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Grabovski and Kulemin: GMs like depth, coaches like options, players like continuity

Player management is a constant balance of what's good for an organization and what's good for the players who are delivering an organization's best current results.

Hockey: Things change, lines mix, teams move.
Hockey: Things change, lines mix, teams move.
Claus Andersen

I recently used an online chat at stltoday with St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong as a basis for discussing overall Islanders depth, internal competition, and physicality on defense. There's a lot more in the original chat -- in general, both Armstrong and his coach, Ken Hitchcock, are among the more fan-friendly in terms of openly talking shop with the public, without chasing headlines and controversy.

One more line from the chat that stuck out to me, because it speaks to one of those push-and-pull dynamics within an organization, but one that's seldom overtly acknowledged when we discuss line combos (the emphasis below is mine):

Q: How excited are you to have these line combination possibilities? I know you said Hitch is going to need an eraser over the summer putting these lines together. haha

Armstrong: I certainly like having as many options available to the coaches that we have. With that being stated, I know players want continuity in the lineup and I'm hoping synergy can be found quickly, so that we can have a consistent group on a nightly basis.

That, in a nutshell, is people management challenge every GM and coach (in different ways) faces.

On one hand: Injuries happen, depth offers insurance for injuries, flexibility for unexpected developments (a player's decline, a youngster's rise), and the enhanced player motivator of internal competition.

On the other hand: Players like routine, they like continuity, and they like comfort -- and comfort, though it can lead to laziness or "too much comfort," is also ultimately necessary on some level to maintain a cohesive team, unless you're using the Mike Keenan/John Tortorella burnout approach. When players feel changes happen too often or too fast (even if they are well founded changes), their loyalty and belief can erode.

Compromises All Around

It's a fine balance, basically. As with all the other "hey, it's a business" aspects of the game, teams are constantly juggling the needs of expedient changes to improve the team against the patience or consistency needed to maintain the good that's already there.

Another example would be the Islanders' depth at center right now, which inevitably requires one or two natural centers to play wing -- not ideal for their career, perhaps, but ultimately better for the team (and better than casting off a good center in favor of a bad wing).

As an aside: A lot of coaches also like comfort, but expressed in a different way. I believe the tendency to rely on veterans and "experience" comes from coaches' love for known quantities. The fear of rookie mistakes is legitimate but also exaggerated, because coaches hate using puzzle pieces that they are uncertain about, even if the "certain" puzzle piece they know well is actually a lesser part.

Crystal Ball

Anyway, I mention this not to create any grand theory about how the Islanders should construct line combos (I leave that for our comment section) or how often they should mix up their lines this year. Rather, it's a dynamic I think of every time someone shouts either "He needs to change it up!" or "He's too quick to shuffle it up!"

I will note, however, that both Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and Kings coach Darryl Sutter are known for mixing their lines in-game if they think things aren't working -- and I've seen fans of those teams cry aloud about the "blender." That approach risks the players' feeling of continuity (and draws fans' ire after losses), but somehow the end results have helped players for those teams get past this discomfort.

Meanwhile, an interesting challenge that will almost assuredly be in the Islanders future: Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin signed with the Islanders together, offering themselves as a package deal and at least getting early assurances from the Isles brass (including coach Jack Capuano, according to reports) that they would line up together.

Anyone who has spent a week around hockey knows that's not a guarantee. Grabovski is a better player than Kulemin, which means the time will come, if not in 2014-15 then at some point in their four-year contracts, when it will make sense to at least try playing them apart. Depending how he ages and the team's depth evolves, Kulemin could even be a pressbox candidate by the end of his deal.

How they handle those situations when they arise will be telling. But hey, John Tavares managed to soldier on without Matt Moulson (during line mixups and after the trade), and Frans Nielsen kept chugging after his buddy Peter Regin was scratched and then traded. It's hockey. It happens.