By Jeff Schmidt
As training camps are winding down and the regular season is about to begin, opening night lineups are starting to take shape. This is one of the biggest decisions a team can make as it sets the tone for the entire season. Your players are fresh and rested from the off-season, you probably have fewer injuries to deal with, and you’ve just had several weeks to evaluate your young prospects to see how they fit in with the club as a whole.
Suffice it to say, you can look a team’s opening night lineup and see a lot about what that team’s identity will be that season. Are they loading up the top line or spreading their offense through the lineup? Will their fourth line be given tough defensive minutes, or as few minutes as possible and just trying to keep their heads about water? Shutdown third line or exploitation third line?
But is there more to it than that? Can we really predict how effective a line up will be before the puck drops? How do you build an effective line up anyway?
The best place to start when thinking about what makes an effective lineup is to look at what tasks each line is going to have to accomplish, shift-by-shift, in order to successfully outscore the opposition. A quick list might look like:
- Prevent scoring chances
- Retrieve loose pucks in the defensive zone
- Exit the defensive zone with control
- Enter the offensive zone with control
- Forecheck to receive dumped/loose pucks
- Pass the puck into dangerous areas
- Convert scoring chances
- Capitalize on rebounds
Now, unless you’re Team Canada, it’s unlikely that you are going to be able to ice four forward lines that are equally excellent in all of these areas. There simply aren’t enough complete players out there who are above average in all skill sets. So the goal is to create lines that have a balance of these skill sets across all three available players so that no particular weaknesses are evident and the line will have a chance of success no matter who they face.
This theory seems to bear out in the evidence. A lot of people have spent some time thinking about the concept of offensive line balance after watching the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Stanley Cup run in 2015, where they separated their top three offensive players Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel on three separate lines. This made it nearly impossible for other teams to line match in such a way as to put their best shut down players out against all three dynamic goal scorers.
Dawson Sprigings looked at this for his presentation at the RIT Hockey Analytics Conference this summer and came to the same conclusion (see here for a wonderful summary of the presentations by Ryan Wilson). There is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to stacking your lines with your best players as opposed to spreading them out. Obviously, this is something that needs to be researched more thoroughly before it can be declared a law, but let’s move forward with this assumption and see where it takes us.
2015-16 Montreal Canadiens
Last season the Montreal Canadiens got off to the hottest start in the NHL, winning their first 9 games and holding onto the top record in the NHL through the first two months of the season. Judging by how badly they then collapsed after the injury to Carey Price, there is some merit to the argument that the lineup was propped up by the world’s greatest goaltender. But, there was a lot to like about that opening night roster. It just may not have been used as well as it could have been.
Max Pacioretty – Tomas Plekanec – Brendan Gallagher
This is an extremely well balanced top line on any NHL team, despite all three players having disparaging narratives surrounding them. Max Pacioretty is a big man who doesn’t play a big man’s game. Everyone expected him to be Rick Nash, and he turned out to be Marian Hossa.
Tomas Plekanec is a victim of his own defensive prowess. Everyone wonders why his regular season production never seems to follow him to the post-season, without understanding that he spends every game of every playoff round shadowing players like Steven Stamkos, Patrice Bergeron, and Rick Nash.
Brendan Gallagher has turned a lot of heads with his never-say-die play style and ability to drive opposing goaltenders crazy. Yet, despite his success, his size will always be a detriment in the eyes of many.
Despite all those narratives, there is not a single area where this trio fails to excel. Brendan Gallagher is an elite puck retriever, creates a ton of scoring chances, and sends a lot of crisp passes into the slot. Tomas Plekanec can shut down anyone in the league when on his game, carries the puck across both blue lines and can score goals from nearly impossible angles. Max Pacioretty is one of the best pure shooters in the NHL, on top of having superb defensive positioning and fantastic top speed.
Tomas Fleischmann – David Desharnais – Dale Weise
This is the oddball line. Despite any logical argument that any line centred by Alex Galchenyuk SHOULD be at least the second line, ice time was severely skewed towards this trio. And while this is not exactly a line of all-stars, there is a reason why it was effective, at least in the short term. All three players had significant weaknesses in their games, but they complemented one another just enough to make those weaknesses a lot less glaring.
