May 28, 2011

Forming lines a tricky combination

By Lyle Phair

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

One of the biggest challenges for youth hockey coaches — and one of the most frequent sources of heartburn for parents — is the formation of lines.

Who plays what position? Who plays with whom? Whose line plays more? Which players play in certain situations?

If it sounds a little like an Abbott and Costello routine, that probably fits. It can be all of that at times.

Obviously, there are a lot of different variations of line setups and a number of different reasons that lines get formed in certain ways. The number of players on a team is an issue, as is the positions that the players are capable of playing. The skill level of the individual players is also a factor.

The great thing about the game is that if you pay attention to it, over the course of time it is pretty easy to see where players fit and don’t fit. But in saying that, I also know there are many parents who will never be able to properly assess the abilities of their child or the other players on the team.

So how exactly do lines get formed? What is the magical formula that coaches employ in coming up with the right combinations?

In most cases, teams will have three lines and at least five defensemen, typically six. It is virtually impossible to play the game with any pace or tempo with only two lines. The players tire much too quickly. There are players that can go out every second shift, but without adequate rest, they can’t play to the level that they are capable of. When coaches insist on playing players when they are tired, they essentially are creating players that become slow and lazy. They can’t make decisions or execute plays at high speed. They move slowly and develop lazy playing habits.

But sometimes that can’t be helped. Sometimes teams have only 10 skaters and have to go with two lines. While it is not an ideal situation, sometimes you have to work with what you have.

Once you get to 11 or 12 skaters, it is pretty easy to utilize four defensemen and seven or eight forwards. It is much easier for defensemen to go out every second shift as typically the demands of the position can be a little less than that of what the forwards are doing.

When playing defense, you play your position and the play essentially comes to you. When playing forward, you are the group that pushes the pace of the play. Smart defensemen can easily and efficiently play at least half of the game. That is a lot tougher to do effectively as a forward.

Coaches really need to get to know their players to form effective lines and have a really good understanding of what players are capable (and just as importantly not yet capable) of doing. Chemistry among linemates doesn’t typically happen out of dumb luck, although sometimes it does.

Coaches make conscious decisions to put together a line consisting of a playmaking center capable of getting the puck to a winger with a good shot and a knack for getting open along with another winger who might be strong along the boards and in the corners. Sometimes coaches will put together three hard workers who might not be that offensively gifted, yet can forecheck like the dickens and be disruptive in the offensive zone.

Some coaches like to operate in more of a pair format where they take two players who always seem to work well together and change up the third player from time to time to stir things up or to try something different. Throughout the course of the season, good coaches will try pretty much everybody with everybody to see what works and what doesn’t work. It is never healthy to play with the same linemates for the whole season.

While it is true that some players seem to play much better with certain players than they do with others, over time players tend to get a little stale playing together, and the excitement of a new line can create some energy that might otherwise be lacking.

One other consideration for coaches is what to do with those players who seem to have the knack of making the players that they play with better. Some players can do that, but most can’t. When a player might be struggling a little and has a low confidence level, it can be a real boost to put them with a creative player who can get them the puck and involved in the game again.

One of the biggest challenges for youth coaches is the variance in skill level between teammates. While you want to give your team and each individual player the opportunity to succeed, you have to be careful in how the lines are put together. It can be very difficult for a weaker player to play on the same line with two of the top players on the team, no matter how team-oriented those players might be. Sometimes it is better to put the three forwards lowest on the depth chart together on a line because they will feel more comfortable together. When you feel good, you tend to play well.

Forming defensive pairings also takes a little thought, but with only two players it is a little less complex than with three forwards. Most times coaches will put a good puck-mover or offensive-oriented defenseman with a solid stay-at-home defender for balance. Playing defense is all about positioning, reading and reacting, and some players just tend to really click together to work in unison.

Good coaches will ultimately take their cues from their players as to how their lines are formed. Every player deserves an opportunity to play with every other player on the team and in all situations. You never know what someone is capable of until given a chance.

Lyle Phair can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com