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.