Saturday, 15 November 2014

Line Combinations: How would I do it?

Line Combinations

Moulson screening James Reimer. Image courtesy of
After the thrashing the Leafs took from the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, it was only sensible to question the lineup that was put out to play.

There's a certain allure to finding the perfect forward line combinations. Balancing certain sets of skills with each other is quite the difficult task. I don't pretend to be an expert at it, but if we apply some simple concepts we can take the Leafs and create a lineup that, with particular deployment, could theoretically create a lot of success.

When you look at the any forward group, you have some players who are very offensively gifted, some players who are very defensively gifted, and some players who are a bit of both.

For the offensive players on the Leafs, you have the "big line" of the last few years, with James Van Riemsdyk, Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak, as well as young players like Peter Holland, Nazem Kadri, Richard Panik, and the veteran Joffrey Lupul. You'll notice that all 5 of the Leafs' regular top-6 forwards are up there (they don't have 6 top-6 forwards).

For defensive specialists you have a couple of the recent additions from this past off-season, Daniel Winnik and Leo Komarov, as well as David Clarkson. These players are consistently able to defend their own zone and transition the play into the offensive zone, exactly what you want in your bottom 6. These players are going to be low shooting percentage players, but they will have quite high possession metrics, which will allow the high scoring players they play with to have opportunities to score.

Finally, for the two-way guys, you have Mike Santorelli, David Booth, and Brandon Kozun. These players are able to be relied on defensively, but unlike the defensive specialists, you can count on these players for depth scoring.

They way I see it, to construct the perfect roster, you'd have four lines that each have one defensive guy, one two-way guy and one offensive guy. This way you get a balanced amount of chances for and chances against for the entire game, theoretically. Unfortunately, the Leafs are not built this way, as you can see above in the roster breakdown. As such, you're stuck with an imbalance of offensive players on your four lines, which leads to the problem the Leafs have been facing for over a year: lots of scoring but terrible defending.

The question now is: what do you do about that? What the Leafs have been doing recently is stacking two high offense players in Kessel and Van Riemsdyk with Tyler Bozak, undoubtedly the most misrepresented player on the Toronto Maple Leafs. Bozak has been touted as a two-way center for years in Toronto, when he is nowhere near competent defensively.

The problem with running your top lines this way is none of these players are any good defensively, so while they're able to capitalize on opportunities to create good production, they are consistently out-possessed because of their lack of defensive ability. For a team to succeed in the possession metrics, it has to start at the top, and that's exactly where the Leafs have been unable to achieve good possession. Since the departure of Mats Sundin, the Leafs have struggled at the top of the roster with very, very poor team defense. Bozak, along with Kessel, Van Riemsdyk and Lupul, are 4 of the 5 worst forwards in the NHL (with at least 500 minutes of 5v5 TOI) at shot attempts against over the last four years (Link to those stats). That is horrid.

We've known for a long time that Tyler Bozak isn't a first line center. It's time to stop playing him as one.

If you're asking me what I'd do, I would stack the top line as the Leafs have been doing, except with better offensive players, and stop trying to use them defensively. I'd give them almost every offensive zone face-off, I'd keep them away from the other teams' best players as much as possible, and I'd use them for every powerplay shift.

For the bottom-9, now you have a bunch of defensive and two-way players that you can sprinkle around the really bad defensive players. These lines, theoretically, can be used in a rotation to play against any of the team's strong competition. This is valuable because it stops you from having to play the match-up game with any line except the first line.

Using these theories, I'm proposing the following roster. There's a lot of interchangeable parts around the bottom 9, the main point to take away is what the first line is, and the ideas around what the bottom 9 are.

Here are the lines (thanks to for the jersey images):

If you're on mobile:

Lupul - Kadri - Kessel 

JVR - Santorelli - Clarkson 

Komarov - Bozak - Panik 

Booth - Holland - Winnik

Keep in mind that, while there is a clear order in which the lines were listed, the idea is that the bottom three lines would be used as evenly as possible in terms of competition and time on ice. When Kozun is healthy, you could use him in place of Booth if he doesn't work out. And, if Leivo continues to perform well, you could see him in instead of Panik.

However, if the Leafs were 100% healthy at forward, this is what I'd do.

Let me know what you think in the comments! Am I totally off base here, or am I starting to make some sense?

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