About half way through last year’s WHL campaign, Thunderbirds head coach Steve Konowalchuk matched up Mathew Barzal, Justin Hickman and Ryan Gropp on a line together. Almost immediately the trio meshed and became Seattle’s top offensive line down the stretch.
Those three didn’t start the season playing together as the T-Birds experimented during the start of the season, looking for the best forward lines they could deploy.
What goes into forming forward lines in hockey? Is it random? Do coaches throw darts at the roster, hoping it will work?
At first glance it might seem like every team wants to find two scoring lines, a shut-down line and a physical fourth line. Konowalchuk believes it isn’t quite that simple.
“I think every team evolves to what kind of lines they have,” he said. “You try to put your three best guys on a top line, and then your next three best and your next three best and your next three best. I think depending on how it evolves, it kind of shapes up itself.”
With Seattle opening training camp next week, the time to start thinking about lines is here. Konowalchuk and his staff will look at the roster, look at each player’s skill set and then try to match them up together. Skill and chemistry seem to be keys that most coaches will consider when setting their lines up.
“You want to get as much skill as possible together,” Konowalchuk said. “Sometimes that doesn’t work and you have to mix it up, but I think that’s where you start. Who has the most skill? Let’s put them together and see if they have some good chemistry. Then you start identifying individual skill sets. Is this guy a passer? Is this guy a shooter?”
Konowalchuk pointed to a player like Roberts Lipsbergs, who spent the past two seasons with Seattle. Lipsbergs possessed a terrific shot but was not a guy who could create on his own so the T-Birds had to get him on a line with playmakers who could get him the puck in good shooting areas.
Seattle was able to do that successfully as Lipsbergs notched 63 goals in his two seasons with the T-Birds.
Konowalchuk also talks about the potential need for a gritty player to play on a line with skill players. This is something that Seattle saw with Hickman joining the highly-skilled Barzal and Gropp. Both in their rookie seasons, Hickman gave Seattle room with his veteran, physical play.
“If your skill guys aren’t forechecking hard enough and can’t win battles then you need someone who can go dig the puck out for them and get in front of the net,” Konowalchuk said. “Then you’ll have a gritty guy and a couple of skill guys on a line.”
Depth of lines is also important but Konowalchuk points out that if the top skill line is good enough to dominate than you won’t worry about putting them together. He referred to the 2011-2012 Tri City Americans who rode their top line of Brendan Shinnimin, Adam Hughesman and Patrick Holland all year. That worked as all three guys hit the 100-point mark and Tri City was the top seed in the West.
Are four lines better?
A lot of coaches talk about the importance of being able to roll four lines. There are many benefits to having four solid lines that can all produce. It gives coaches more flexibility in match ups, can keep your players fresh while wearing down the opponent.
“If you can’t roll four lines, you better have a top line that dominates the game and that’s tough to get,” Konowalchuk said. “Most cases you need to be able to roll four lines. But let’s say it’s Barzal’s line that steps up and they can really take it to another level this year, there might be times I’m not going to roll four lines if they become that dynamic. You want your best players on the ice as much as possible.”
In a perfect world, all four lines will come to play and produce each and every night. You don’t have to watch much hockey, or sports in general, to know that this doesn’t happen. You will see coaches juggle lines within a game, from game to game or even over a several-game span.
So, when does a coach need to make a change?
“I guess it depends on how bad it is,” Konowalchuk said. “A couple times you could flat out see that a kid’s not ready to play that night. You give him a couple of shifts and think you can’t keep playing him … something like that it’s a quick change to try and reward other guys and the guys who aren’t playing well, sit them down and give them a wakeup call.”
Demoting an individual player is one reason to juggle lines, but sometimes it depends on how the game is going in general.
“There are some games where you aren’t generating as much as you want and maybe you’re down a goal in the third period,” Konowalchuk said about line juggling. “Your team is maybe just a little flat offensively so you might just try a couple of different things to freshen it up, give the other team a different look and generate a spark. You just kind of hope that you can create a little bit of magic when you don’t have all your jump or are just not playing well.”
When that lack of jump or production carries over for a couple of games, Konowlachuk believes you can then break the line up for a few games. Separate them and hope that when you reunite them in a game or two, they are able to recapture their jump and chemistry. He also says that when you have a line comprised of top skill guys like a Gropp or Barzal that you want to stay together, you might show a little more patience.
“A line like that, I’ll have a little more patience with,” he said. “It’s a longer-term picture, give it time to work … If these two guys are playing well together, it’s your best chance to win so you’re going to give them more time to work through it.”
What will Seattle’s lines look like this year?
It’s too early to tell. For starters, there is still a great deal of unknown with the roster. A lot of the decisions Konowalchuk will make with his lines will have to wait until he has a better idea of which players he has on his team. If you plan on attending training camp or the exhibition games, you might get a peek into what he’s thinking as the games play a big role in finding lines that work.
“You see a lot in the games and exhibition is very good for that,” Konowalchuk said about the coming month. “You can try some different lines, see what works together and what doesn’t work. I take the exhibition seriously because of that. It’s a little bit frustrating at this level because that first tournament is the only tournament that everybody has their whole team together.”
With NHL camps opening some time after Seattle plays in the Everett Holiday Tournament on Labor Day weekend, Konowalchuk will have a chance to see what his lines look like with a pretty complete roster. Those three games could say a lot about who plays with who this season.
He’s looking forward to seeing how it shakes out.
“If Hickman is back I think he’ll start with Barzal and Gropp,” he said. “From there you don’t know, we don’t know how the imports will fit in. From all accounts they should be pretty good players but they are young, they’re 17 … then we’ve got Kolesar and Pederson, who could step up. We have a lot of young players and there will be a lot of competition for lines this year. Who ever put the work in during the summer will have the advantage and take a bigger role.”
The training camp scrimmages are also helpful.
In an attempt to make camp as competitive as possible, the T-Birds will look carefully at who they match up during intra-squad scrimmages. Don’t be surprised if the Barzal line has to deal with the pesky Eansor line during those games. That kind of competitive atmosphere will not only help the coaching staff determine their forward lines, but it will also prepare those lines for the upcoming season.
However it shakes out to start the season, lines are always a fluid proposition. Coaches like Konowalchuk, will continue to look for the right combination as the season wears on, hoping to find the right mix in time to make a deep playoff run.
What would you like to see the T-Birds’ lines look like?