Taking The Morality Out Of Line Construction

I got two turntables and a microphone. Wait, no, that’s not right. I got three scoring lines and a checking line. That’s more like it.

Yes, I’m being a bit silly, but there is an important point to make by doing this. If you are going to be a good deejay, you need your turntables and your microphone to be in good working order. Each is as important as the other to accomplish your goal. Hockey is no different when it comes to the lines put on the ice. For much of hockey’s history, teams have really had two scoring lines, a checking line, and a line of, well, scrubs, to be honest. Not every team every season, but a lot of teams.

The Blackhawks are not those other teams. They have not been those other teams for a little while now and we need to catch up to the times. Yes, Chicago had Brandon Bollig last season and Dan Carcillo this season so many will think I am full of hot air on this topic, but it really is true. When you look at the possession stats those players have put up with Chicago and their penalty minutes, you will realize they have not been used as typical enforcers. Despite having a player or two on the roster that seem to fit the enforcer or grinder role, the Blackhawks roster is built to cast aside the old notions of the way hockey teams are constructed. Due to this change in the way the team is made, we need to change the way we look at the forward lines.

Hockey fans and most teams for that matter still cling tightly to the first, second, third and fourth line nomenclature and the idea of what each of those labels means. Traditionally, the first line was reserved for the best scorers with the most capable two-way center. The second line was for good scorers but not necessarily the best. The third line was the checking line. It was used to match up against the other team’s stars when possible as a shutdown option or just to go out and hit people a lot. Scoring was not typically something people really expected from the checking line. The fourth line was the leftovers from the roster. This is often where the fighters or enforcers were stashed. This line got the least amount of ice time and was usually a defensive liability with little scoring ability.
Many teams throughout the NHL still use these traditional lines; however, the successful teams have moved past this. Chicago is one of the teams that have revamped the way they structure their lines to minimize inefficiency and optimize the strengths of the team. Sometimes, the lines must be changed a bit to try to find the best way to accomplish this goal.

Coming into training camp this summer, Brad Richards was thought to be the new second line center. Chicago’s search for a consistent pivot to play with Patrick Kane is the stuff of lore at this point. After a brief preseason experiment, that idea was scrapped and Andrew Shaw reclaimed the center spot on Kane’s line. Many viewed this as Richards being demoted to the third line. This move was even characterized by some in hockey as a huge mistake, because the third line is a checking line and Richards isn’t defensively astute enough to fill that role. This just shows how much some hockey analysts, writers and fans cling to the old notions of line construction and how little they actually follow the way Chicago uses their lines.

Recently, Patrick Sharp was moved to the Richards’ line and again, people bemoaned this move as a demotion for Sharp. They complained that Bryan Bickell had done nothing to deserve being moved to the top line with Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews. All of this further cements the reality that people are so attached to the traditional labels that they fail to understand how hockey is changing. We have mountains of data, video review, predictive modeling and so much more that allows teams to pick apart their lineups to put together the best options.

You can complain all you would like about Bickell’s regular season goal production and clamor to trade him; however, if he is on the roster, it is the coaching staff’s responsibility to use him in a way that will get the most out of him. It’s not the coaching staff’s duty to worry about whether the public perceives him as a player that can put up great numbers regardless of whom his center is, it’s their duty to put him with a center who will help him put up great numbers.

If Sharp is able to continue scoring at a high rate with Richards as his center and Bickell scores more with Toews as his center, this is what should be done. The goal is to achieve team success. Bickell is a good possession player with a big body and a big shot who puts up much better numbers when he’s on the top line and getting more ice time. He is also prone to neutral zone turnovers right after the team has exited the defensive zone. That weakness can be alleviated by playing him with two of the best defensive forwards in the league, who also happen to be neutral zone wizards. The less Bickell has to be the one moving the puck through the neutral zone, the less he is likely to struggle with turnovers and the more he is able to use his strengths in the offensive zone to deliver on scoring production the team wants from him.

