Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Art of Line Combinations

After some recent discussion on the Official Atlanta Thrashers Message Boards as well as some comments on this very blog, Slightly Off-Topic has decided to take a deeper look into the makeup of how and why forward lines are created, when the lines need to be shaken up, and the stratification of skill set within.

Making up lines is not as simple as just putting three guys on the ice at a time and hoping that everything goes well. There are schools of thought, prevailing ideas, style of play considerations, and many more moving parts that factor into the forming and breaking up of line combinations.

As an Atlanta Thrashers intensive web log, Slightly Off-Topic will focus on the overall themes of line combinations, but relate those ideas to John Anderson and our interpretations of his forward jumblings.

The first part of this discussion is going to seem relatively obvious for true hockey fans, but we are going to go through it anyways. First, we must identify the lines themselves. In the traditional forms, the four forward lines usually serve these roles:

First Line – A scoring line that normally features each team’s most dangerous offensive player. The #1 line is called such because the idea is that a team’s top line is the trio of forwards that delivers the most offensive production. This does not always mean that the three most talented offensive players make up this line, but rather the three players that consistently provide offensive zone time… at the least.

Second Line – May feature great offensive threats, like the first line, but generally provides depth scoring. In hockey, there are many great players that aren’t considered “first line material,” but still have the offensive skill set to be top six players. The top six forward slots are generally reserved for point producing NHL players. There are exceptions to every rule and depending on some of the line philosophies that we will look at later in this entry, teams may decide to purposely put a bottom six style player into a top six role. In general, the second line is a unit that doesn’t have the same level of skill as the first line, but is cast in an offensive role.

Third Line – The most diverse line on most teams, the third line is a swing line for many coaches. Traditionally, the third line has been a defensively sound trio of forwards that has some, but not much, offensive punch. Many teams, in today’s NHL, look to the third line to provide energy and forechecking. The type of players that make up third lines usually have some grit to their game, but also provide depth on offense. Many NHL teams will feature a 20-goal scorer on the third line, but generally it is a unit that has a defense-first mentality.

Fourth Line – In most cases, the fourth line is a unit that is built solely to provide toughness and energy. Of four lines, the fourth (obviously) will get the least minutes on ice. This should allow the fourth line to have fresh legs each and every shift… leading to strong forechecking shifts and some agitating play. The fourth line will normally feature a NHL team’s most likely fighting option. Goals are few and far between for the fourth line, but any offensive contribution generally comes as a result of a strong forecheck.

In a nutshell, those are loose descriptions of what the four forward lines look like in the NHL traditionally. As coaches begin to evaluate their rosters and start piecing together line combinations, I am of the belief that most hockey coaches will try and do two things first:

1.) Every coach is going to identify the most likely sources of offense. Essentially, where are the goals going to come from? For Atlanta Thrashers fans, there is one obvious choice to start with and he comes in a 6-2, Russian sized wrapper. That man is Ilya Kovalchuk. When assigning line combinations, Ilya Kovalchuk is the star of the show… who gets to play with him? How does he get used? Who has chemistry with him? Ah, the C-word… an opinionated, intangible quality of a line.

2.) What are my weaknesses? Every coach knows what their strengths and weaknesses are going to be and in some cases a certain combination of lines may be able to hide some of those problems. If Atlanta, as a team, does not match up in a certain way, such as speed, size, or skill, then the coaches’ job is to mask that weakness as best he can.

It is at this point, when the strengths and weaknesses of a team’s forward unit has been identified, that the overall schools of thought come into play. What I mean by this is that some coaches have different ideas of how lines should work.

There is a common perception that balance is an important theme when creating lines. The size, speed, and skill of the forwards must be balanced so that other teams have a hard time matching up.

As an example, earlier in the season John Anderson put defensive-minded players Marty Reasoner and Chris Thorburn onto a line with offensively-gifted, but defensively-challenged Ilya Kovalchuk. What was the purpose of this line? In the past, Kovalchuk had shown some decent chemistry with Chris Thorburn on his right wing and even further back, Ilya had done well with chippy right wingers (Mellanby, Sim, Petrovicky).

