What Is the Dump and Chase in Hockey?

player and ref

Anyone who watches a hockey game will notice that, sometimes, a player who has possession of the puck will cross the red line and send the puck into the corner of the opponent’s zone. Then two or more attackers race for the puck, as do the defenders, whereupon a sort of scrum occurs along the boards. Which team comes out of the corner with the puck determines what happens next. This send-the-puck-to-the-corner tactic is aptly named the “dump and chase,” and it has a storied history—even if many NHL players, coaches, and fans would love to see the practice go the way of the dodo.

The genesis of the dump and chase is the subject of some debate. In the early days of the sport, the rules forbade forward passing, and the game was played sort of like rugby on ice. (The forward pass within the neutral zone was introduced by the Pacific Coast Hockey Association in 1913, but the rule didn’t gain national acceptance until 1918.) Some players discovered that, rather than trying to spring a player free via the backward pass, they could gain an advantage by “lofting” the puck into the opponent’s end. This wasn’t technically a forward pass because it wasn’t to a teammate, but many fans considered the tactic unsporting. In the 1930s and ’40s, after the introduction of forward passing and the offside rule, the dump and chase took on its modern form. 

Why Dump the Puck?

The short answer is, dumping the puck can be easier than maintaining possession of it across the blue line. There are basically three ways that a hockey team can move the puck over their opponent’s blue line: A player can carry the puck, he can pass it ahead of a teammate who stays onside, or he can “dump” it by simply shooting or passing into the zone to no one in particular. Common sense dictates that the first two methods are preferable because the offense maintains possession of the puck, and possession leads to goals.

The statistics bear this out. A paper presented at the 2013 M.I.T. Sloan Sports Analytics Conference compared the results of entering the zone with possession and dumping the puck and found that, in the NHL at least, crossing the blue line with possession results in three times as many shots and twice as many goals. It’s worth noting that the possession statistic does include such things as breakaways and odd-man rushes—which considerably increase the chances of scoring—but the fact remains that possessing the puck is a more productive strategy. 

But there is another team on the ice, and the job of their defense is to stop the opposing offense from carrying the puck across the blue line. So it’s considerably more difficult to carry the puck into the opponent’s zone than it is to simply dump it in and go after it. By clogging up the passing lanes and standing up to rushing players, a defense can make it hard for the opposing players to bring the puck over the blue line, which can frustrate an offense. If the possession game isn’t working, a team will often begin to employ the dump and chase. 

Three Dump and Chase Strategies

The dump and chase can be accomplished in several ways, and there is a strategy behind each. You don’t simply dump the puck and then have everyone chase it. Instead, the puck chasers and the others on the ice have specific jobs designed to maximize the chances that the offensive team can trap the puck in the opponents’ zone and force a turnover. Here are just a few of the ways an offense can employ the tactic.

  1. Send the Puck Around the Goal: A defenseman skates across the blue line on one side of the ice and shoots the puck hard into the opposite corner, so the puck rides the boards behind the goal and up the other side. The two wingers rush into the zone on opposite sides of the goal—one to try to get the puck as it comes around the boards and the other to intercept the puck if it goes back around the goal the other way.
  2. Loft It Into the Corner: The puck is lofted or passed slowly into the corner, so the defender must turn his back to get it, whereupon the nearest winger attempts to keep the defender from playing the puck out. Again, the other winger positions himself to get the puck should the defenseman or goalie try to send it around the boards the other way.
  3. Self Dump and Chase: A winger rushing up one side sees that he has no passing option and faces a defenseman trying to stop him. He passes the puck past the defenseman into the corner and then tries to use his forward momentum and speed to get around the defenseman and to the puck first.

In each of these cases, the center takes up a position in front of goal, so he can get a shot off should the puck come out of the corner or off the boards.

Pros and Cons of Dump and Chase

The dump and chase can be a successful tactic, especially if a team’s forwards are big and scrappy, capable of winning the puck back in the corners and along the boards. Carrying the puck across the blue line requires skilled skaters, puck-handlers, and passers. For a team struggling to get through the opposing defense at the blue line, the dump and chase is a way to get the puck down by the goal, and a favorable bounce can result in possession or a shot. Dumping the puck is also a way to mix things up, to keep the defense guessing about what you’re going to do as you come forward. Forcing the defenders to turn and chase the puck into the corner, rather than face the puck and clog up the passing lanes, can be advantageous for the offense.

The main downside of the dump and chase strategy is that the offense cedes possession of the puck in hopes of winning it back. As the old saying goes, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Plus there’s always the danger that the puck will come back out quickly, with the three forwards caught deep in the opposing zone—which can result in a three-on-two going the other way. Finally, many fans find that too much dump and chase is boring and breaks up the offensive flow of the game.

The dump and chase is in many ways an “old school” strategy, and most NHL teams now use it sparingly. Statistics and current tactical philosophies prize puck possession, so teams aren’t that willing to base a game plan around send the puck to the corners. But if an offense is struggling, there’s sometimes no better way to get things going than to fight it out in the opposing team’s zone.