Dale Weise, for all his defensive lapses, his tendency to dump the puck in with no provocation and his lack of commitment to defensive zone breakouts, was surprisingly effective in the offensive zone. He was a very good forechecker, an underrated passer, and used his quick release to good effect in scoring areas.
David Desharnais is not a strong transition player, doesn’t shoot nearly often enough and fails to engage in the defensive zone in any meaningful way. But he’s still the best pure passer on the Habs and if someone can get him the puck in the offensive zone, he can set up scoring chances at a very good clip.
Tomas Fleischmann may have lost a step when it comes to skating speed, but he was still an agile skater who committed to moving the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive zone with control. He was the key to transition for this line and was the only truly defensively responsible member of the trio.
The margin for error on this line was fairly low, with usually only one member capable of completing any particular play. This made them quite predictable and their production dropped dramatically after the first month of the season when opposing teams realized how one-dimensional they were. But no one can doubt their effectiveness during that time, even if they got far more ice time than was warranted.
Lars Eller – Alex Galchenyuk – Alex Semin
This is probably the most divisive line the Canadiens iced last year in terms of ‘stats people’ vs. ‘eye-test people’. The stats people will point out that this was actually the most successful possession line the Habs iced all season, even in limited minutes, and that they created far more scoring chances than they gave up. The eye-test people will point out that Semin often ‘floated’ in all three zones and didn’t seem particularly engaged.
Obviously, Michel Therrien and Marc Bergevin agreed with the eye-test assessment, and Semin was told to pack his bags not long into the season. But there is a reason why that was such a big mistake, and why no other right winger was able to bring this line back up to what it was able to produce with Semin on it.
Lars Eller is a premiere shutdown player and took the bulk of the defensive duties for the line. He’s also a fantastic transition player, a great forechecker, and has a deceptively good shot. Alex Galchenyuk can really dazzle with his puck control abilities, is a natural goal scorer, and always finds his way into the slot. The problem is that neither one of them is an excellent passer (despite the hope that Galchenyuk will become one, he’s still a shoot-first player). Enter: Alex Semin.
Injuries robbed Semin of his once impressive shooting skills, but he made a wonderful transition into a playmaker. He was the only player on that line to consistently get passes into dangerous areas, and his ‘floating’ was often due to his keen observation and anticipation of the play. If this line was given more ice time, and if everyone accepted Semin for the player he became instead of the player he once was, this could have been a very successful trio for the Canadiens.
Brian Flynn – Torrey Mitchell – Devante Smith-Pelly
Not much needs to be said here. Because of the distribution of skill in the NHL, it’s unlikely you can achieve the same type of balance of skill sets on a fourth line that you can in the rest of the lineup. However, you still need strong defensive positioning, puck retrieval, transitioning and forechecking, and this line had all of that in spades.
Mitchell is a high-end fourth liner in all of those areas and even pitched in a few goals last year. Flynn is very fast, very dependable, and is tenacious on the forecheck. Smith-Pelly added a small bit of scoring touch in exchange for being the least defensively responsible player on the line.
Overall, this line-up was well balanced, and their play shows that it wasn’t just Carey Price that won them so many games in the first two months of the season. The problems started creeping in when a) the wrong players were given too much ice time, b) injuries crept into the lineup, c) Semin was dismissed despite his performance, and d) the coaching staff panicked.
Montreal used 25 different forwards last year and more line combinations than I’d care to count. The thought of balance went out the window as desperation set in. With a little bit of luck and better coaching, all of this could have been avoided.
2016-17 Montreal Canadiens
Putting all of the failure and drama of the last year behind us, what can we look forward to from the Montreal Canadiens this year? As training camp comes to a close, it looks like we have a fairly strong indication of what the opening night lineup will look like. And, surprisingly, it looks a lot like what some very smart people have been clamouring for since camp began. But is it the best they can do?
Max Pacioretty – Alex Galchenyuk – Brendan Gallagher
You can’t fault a coaching staff for sticking with what works, and this line worked wonders last year – albeit after the playoffs were already out of reach. Replacing Tomas Plekanec with Alex Galchenyuk added a dynamic offensive flare to the line that it had previously lacked, but made it a little more vulnerable defensively. Is this a good trade-off? Perhaps.
