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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.

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