Five Tips on Putting Together your Lines
There are always things that stick with you from conversations or presentations. Things that just resonate and you never really forget them. One of those things for me was at the Roger Neilson Coach’s Clinic way back in the summer of 1988. Former NHL and current KHL coach Mike Keenan was presenting on game preparation and at one point said that “the most important job a coach has is to get the right players on the ice at the right time”. Part of that to me is to have the right line combinations and defence pairings, and then to make sure you have a game plan as to how you are going to utilize those groupings in a game situation.
Personally, I like to try to keep my lines together for extended periods of the season. Players tend to read way too much into line groupings and often, it can be a real distraction when coaches are switching the lines around on a regular basis. Once I have my lines together at the beginning of the year, unless unforeseen things happen such as injuries, I will try to stick with them for a good chunk of the season. Also, when I am missing a player for a game, I try not to move everyone around from line to line to fill the hole. One move creates less disruption.
There are a lot of variables with respect to putting lines together. The depth of your team is probably the most important factor. In other words, how much of a gap there is from your top players to your bottom players. In a perfect world, your players would all be terrific and quite even in skill level and speed. Unfortunately, that’s not the case on most teams. So, for the most part, you have two general choices: put all your top players on one or two lines, or spread your top players out throughout your lineup.
There is merit to both ways. As players get older and hockey gets more elite and competitive, the gap from top to bottom tends to start getting wider. Teams will certainly have their more offensively gifted players and those who are more grinder/hard-working players. In order to generate more offence, it is almost a necessity to play the strongest players together. In minor hockey, when most players are on a team of similarly skilled athletes, it is easier to “even up” the lines and not have to worry about what line is going on the ice at any given time.
Here are 5 tips on putting your lines together:
1) Unless a player has very strong puck handling skills, it is best to keep wingers on their correct wings (left shots on left wing, right shots on right wing). There is more of a philosophy in hockey today to keep the puck on the forehand as much as possible, and forcing players to play the puck more on their backhand puts more pressure on that player.
2) Your centers should be your most skilled and your best two way players. These are the players that should be comfortable handling the puck on both sides of their stick and playing solidly one on one in the defensive zone. Centers should also be highly coachable and smart players.
3) Try to have special team lines (especially power play) playing together on the same regular strength line. This prevents the situation where one player of a power play line combination has been on the ice when the penalty is called and then is too tired to stay on with their power play unit.
4) Keep in mind that your centers will want to pass to the winger that is on their forehand. In other words, if you have a left shooting center they will tend to pass to the right winger much more often than the left winger on rushes down the ice. So, you might want to match your left shooting centers with your stronger right wingers and vice versa.
5) Although it’s not always possible, try to keep left shooting defencemen on the left side and the right shooting defencemen on the right. This helps in two critical situations: defencemen to defencemen passes (particularly in the neutral zone) and keeping the puck in the offensive zone on the boards (sticks will be on the near boards side). This can also be important on the power play where not switching sides might be beneficial when the puck comes up the boards.
Of course, there are a lot of intangibles with respect to line combinations. Some players just play better with certain players, sometimes there are personal issues that need to be factored in and some players just like playing together. At the beginning of the season, make a plan and stick to it. There is great merit in letting line combinations develop playing together and develop a sense of identity.