Certain great hockey players are remembered as much for the lines they played on as for their own individual accomplishments. The French Connection. The Triple Crown. The Kid Line. Even the Red Army’s famed KLM line is etched as a unit in our hockey memories.
Sometimes, when the chemistry is right among three players, it seems like there’s no stopping them. And before you know it, they’re tagged with a nickname that links them together forever.
Ron Mason, the winningest coach in U.S. college hockey, has put together many line combinations over the years. The Michigan State Spartans former head coach has learned from experience that finding the right line combinations helps improve both team chemistry and individual performance.
Balance your lines
Every team should have checking lines and offensive lines. Within the line itself, you like to have personalities that mesh and can play together. The fact is, some kids just relate to and interact with each other better than others. This is important not only in games, but also in practice where they can work together on a regular basis.
“I like to have a playmaker, a checker, and a scorer on one line, to give it balance,” Mason explains. “The checker gets the puck to the playmaker and then he gets it to the scorer. This is a balanced offensive line. But,” he adds, “you won’t be able to have all your lines like this.”
Therefore, the key to assembling successful line combinations is to make the best possible use of the talents and chemistry you have on your team.
You might want to put together a line strictly for defensive purposes. You will want three checkers on your defensive line, and will use them in specific situations. “You will want this line against (the opposition’s) best line when the games are close,” says Mason.
Combinations aren’t just for forwards either. You should pair your line combinations up front with specific defenseman, as well. Offensive defensemen tend to work better with an offensive forward line. “If you have a defensive defenseman there to start your play up ice, he will never get the puck to the offense,” offers Mason.
Blueline pairs, too
To go along with your line combinations up front, you’ll want effectively paired defenders. Usually that means a strong defensive-minded defenseman paired with one who is offensive-minded. “I don’t like to have two offensive-minded defensemen playing together. I would rather split them up,” says Mason. “You are more likely to give something up defensively with two offensive-minded defensemen.” But by pairing one with the other you can often achieve a nice balance of offensive punch and defensive security.
Mason notes that being able to find two or three lines that are compatible and successful is a real blessing. If you are that lucky, then only slight adjustments will probably need to be made to your lines during the season. But if the trios you’ve put together aren’t gelling, Mason suggests changing line combos until you feel they are working well. “The year we won the National Championship, we changed our lines on a regular basis,” says Mason.
Youth coaches also need to know what position kids should play. While most parents probably want their kids to play forward (and score all the goals!), Mason disagrees. He feels it is an advantage for kids to play defense at a young age because players will be forced into doing more things on the ice.
The defenseman has to skate backwards, pivot, react, and handle the puck in his own end. Plus, defenders usually get more ice time than forwards. Think about rotating youngsters on defense. You’ll often find that an offensively skilled player can develop even more while playing defense.
Youth players should start to think more about what position they should play on a permanent basis when they reach the Pee Wee age level. However, it is not uncommon to change positions at a later age. Mason recalls moving one of his advanced players to forward from defense, and that player went on to play in the NHL for 10 years.
While picking or assigning a position isn’t an irrevocable decision, it is something that must be done in order for players to fit together as a team. In order to find the right blend. The right balance. And hopefully in the end, the right chemistry.