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New York Islanders lines, and the vocabulary of ice time and usage

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I don't always gripe about lines. But when I do, I prefer these terms.

I...I don't even know what to call you anymore.
I...I don't even know what to call you anymore.
USA TODAY Sports

With much obsession (always, always) among New York Islanders fans about the ideal line construction, something Dan linked in the morning thread Saturday is worth revisiting in more detail. (Indeed, it generated its share of comments that day. Lines is a topic that has no beginning and no end, as regulars affirmed this summer.)

Jen LC of The Committed Indian was talking about the Chicago Blackhawks, and fan reactions to coach Joel Quenneville's line combos, when she wrote this (emphases all mine):

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.

I raise this not because I am thrilled with the current Islanders lines -- they have a lot of tools and are still figuring out how to make them work best, and I think most who are honest would say there have been surprises and disappointments in both directions. Rather, I raise it because, like Jen, I think the vocabulary of the discussion (for fans) and strategy (for the team) should go beyond strictly measuring ice time and labeling lines "first" through "fourth."

First, a general philosophy: The goal of line combos and usage is to use the tools you have (12 forwards, six defensemen, etc.) in the optimal way to take advantage of your opponent's weaknesses and counter its strengths. How much you can "dictate" play depends on talent and matchups and health and all the rest, but the upshot is you need to figure out the best way to use your roster to outscore the others.

Figuring out the 1-12 forward alignment is not as simple as stacking the best hitters 1 through 9 -- and indeed, line matching is not as deliberate as getting to call in a reliever to face the hitter you know is up next. Granted, generally speaking you want your best players out there more often, and if you're led down a matchup rabbit hole chasing certain combos on the opponent so much that your best players' ice time is cut too much or your weaker players are overexposed, then you have erred. And you better adjust next time.

Focusing on Roles vs. TOI

But it's not as simple as "this guy played more, or got as many minutes, as this talented kid, therefore something is amiss." Nor is it, "how come they are listed fourth in practice?! They're way better than those other three."

Jen got into how the Hawks approach lines -- they are deep, essentially have three "scoring lines" and one Frans Nielsen-like checking line charged with matching the opponents' best. Incidentally, Quenneville changes his lines often, and is famously quick to change them up early in a game when he feels certain guys "don't have it tonight" after a few shifts.

We could discuss this forever (indeed, let's do), but the plea many have had for a while is essentially this from Jen:

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.

[...]

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.

I'm not going to compare Jack Capuano's Islanders to Quenneville's Blackhawks, so hold your hate mail for the moment. I will remind you that except when he has an enforcer in the lineup, Capuano has used his "fourth" line far more than the old-school norm.

What we've seen with Capuano's Islanders is that Frans Nielsen does have that "checking" role, but he is used so much on special teams and his line is often counted on for offense, that the Isles deploy a second "checking" line in certain situations.

I, like many, think they use that second "checking" line -- what we typically call the "fourth" -- a little too much, and I think a few of the specialized situations are borderline absurd (after goals, to begin periods, are two famous examples). However, for me the issue are those situational uses rather than the total TOI (which has many, many usually unmentioned factors on any given night).

The Line Shuffle in San Jose

This only became more salient the other night when the Isles altered three of their lines ahead of the game in San Jose: Brock Nelson replacing Cory Conacher on the first line left wing meant moving Ryan Strome to center (to replace Nelson) and putting Conacher on the aforementioned second checking line, bumping Matt Martin over to play with Strome and Anders Lee.

The TOI result was -- what a surprise -- altered by other factors. Cory Conacher's brief injury and eventual misconduct cut his ice time slightly. But a few details illustrate what I'm getting at:

  • Conacher's injury and penalty meant he had only 16 total shifts, the same number as Strome and Lee.
  • Clutterbuck and Cizikas had 22 and 24 shifts respectively.
  • Despite having so many more shifts than Strome, Clutterbuck (12:04) and Cizikas (11:21) exceeded Strome's total ice time (11:03) by only a minute or less.
  • This was influenced by Strome being on the power play (thus more time per shift, usually), Clutterbuck and Cizikas being on the PK (less time per shift), and the aforementioned select situations, with Cizikas taking three more faceoffs (14) than Strome (11).

Meanwhile, John Tavares (23:51) and Kyle Okposo (22:45) led all players -- even more than the defensemen -- in total ice time. The Islanders try to get those two as many offensive opportunities as possible. (It's a story for another day, but I'd argue this extreme is worth a second guess.) They try to get Nielsen's line to match opponents' best and provide offense, two things they are good at doing.

That doesn't leave a whole lot for the remaining six, but it usually means they each are around 10-12 minutes per night, depending on special teams.

Framing Line Discussions

Anyway, this isn't a defense of how the Islanders are currently deploying things. As mentioned earlier, they have some things working and others not (in some cases, surprisingly so). But to me the far more interesting discussions here over the summer and recently have been the ones that recognize the deployment roles themselves rather than taking a rote, superficial look at TOI and "second, third, fourth."

(I am reminded of the never-ending "Nielsen's not a real second-line center" trope, which is completely missing the point of what how he is actually used.)

Jen mentioned one other example I think is food for thought here:

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.

I don't fully agree -- or rather, I completely agree with the spirit of the point but still find us at the mercy of limited vocabulary. I still say "fourth" line myself, because it's shorthand to convey which line I'm talking about (and also, if it's Martin, Cizikas and anyone else together, it truly is the line I'd like to see used fourth-most).

But when Conacher is put on the "fourth" and Martin is moved with the potentially sheltered Strome-Lee combo, it's pretty clearly the coaching staff's latest attempt to get the most out of the whole roster in the interest of team goals -- and it changes the discussion. Conacher theoretically makes that "fourth" line better, and Strome has had success lifting up lesser players before.

Ultimately, as long as players like Conacher and Martin are on the roster, the staff needs to figure out the best place to put them and situations to use them in the interest of team success. And for us who watch and depbate what the team is doing and should be doing, that means digging a little deeper than TOI rankings and traditional "fourth-line" stigmas.