot it at the same time. That’s the biggest thing.

“In the neutral zone, obviously going back to retrieve pucks when you’re on your offside, you actually pick the puck up and you can turn onto your forehand and start going right up the ice, which I think is an advantage. In the defensive zone, I don’t really think there’s much of a disadvantage or advantage. You end up on opposite sides of the defensive zone quite often anyways.”

Zellweger is a skater and considered an offensive defenceman, although that label can sometimes take away from players who are also responsible and effective in their own end.

Zellweger, at 5-foot-10 tied with Lukas Cormier for the smallest of Canada’s D, is having a fantastic season thus far, with 27 points in 22 games, including seven goals with the Western Hockey League’s Everett Silvertips. As an offensive defenceman, Zellweger sees much benefit in playing on the right side.

“Anytime you can get the puck on your forehand and there’s a gap between you and the forechecking players and you can skate, that’s an advantage,” he says, adding he has played the right side often this season in Everett. “Having an opportunity to do that throughout the game multiple times – retrieving the puck on my forehand – whether I sling a pass off right away or I do have time to skate, that’s something that is good for me.”

Still, he knows there is value in the righties. Any NHL general manager will concur on the lack of (and therefore high value) of a right-handed shooting defenceman.

“Yeah, it’s true,” chuckles Zellweger. “Right-shot D-man, they have a lot of value. I have a younger nephew, I say ‘make sure he’s a rightie and a defenceman’.”

Fans watching Team Canada shouldn’t notice much with a bunch of lefties trying to keep the puck out of the net. Anyone who has played the position, coached it or studied it, knows that defencemen move around the D zone, based on where the puck is and where the opposing players are. Lefties end up on the right side of the ice, just as righties can occupy the left side of the ice.

Carson Lambos from Winnipeg is another of Canada’s D who will play on his off side this tournament. He admits to not having played the right side as frequently as Zellweger but has no hesitation or concerns making the move.

“We have a really good group of D this year and, obviously, we have eight lefties but I feel pretty comfortable on that off side,” says Lambos. “I haven’t played it really the last little bit but I have practised there and get switched up all the time. Even when I’m playing my strong side, I don’t like getting stuck to that one side of the ice. I like to go wherever I need to go, regardless of my position.”

And what about Canada’s forwards? How do they feel about lining up with all those lefties behind them?

“At this level, growing up you have to be able to learn to play on both sides and all the players here are so good, they can play on both sides of the puck,” says Dylan Guenther, a lefty shooter who will play wing at the World Juniors. “Learning and practising how to make plays, whether it be on your backhand or the other side of the puck, that’s always super important.”