To the casual hockey fan, line changes and which players skate on what line may seem like arbitrary acts of substitution. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Building lines can be just as challenging as removing a middle block from the Jenga tower. But, the ultimate goal is having all players work within the same system.
“Well, we start with the center and that’s usually set in stone because there’s not a lot of teams that have four or five centermen that you can move guys in and out,” said Carolina coach Paul Maurice. “We moved (Jeff) O’Neill to the wing. And what you want to do, for me, is complement the center-icemen. You’re looking for each line to combine certain elements.”
Different players bring different aspects to the game such as physicality, speed and smarts, all of which are essential to a line’s success.
“You want to have an intelligence factor on the line,” said Maurice. “If you’re going to play against other teams that are tough, you have to have a grit factor, a certain skill level, and then you want your speed.”
The combination of these elements may still read like Greek to casual observers. Maurice shed some light onto the methods behind the madness.
“It’s a package deal,” said Maurice. “You like to see a little bit of each element on a line.
“Ronnie Francis centers O’Neill and (Sami) Kapanen,” said Maurice. “Ronnie’s not the fastest player in the league, but he’s got two guys that can skate very well. He’s highly skilled and he’s got two of our leading goal scorers and shooters there.
“On the second line, you have (Rod) Brind’Amour. He also doesn’t skate — not that he doesn’t skate well, but the speed is on the wings. (Martin) Gelinas brings the grit and (Shane) Willis brings the shot.
“On the last line, you’ve got a young centerman (Josef Vasicek), so you’ve got two guys on the wings that are strong and physical in (Bates) Battaglia and (Rob) DiMaio that bang, grind and crash and really allow Joe to find his way around the ice. He’s got great skill and I think he’s going to be a real good player.”
Fans may remember the rookie forward Willis skating with Francis and Kapanen during the first part of the 2000-01 season. But, according to Maurice, changing up that line was necessary.
“For a while there, we ran Francis, Willis and Kapanen together, and five-on-five they were really struggling,” said Maurice. “We went into play three teams who played a really tough, grinding style of hockey. They were going to force you to dump the puck and, on that line, if the puck got dumped, we had a real low retrieval rate so we made a change there.”
Changes to lines are not restricted to coaches having time to prepare for upcoming opponents. Players will often skate in more than one line combination during a game to match up better with the opposition.
“There may be something that’s going on with the other team. That’s also a factor,” said Maurice.
A quality combination of speed, smarts and gritty play will often yield results. Some lines may take a while to gel while others succeed initially and inevitably falter.
“For the most part, at the end of the day, you try to get the people that are going the best together,” said Maurice. “Then there’s the school of thought that sometime you’re going to have to let a guy work his way through his problems. But, because every game is so important in the end, you put the guys that are going together on a line together.”