Teams are picked. Practices have started, and the puck has dropped on the season’s first games.
For hockey’s die-hard parents, fans and coaches, that means it’s open season on one of our favorite discussion topics: our team’s lines.
In most cases, these conversations are fun, light-hearted and in good nature. Unfortunately, they can also take a turn for the worse if parents feel their son or daughter is getting slighted.
The tough part, of course, is you could ask 10 coaches to form lines for the same team, and they may come up with 10 different combinations. So the question is, what really goes into determining lines, especially the top line, which is where everyone wants to play?
“Parents to me, often think it’s purely from a skill standpoint,” said Mark Manney, who serves as the Boys High School Director for Minnesota Hockey and president of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association. “A first line player to them is who’s the best skater on the ice. Or who’s the best scorer?”
Coaches, however, tend to have a different thought process.
“Certainly, there’s elements of skill that go into being a first line player, but to me, once I get beyond who I consider to be our best player, I look next to see who that person can play with,” said Manney, who is also the current varsity head coach for Andover High School.
Creating Great Lines
There are a large number of variables to consider when trying to form the best lines for a team. Skating, puck handling and shooting are definitely part of the equation, but so are some of the more under-rated skills. Abilities such as protecting the puck and winning one-on-one battles, often play a major role in determining what lines players are put on.
“We look for people whose strengths complement another player’s weaknesses or could help cover their weaknesses,” said Manney. “You can put your three best players together, but they might all want to be puck hogs, or they can’t go retrieve pucks.”
“Number two is they have to enjoy playing with each other. They don’t have to be great friends, but they have to understand a little bit of each other’s’ strengths and weaknesses. Chemistry is really high on the list.”
By matching players together based on how their skills complement each other and how the players perform as a unit, coaches hope to create a situation in which the overall performance of the line is greater than the sum of each player’s individual ability.
For Manney, one of the best examples of that occurred when former UMD Bulldog, Cal Decowski, was playing his high school hockey in Andover.
“We tried everybody playing with Decowski, but we couldn’t find anybody who was willing to share the puck,” said Manney. “We finally found one of his best friends who had not played varsity as a sophomore or junior.”
After never playing on A team throughout his youth career, Josh Mellem ended up with 30 points during his senior season. He wasn’t the most skilled player on the team, but by focusing on the little things he could do to help his teammates and doing it to the best of his ability, he became a key contributor.
“He ended up being the perfect complement to our best player,” said Manney.
Remember the Goal
It’s also critical to remember the goal of every team, Mites through the NHL, is to develop and improve both individually and as a team over the course of the season.
“The entire regular season to me is an experiment to see what works for the postseason,” said Manney. “Parents and coaches can be equally guilty. Those whose number one goal is to win games in November are really doing kids a disservice.”
Games, especially early in the season, should be a measuring stick to see how players are performing the skills they’re being taught in pressure situations. Then, coaches should use that insight to make adjustments in practices to help players improve their performance.
“If you have to lose a game or two here and there in order to find out what kind of character, what kind of skill, what kind of combinations work for your players, then that’s a loss that means a lot more than a win when you don’t have an opportunity to evaluate the players in different roles,” said Manney.
One of the key components in that process is figuring out what line combinations create the best overall team, not necessarily the single best line. If loading up a number of skilled players on one line leads to the other lines giving up more goals than the top line can score, coaches may consider that top-heavy line-up a failure because of how it impacted the overall team effort.
“Just because one line has success, doesn’t mean your team is better because of it,” said Manney.
Switch It Up
At the youth levels, lines should also be juggled with the intent of playing kids at both forward and defense.
“We used to have a rule here in Andover where kids had to play a different position for a minimum of two weeks or four games, whichever was greater,” said Manney.
Not only does playing multiple positions give players an added understanding of the game, it provides players with an opportunity to develop different skill sets that may help their overall game. There are also numerous examples, including Jake Gardiner, Nick Leddy and more, of players who grew playing a certain position, switched and became even more successful at their new position.
Manney experienced that first hand with Tyler Vold, who is a freshman defenseman at Bemidji State.
“He played forward his whole life through Bantams and was the best forward on the team,” said Manney. “In ninth grade, we brought him up to varsity and moved him to defense.”
Manney noted Vold struggled with the change at first, but eventually, it became clear playing defense was a better long-term fit for him. Now, he’s playing Division I hockey.
Be a Good Liney
Regardless of what line a player ends up on this season, the best thing parents can do is encourage kids to try their best and strive to make their linemates and team better. Putting team success above individual glory can be a hard concept to understand for young players growing up in a society that craves individual attention.
“Everybody wants to do a celebration that’s never been done before,” said Manney. “It’s why you see some guys playing Duck, Duck, Grey Duck in the end zone of an NFL game.”
In many ways, those celebrations come from a desire to stick out. Credit to the Vikings for finding a way to stick out as team, rather than as individuals.
“To be a better linemate and a teammate, you should celebrate teammates’ individual success, and ultimately team success,” said Manney. “You are happy for the team’s success even if you didn’t contribute substantially to the victory. You get back to the bench and tell your linemate, ‘Hey, that was a nice pass, that was a great move, that was a great play.’ Or if you have something negative to say, you do it in a positive way so that your teammates are never feeling bad because of your comments.”
Those simple behaviors can help any player have a positive impact on their team during the upcoming season.