Anderson, noting this, might have tried to mask Kovalchuk’s deficiencies on the backend by putting out more responsible two-way players. At the same time that John Anderson tried this trio, his second unit of Slava Kozlov, Todd White, and Bryan Little were producing many offensive chances and points. Anderson could afford to tinker with Kovalchuk’s line.

Balance is not always the way. Depending on the personnel of a team, an overloading tactic is a possibility as well. There are many teams in the NHL that have three premier players that play on the same line. The most obvious example is the Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley line in Ottawa. Rather than attempting to balance the scoring, the Senators have gone with the one dominating offensive line that gets a ton of minutes and gives opposing teams fits in the match-up game.

Personally, I like balance in the lines and I think it is evident that John Anderson feels the same way.

Now the difficult part of creating lines… what works? This is where chemistry sets in. An attribute of a line that some people see and others don’t and when the others that don’t see it do, then the ones who saw it don’t anymore… confusing right? So is the mystery of chemistry.

With the broad theme of full set of lines in place, the hard part is taking the pieces and connecting them together. What makes that even more difficult is that the puzzle is constantly shifting and changing… rendering something that fit and looked good at one point totally useless 15 games later.

Each hockey coach, whether they will admit it or not, has an idea of what will and won’t work. With that idea in place, many hockey coaches will try the same thing over and over again hoping that it will finally click. Sometimes it does and other times it does not… it’s just a human tendency… to want to make your ideas work.

There is a philosophy that playmakers don’t necessarily need the most talented players around them to be successful. Example: Joe Thornton hops on a line with Jonathan Cheechoo in San Jose a few years ago and Cheechoo scores 52 goals.

There is a philosophy that a North American style large winger can benefit by playing with teammates that play an east-to-west, lateral style game. Example: Mike Knuble this season with Philadelphia.

There is a philosophy that having the top two offensive lines with different styles, one with a puck possession game and the other a quick-hitting, on the rush style will keep an defense off-balanced. Example: This season’s Boston Bruins.

There are countless hockey philosophies, but the most important aspect when creating and dealing with line combinations is flow. Similar to chemistry, but not the same, flow the part of the game that you notice without noticing.

Chemistry is knowing what the other player is going to do and when they are going to do it… a trust and a complimenting style of play. Flow is the execution of that complimenting style of play. What we are seeing from Bryan Little and Ilya Kovalchuk in the current line situation for the Thrashers is the development of chemistry, but the flow of their games was already intertwined.

Little and Kovalchuk play the game at the same pace and fill lanes, gaps, and patches of ice for each other.

There is no science to making line combinations. It is an art in which the players themselves are self-propelled brushes painting wonderful masterpieces or chaotic confusion. The coach just gives or doesn’t give them the opportunity.

For the Thrashers current lines, I believe that John Anderson is trying to create a balanced, unified attack. The speed that Kovalchuk and Little have is unmatched by any other Thrasher. Todd White may not share the chemistry with those two that Rich Peverley could, but White is holding his own.

Peverley, in turn, has shown pretty good chemistry with any linemates and that has continued with Marty Reasoner and Slava Kozlov. With a not-so-educated guess, I believe that Reasoner is playing second line minutes to be showcased for a potential trade.

The third line has received a speed boost from Colin Stuart and Erik Christensen as Anderson has really placed at least one strong skater on every line. Stuart’s offensive skills are solid and Colby Armstrong is on pace for a 20-goal season. Christensen, despite his struggles, has an offensive mind, but has played slightly better on defense as the third line center than he did on the first or second lines.

The fourth line provides the grit with Boulton and Thorburn. Eric Perrin has played extremely well and skated with purpose over the last 15 games. When Jim Slater is healthy to return, the Thrashers have a very energetic and opportunistic fourth line that is usually defensively sound.

As a whole, with the current success, these lines make a certain amount of sense for Anderson. I think that Reasoner is not long for the top six, despite his good play. Erik Christensen isn’t a prototypical third line center and has struggled to stay in the lineup this season. I don’t think Todd White is a #1 center. It is my opinion that White is better in the number two slot and without Kovalchuk to his left.

Would I do the lines differently? Initially yes, but there is a method to Anderson’s line of thinking and he’s not just flipping lines around, like Bob Hartley, to hope that something sticks. John has a reason for what he’s doing with the forwards and in recent days that has translated to some success on the ice… which we can all appreciate.

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