The general sentiment is often morally driven in these situations. Fans see Bickell or another player struggle to be an independent playmaker when on a line with a bit less skilled players and feel he doesn’t deserve to get a shot on the top line. A spot on a particular line is not a reward or a punishment on a team as deep as the Blackhawks.
If hockey teams construct their lines based upon morality, they are probably pretty terrible hockey teams. Line construction is not about who deserves a promotion or demotion, it is about putting together combinations of players that will optimize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

Chicago’s aim is to have three scoring lines and one checking line. Marcus Kruger has worn the cloak of checking line center for a few seasons now and has absolutely thrived in terms of possession and shot suppression despite facing the top scoring lines of opposing teams on a regular basis. On a traditionally named roster, he would be the third line center. In Chicago, he’s the fourth line center because the Blackhawks have essentially eliminated the traditional fourth line from their system. If we were basing our terminology for Chicago’s lines in the traditional hockey sense, Chicago’s fourth line would currently consist of Patrick Sharp, Brad Richards and Kris Versteeg. There are not many people in and around hockey who are comfortable calling Patrick Sharp a fourth liner because of the stigma that label carries with it.

Chicago’s depth of talent allows for far more options to maximize the production of all of their offensive players. The team has passed by many others in terms of the sophistication of player usage and deployment. It is time for the rest of us to follow suit, cast aside our antiquated notions about line construction and embrace a more modern theory.

  • Chesterfield King

    lately they’ve been taking the Morin-ity out of the lineup construction


  • FattyBeef

    While I agree that Kooga takes a disproportionate amount of the D zone draws Id hardly call them the shutdown line. If memory serves, Toews, Hossa and Sharp typically played against the highest quality of competition and the whole 4th line as a shut down line is largely a myth.

    I’m way to lazy to look up the actual numbers right now but I am fairly confident with that statement but will gladly accept being wrong if that is the case.

    Speaking of, a line deployment (or player or whatever) analysis around 15-20 games would probably be a cool thing to do. Compare trend to 40 and 60 and end of regular season type thing.

    Shaw at center though vs Kesler. Yikes. Moral, existential, rational, pretty much every argument says that needs to not happen anymore.

    • Jen LC

      Kruger’s line was used heavily in D zone draws and also used in a 1 shift to 2 shifts ratio with the Toews line against the opponent’s top line last season.

      • FattyBeef

        Cool. Thanks for checking that. I wouldn’t mind seeing Kooga closer to the 16-17 minutes Bolland would eat and getting even more of that but wudayagonnado.

      • JimChaplin

        But not this season. In fact, according to Behind the Net, Andrew Shaw has only 6 less defensive zone draws (18 to 24) to Kruger which is much different from last year, when Kruger had more than double the D-zone starts. Which makes me wonder what the fuck Q is doing?

  • Preacher

    Good stuff, Jen. Though the simplest formula seems to be “whichever line Toews is on” is the best line, and whoever is on his wings does better statistically. And while you’re pretty much echoing the Hawks themselves with the “we have THREE scoring lines” idea, you still have to wonder if Q and Stan don’t still buy into the grit-is-necessary foolishness, especially if Sam was correct with his previous comment about them not thinking Saad was good enough because he won’t take a glove in the face for a teammate. The Hawks certainly construct their lines differently, but they still cling to some of the meatball mentality. Are they trying to have it both ways?

    • FattyBeef

      Its kind of a mixed message isnt it.

    • RLWiener

      Yes, they want to have their scoring and punch it too.

  • TitanTransistor

    Love this post.

    My only issue is that not only does Shaw not merit being Kane’s center on the second line, he barely merits being a center at all.

    I don’t care who Richards plays with or on what line to be honest, but hypothetically, if Handzus had stayed another year and Kane was having this hard a time producing with him as C, the old dog would have been crucified.

    For some reason, the second line can put up the worst possession numbers on the team AND fail to produce, but you still have blind fans and media claiming Shaw is a legitimate 2C solution. He is not. He will never be. End this little experiment now.

    • Yachtsman

      I’ve been wondering if Toews and Hossa should be split up merely because they are the two best defensive forwards, and their defensive abilities would support the offensive risk taking on the top two scoring lines. Thoughts?

