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Reasons why NHL coaches juggle line combos

The line combos, the line combos…it’s always the same complaint isn’t it? Since the advent of the internet I feel like I read the same complaints about the Rangers year in and year out.

There’s always a stretch of games at some point during the season where either the fans, the bloggers, or the beat writers don’t like what they are seeing and the result is people crying about line combos. It’s as if they know nothing else.

I think it’s about time we explain why coaches actually shuffle lines around.¬†Notice I said coaches and not just John Tortorella. Yes, these are common practices for all coaches.

Here’s 4 lessons that will help you better understand why you are seeing what you are seeing.

Lesson #1 – You Start From Scratch Every Season

It sounds cliche, but it’s true. Every season you start fresh. New players come in, old players get kicked to the curb, and coaches have to take time to figure out how all of these pieces fit the puzzle.

Do we want our third line to be a shutdown checking line, or are those spots going to be reserved for 1st liners in training? How do early season injuries affect our strategy moving forward.

A wise man, with a much cooler job than me one told me, it generally takes 15-20 games or so to figure out what’s working and what needs to be trashed.

Lesson #2 – Play The Hot Hand

There’s an old saying, “if it aint broke, don’t fix it.” Well what about when things are broken, or in hockey terms, when certain members of your roster aren’t producing? Coaches have to tinker with lines, tactics, and roster spots in order to win games.

Nothing is worse than seeing a coach trot out the Redden’s and Rozi’s hoping that they will magically turn back the clocks. You have to replace guys who aren’t playing well. Sometimes it’s for only a few shifts, other times it’s indefinite. You have to play the hot hand.

If Hags and Gabby are flying and Richie isn’t, guess who is getting yanked? Someone has to be able to keep up and maintain momentum.

Lesson #3 – Spreading Defensive Coverage/Matchups

Breaking up Richards and Gabby is far from ideal, as those two should be spending time together to develop chemistry. With that said, opposing coaches aren’t dumb. The drawback of concentrating all of your offense on to a single line will simply cause coaches to assign their best checkers to smother them.

This is why secondary scoring lines need to ya know score. But if they remain flat and the game is close, breaking up your top line here and there is just one of those necessary evils that you must do to spread the coverage.

If your secondary scoring threat is an inconsequential one, then a change has to be made and ultimately it is Tortorella’s job to continually cover up those weaknesses.

Lesson #4 – Special Teams Time On Ice

This lesson can be a bit harder to notice, as sometimes lines are only tweaked for a few shifts. However, if you pay close attention to icetime and matchups, you’ll notice these quick changes happen quite a bit.

Should a player with PK responsibilities (e.g., Boyle, Cally) have to be out for multiple 5-on-4’s, coaches will often mix up their even-strength lines with non-PK’ers, so the guys who just worked a kill can get a breather.

Now, I know you may not agree with these tactics, but they are pretty common tactics at the professional level.¬†Every coach in the NHL tweaks their lines when things aren’t quite right. Renney does it, Boudreau does it, Quenneville does it, Blysma does it, they all do it. And to be honest, every team’s fans complain about it. Till now ;)

***Update: Please refer to Chris In MA’s comments below about learning linemates’ tendencies and in-game bruises. They are both excellent points.

31 Responses to “Reasons why NHL coaches juggle line combos”

  1. Walt says:

    You have to give the guys skateing together some time to develope chemistry, and know what your line mate will do next. I’m not for tinkering, but Torts yanks guys off of lines as fast as hookers turn tricks.

  2. Chris in MA says:

    Bravo, Suit. Someone needed to say this stuff. I always hate seeing people complain about the lines.

    Another thing that causes line tinkering is in-game bumps/bruises. Yes, these guys are warriors, but sometimes they tweak something mid-game that isnt serious and they need to sit a shift or two, and when its that persons turn to get on the ice, the coach needs to either sit the whole line or needs to replace the one guy for that particular shift.

    It also doesnt take game after game after game to figure out your line-mates tendencies.

    Hell, I play pickup twice a week and it rarely takes more than a shift or two to figure out what people are likely to be doing when I have the puck.

  3. Matt J says:

    I know what you mean by you gotta try different lines to see what works but it seems that Torts is using a slot machine to make these lines sometimes. Also, i’m not a believer in taking a guy who’s playing well and puts him on a different line because the other players on the line are struggling. It seems like Torts does that too much.

  4. Mikeyyyy says:

    3 words that blow what you just said away.

    Ryan, Perry, Getzlaf

    This is what happens when you don’t mess around and try to pawn off bad coaching with your lines not clicking. 3 seasons of tinkering. 3 seasons of no line chemistry.

    3 more words for you. Prust, Feds, Boyle. One if our best lines. Got to play together all season. They play great.

    Imagine if the pack line of dubi, cally, and aa got to play an entire season together.