Pacioretty is still the second best defensive forward on the team, and Gallagher is no slouch. They offer good protection for Galchenyuk as he shores up his defensive game. I might have argued before camp that it is stacking too much of the team’s offensive power on one line – that is, until we saw some of the team’s new additions at training camp hit their stride.
Artturi Lehkonen – Tomas Plekanec – Alex Radulov
This line was the biggest question mark coming into camp. We know exactly what Tomas Plekanec will give game-in-game-out but what about the other two players? Neither had recent NHL experience to draw upon and while they both had exceptional seasons overseas, a lot of people don’t trust that kind of performance to carry over to the NHL.
Thankfully, both players have left no doubt about the kind of skill they bring to the table. Lehkonen, despite his slight frame, is nearly as active around the net as Gallagher, and may even be better at finding open ice in the offensive zone. He also spent most of last season taking primary penalty killing and defensive duties for Frolunda of the SHL, so he won’t be a liability on defense either. Alex Radulov may have had the most impressive camp of any forward on the team, despite only playing a couple of games. He was active in all three zones, made creative passes and controlled the puck with ease.
This is another perfectly balanced line. Able to be equally successful taking defensive zone face-offs late in games, or applying pressure when down a goal.
Daniel Carr – David Desharnais – Andrew Shaw
This line will probably be the most contentious for many fans to start the year. David Desharnais has more than his fair share of detractors. For all his vaunted passing ability, the other aspects of his game leave something to be desired, and he truly needs capable linemates to carry him defensively and in transition. There is a very vocal minority of fans that want the 6’6” behemoth Michael McCarron take the third line centre position from him, on the basis of a very inspiring training camp.
Regardless, it is more likely that Desharnais starts the season in this spot (the real question will be who will END the season there). And with a supporting cast of Daniel Carr and Andrew Shaw, there is no reason why this line can’t be successful in a sheltered role. Shaw will be called upon to shoulder the defensive responsibilities here, which he is more than capable of doing, as long as he stays disciplined. Shaw also brings a strong transition game to the line, something that Carr is developing, but hasn’t quite mastered yet at NHL speed.
What the surprising Carr brings to the table is finish. The undrafted underdog has scored goals at every level and was on pace for 21 goals last season before being sidelined with an injury. He was still an underdog to make the team at camp this year, simply due to his ineligibility for waivers, but with two magnificent late game goals and overall determined play, it looks like he’s earned his spot. He will always put himself in a position to cash in on a rebound, or receive a pass in a dangerous spot. It’s been a very long time since the Habs had someone with his finishing ability on the third line, and therefore scoring balance throughout the whole lineup.
Phillip Danault – Torrey Mitchell – Paul Byron
It is hard to think of a better constructed fourth line than what the Canadiens will be icing this year. Danault and Mitchell are both excellent positionally and in the faceoff circle, giving the line multiple looks depending on what side of the ice the faceoff is on. All three players forecheck aggressively, and Byron may be the fastest skater on the team. Obviously, with fourth line minutes, you can’t expect a ton of offense from them. But if training camp is any indication they will be chipping in more than their fair share of goals over the course of the season.
This is a lineup that will be difficult for opposing teams to game-plan against. No line has any particular weaknesses to exploit, and all can be effective in any zone. This fits with Michel Therrien’s expressed preference for ‘rolling all four lines’ and not giving much thought to line matching with the opposition.
And it offers a lot of room for experimentation, without handcuffing one line to help another. Do you want to drop Gallagher or Radulov onto the third line for a game to get their offense sparked? Andrew Shaw has done quite a bit of playing up in the lineup, and he’s never been an anchor there. Do you really want to load up on defensive specialists for an important late game faceoff? Switch Galchenyuk and Plekanec for a shift. Down by one with a minute left? Maybe you send out Radulov instead of Gallagher.
What if the injury bug hits again? You have very capable players waiting in the wings for any situation. Need some added offense to replace someone in the top six? Sven Andrighetto has proven he can do the job. Need another centre in the bottom six? McCarron is ready to jump in. A fill in on the fourth line? Brian Flynn can play all three forward positions.
There are lots of reasons to be optimistic about what this lineup is capable of achieving this year. It may not have the firepower of the Penguins, the structure of the Blackhawks, or the grit of the Sharks, but they are as balanced as any lineup in the league, top to bottom. And that balance will be what allows them to win hockey games week after week.