    • Brain Sprain

      I have to think the second half of the season will have TT on the 2nd line with Sharp & Hossa.

      20 – 19 – 88
      10 – TT – 81
      29 – 91 – 65
      11 – 16 – 28

      Call me crazy, but with so many injuries there is a market for Versteeg. He goes away to Carolina or the Jackets (or something) for a 3rd rounder. Carcillo will be in the press box so Q can randomly scratch people to make a point and get his point across (Bickell).

      • To Saad be the glory

        I agree with these lines for the most part. However,injuries are a good reason to NOT trade Versteeg,cause chances are it will hit the Hawks as well. If Q continues to limit 3rd pairing minutes,I’d rather see Rozi gone for that 2 mil. than Steeger. Hawks have a lot of D in Rockford that can play 10- 12 mins a game and probably be less of a burden than Rozival. I just hope TT is ready by the 2nd half,cause the whole Shaw at C experience needs to stop.

        • Brain Sprain

          Good point, but r have Regin for debt (assuming he stays healthy in Rockford). Plus McNeil, Carey and Rasmussen.

  • Sarcastic_Mike

    I love this column so, so much I’m going to need to know what its ring size is and if it prefers princess cut or brilliant cut.
    Not only does this column hit on the out-of-town stupid that is displayed by far to many hockey people (and some in-town beat writers who should know better as well), but the morality aspect really hit home for me. I’ve put a lot of thought into the problematic need to assign morality in the areas of business & economics (and to a lesser extent international relations) and how it far, far too often results in poor decisions and injurious mistakes. But it never dawned on me that this same poison would taint hockey analysis. CLICK!!! Oh…certain things in hockey make so much more sense now. This applies to the stupid notion of enforcers as well.
    Thank you Jen. Thank you for writing a great column that provided clarity.

  • This is brilliant.

    A better argument can’t be made for Bickell on the Toews line.

    Now, with this all said. why Q decides to change compositions almost constantly or seemingly at random is still a mystery for the ages… unless he’s going crazy-meta with it and breaking things down to “complimenting strengths and weaknesses not only among linemates but also in regards to the strengths and weaknesses of the lines on the other team, etc.,” which I think would be a stretch.

  • Yachtsman

    And how about removing morality in the construction of those power play units?

  • JimChaplin

    This analysis is flawed because the numbers this season don’t back up the way Q has constructed his lines. Putting aside Bowman’s assertion last year that “we don’t number our lines”, I think most people who actually follow hockey have gotten over the idea that the Hawks are going to ice a traditional 4th line, something that hasn’t happened since the Dark Old Days (maybe longer? In 1 & 2 BTK–Before Toews/Kane–the Hawks 4th line was usually Holmqvist with two random pieces of crap).
    But the larger problem is that Q is not putting players together in a way that would maximize their talents and abilities. Like Bickell or not, putting him with Toews and Hossa is not a recipe for success. And Q is clearly trying to jump start Bickell’s offense (same with Versteeg, both of their o-zone start numbers are off the chart) and it’s not working so why stick him with Toews & Hossa, who should be going out there against other team’s top or second scoring unit and see more d-zone starts?
    Because the Hawks have moved away from the model that we all know they did, it makes the most sense to have 1 or 2 lines that have crazy high o-zone starts.That means looking at the current roster and picking the six guys who have the least business starting in the defensive zone. In my mind that’s Kane, Richards, Morin, Bickell, Shaw, Versteeg and Sharp.
    Then one line that is offensively gifted and defensively responsible, say Hossa, Toews and Sharp. Finally a line that you know if going to carry the water defensively, so Kruger, Smith and Saad (or mixing in Sharp or even Morin who clearly Q doesn’t want to overtax with offensive thinking and has been solid defensively.
    But Q just keeps throwing shit against the wall, like he did last year, instead of focusing on complimentary abilities. What made 2010 so beautiful was the balance we saw on the lines? This year you’d be lying if you said it was there.

    • ToucanStubbs

      Yup, 100% agree. Deployment needs to be about what you get from a player, not what you WANT to get from him.