    Instead of switching lines coach the lines together so they get chemistry. Don’t call out players for bad games. Call out a whole line. Bench the whole line. You live and die in team sports by playing with your teammates. It’s not one players fault a goal was scored. It’s the lines fault and should be treated as such

    • The Suit says:

      Two words that make your Ducks go quack.

      Elite players.

      We don’t have an elite left wing to play with Gabby and Richards, which is why you will see a carousel of players in that spot this season.
      The Ducks don’t have that problem. They have 3 legit 35+ goal scorers. We do not.

      Look at the Penguins. How many times have they rotated Crosby and Malkin around? Coach is constantly tinkering with their line-mates.

      • Mikeyyyy says:

        They are elite because they play so well together. Break up that line and u guarantee point oral reductions.

        You get the talent then put them on the ice where they willdo best.

        We are so concerned with covering our weaknesses that we dont exploit our strengths.

        Same story different season.

        Yeah torts got people to stop stepping on the logo. But with our current level of depth on this team can you really say he’s tried everything? wowo was th best lw for that first line and he is playin on the 4th line. Time for torts to swallow his ego and let them play their way.

        The definition of stupidity is doing th sane thing while expecting different results. What they are currently doing is whatever did last year. And it didn’t work. It still doesn’t work an won’t work.

        • Dave says:

          Hold up, are you suggesting that Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey perry are only elite because they play on the same line together?

        • The Suit says:

          Adam Graves and Mark Messier also got people to stop stepping on the logo. It’s about establishing a tradition, something most people who’ve played the game understand.

          But that’s not a shot at you, I know you’ve been reading crap like that elsewhere.

          Anyway. I agree with you that when things aren’t working you need to tinker with things, which is essentially what my entire post is about.

  5. Scully says:

    I think we have to keep in mind we’re playing the next six games at home. Except for the stop over in Long Island this team has been living out of hotel rooms for the past month. The fact that we’ve stolen three wins and have picked up points in 5 of 7 games when considering we’re down 2 of our top 4 d-men is reflective of the best goaltending tandem in the world right now. The next six games will tell a lot. The players get to go back home to their comfort zones (although this team has been notoriously better on the road the past few years) and get in a little more practice time as well as getting away from each other and the coaches for a few hours in order to come back with a renewed focus. I agree, the pack line needs to get it going so Richards and Gaborik can play with more defensive freedom. I also agree that Torts does seemingly have a habit of juggling lines too much, but we don’t know what he is saying and doing behind closed doors so being that it’s 7 (SEVEN!!!) games into the season i’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt a little while longer.

    On a side note I hear that Michael Sauer could be back as soon as tomorrow night, but haven’t heard any word on the progress (or lack of) from Marc Staal in the past few weeks. Any updates?

    • Dave says:

      I agree with you. The fact that the Rangers came away with six points out of eight on that road trip is amazing. They haven’t played a home game yet and they have ten points in the bank. That’s a solid trip, and they did it all without Staal and Sauer.

      • Scully says:

        They actually have 8 points, but same difference basically this point in the year.

  6. JB says:

    common no need to get patronizing… this is what keeps these blogs alive. how boring would these blogs be if we all just say: no we have to wait another 20 games to have an opinion on that… im not happy with our offensive play so far and it runs deeper than switching between step and wolski on the 1st line. these line changes are, to me, an at times desperate attempt for a quick fix to a bigger problem. its not about who well get the honor to play with the two, its as you say, concentrating all the offense on that line. when the dubi-ani-cally line is flat we have to have another option. i would wanna change up whole lines and those lines role for the team all together. theyve done a great job creating the teams hard working mentality and stacking the system… now its time to finesse the hockey. if not im afraid that 6th/7th place is all we can hope for

    • Dave says:

      There’s a difference between recommending what you think are good lines, and bashing the coach for constant tinkering. This is directed at the latter. People are looking to blame anyone for anything, instead of just sitting back and enjoying the ride. We don’t like irrational negativity.

      Rational negativity: the way ticketing was handled by the organization this year.

      Irrational negativity: Tortorella demoted Avery. HATE HATE HATE HATE!

  7. Leatherneckinlv says:

    1st line should stay and so should Boyle’s line. Where the mix and match may work is 2nd line. Would it be plausible to insert Newbury in between Dubi and Cally for a few games? or maybe insert Wolski in with AA and Cally. Honestly though thi would not be talked about had the Pack line chipping in their share of offense. I think you leave them be as is and give them a lecture about demotions and splitting up of the line as a consequence should they not produce. There are 2 spots open for competition for the players on the Whale, Christensen and Wolski could lose their spots and say Hegelin or Bourque are brought up then that would potentially give a much better option of switching players around.
    I never expected the Rangers to win the Cup this year and one of my fears of signing Richards is starting to come true in the form of trades to fix the team. I would support a trade such as say Zuccarello, Valatenko and 2nd to Toronto for Tyler Biggs and a 2nd from Toronto over a Anisimov, Del Zotto, Zuccarello Kunderatek and a 1st for a Statsny or a Suter and another player.
    We have to remember the big picture that our Cup run starts when Krieder, McIlrath, Thomas, Miller and Bourque make the team, some will as soon as next year but hopefully all in 2 years. So realistically our cup runs are in 2 to 4 years, that in my opinion is our window.

  8. ArtyFan says:

    Hello Arty? You trying to tell Arty is the reason that his former linemates AKA Dubi 4ml+ and AKA Cally 4ml+ don’t play the game? Arty came to the camp as strong as never with so much confidence. He tried to feed those two who couldn’t score and after all ‘HELLO Arty’? Yes, I want to trade Arty if he is a big reason that two overrated Dubi and Cally don’t play the effing game as supposed to do.

    • Dave says:

      I’m really not following your point here.

      • Leatherneckinlv says:

        No I am not saying Arty is the reason that the pack line has not been chipping in offense, however I am saying due to results that is the only line that could use tinkering but I also said leave that line be as well. With the current roster it makes no sense to switch things up. Had the pack line been putting up numbers on the board this discussion would not have happened. The only line truly struggling is the Pack line. Is it AA?…no it is all of them as a unit. Still too early to panic over that line as I feel they will get their s**t together and start to produce consistently. One other view might be that the team is trying to compensate for the loss of Sauer and Staal and instead playing a more tentative and defensive first mindset, if that is so I think it is a mistake to approach a game with that philosophy. Sauer is returning soon so let’s see how that will effect the Rangers play.

  9. JB says:

    hehe you two are cute together… now, i like a little tinkering as much as the next guy, and both you and chris make excellent points as to why we all need a little tinker. but can we have a lesson 3b- cover up your weakness/overall lack of offense by tinkering, dump the puck, close your eyes and hope for magic?

    • Dave says:

      I think we established that this team is still one more scoring forward and a legitimate bottom pairing away from being a contender.

      • Leatherneckinlv says:

        We are still a few years away from being contenders. We stll have 2 spots on D that need to be filled in with McIlrath and Erixon or Del Zotto as the full time 3rd pair, additions of Bourque on to Boyle’s line, Krieder, Thomas and Miller finding homes on lines with the Rangers. 2 more years before we can say we are contenders

  10. Spozo says:

    C’mon Suit, this is such an easy way to bash Tortz.
    Tortz hater: “He tinkers lines so much, these players can’t get any flow going”.
    Supporter: “It’s halfway through the third period and its 0-0 thanks to Hanks godly play in net. The team has produced squat offensively and is being outshot 9082485-12. It obviously hasn’t been working so he needs to try something to get some production out of this team and try to win this game.”
    Hater: “Well it is the coach’s fault that they aren’t playing well and came out flat”.

  11. wwpd says:

    Pack line. so what they haven’t played enough games together last year and this year to have chemistry by now? how long can you keep a line together hoping it recaptures its magic.

  12. bob says:

    Obviously this is the time of the year for tinkering with the lines.Because Torts has in the past tinkerred a little too much,people will whine.I particularly don’t like alot of things about Torts but it would be a step back to get rid of him now.They got him players he wanted now we have to give him a chance to succeed.If we don’t see a better result than last year,he should be gone.My personal goal is to at least make it to the second round.Anything less,barring significant injuries,is failure which I hold Torts accountable.I was talking to my 10 year old about Torts,and it is very easy to come up with faults,its alot harder to come up with positives.Maybe you guys could come up with an article regarding Torts,pros and cons.Should be some interesting feedback.I dont particularly care for the answer I keep hearing [well who do we replace Torts with,tell me].The average fan does not have that much access to really answer that question.But I am sure there are better coaches and worse coaches out there.But like I said,I dont want him canned yet.

  13. bob says:

    I do start to wonder if Torts is a problem because sometimes we look like we can play with the best of them ie.third period vancouver then we stink against a bottem team.Every team has stinkers now and then or get on a roll.But the Rangers are consistently inconsistent.Would most people hold the coach accountable?Is it not the job of the coach to get the most out of his players?We can no longer say this is the team he inhereted,It is basically his team.So he cant really blame the players.Can we all agree that it is the coaches responsibility with the level of play on a nightly basis.The excuse that we dont have the talent can only go so far after we play third periods like in vancouver,I believe it is the coaches responsibility.Why is New England Patriots always good,Bellichek gets the most out of his players.Everybody familiar with Bellichek will tell you the same thing.So I can understand how some people want Torts gone.But I say give him to the end of the year.I think we will know by then if Torts is the problem.