Colorado Avalanche, Distributing Offensive Talent

Feb 17, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche right wing Jarome Iginla (12) scores past Montreal Canadiens goalie Ben Scrivens (40) in the third period at Pepsi Center. The Avalanche defeated the Canadiens 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 17, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche right wing Jarome Iginla (12) scores past Montreal Canadiens goalie Ben Scrivens (40) in the third period at Pepsi Center. The Avalanche defeated the Canadiens 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /

Patrick Roy divied up the Colorado Avalanche top forwards onto 3 different lines for the Montreal Canadiens game. And though it seemed to work, as the Avs came away with the win, there are pros and cons to this strategy.

We all know head coach Patrick Roy loves to juggle his lines between and in games. This has led to some unorthodox lines as players jump from the fourth to first line and then back again. Recently, the Colorado Avalanche seemed to find success with a true first line of Gabriel LandeskogNathan MacKinnonMatt Duchene. However this was split up and the juggling continued, usually with two of those three on the same line.

But for the Montreal game the lineup was evenly distributed:

Mikhail Grigorenko – Matt Duchene – Jarome Iginla
Gabriel Landeskog – Carl SoderbergBlake Comeau
Alex Tanguay – Nathan MacKinnon – Jack Skille
Cody McLeodJohn MitchellAndreas Martinsen

You can probably put that lineup in any order, because in reality there is no first line (but there is definitely a fourth in correct place). This is a bit unusual in the NHL now a days where teams’ top talent is usually distributed among the top two lines (think of Jonathan Toews on the first line in Chicago with Patrick Kane on the second), or stacked on the first line-such as Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin playing on a line together.

And it may not seem like a huge deal, but there are benefits to both styles as well as major drawbacks. Especially when you consider the polar ends of the spectrum Roy has used with a 3 star first line before transitioning to no first line.

Stacking The Top Line

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Traditionally, this is the way lineups are set. It isn’t always just the first line, sometimes talent will be divided in between the first two lines pretty equally with a big drop off at the third and fourth line.

Anyway, stacking your top line has some big advantages. For this example let’s use Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene as he is currently on the arbitrary top line with Grigorenko and Iggy.

First the obvious: if we have Landeskog instead of Grigorenko on the first line with Matt Duchene, we can expect Dutchy to get more chances from plays Landy creates. We can expect Duchene to get more assists on plays Landeskog finishes. And lastly we can expect an overall increase in both of their production as a result of playing with another true talent. This means not only shots that Landeskog will put in the net that Grigorenko may not, it includes increased zone time, better pressure, more shots, and drawing more penalties.

Secondly, a stacked first line can be a dangerous thing to have especially with the home change. The “home change” refers to the home team always getting the last change (except after icings).

So if the Colorado Avalanche are at the Pepsi Center, Roy can wait to see what line the opponent has put out and then pick his line. If the opposing coach makes a dumb decision like putting his 4th line out in his own defensive zone Roy can counter with a stacked first line assuming they’ll be able to pin in the vastly under skilled opponent. Relatedly, having a stacked first line is great for icings, both home and away, where the opponent is kept from changing.

Another great benefit to the “true” first line is powerplay and penalty kill situations. If Landy, Dutchy, and MacKinnon are all on different lines, but Roy wants them out together for a power play, then he has to rip those lines apart to create the powerplay line. Then when the power play is over one of them will have to stay out tired already from playing the power play.

Same thing goes for penalty kills, if Roy wants MacK and Landy killing the penalties it is measurably simpler to have the two on a line, both for just coaching convenience but also for managing their fatigue.

However, there are a couple of large drawbacks to having an overly skilled first line. First of all, it results in putting all your eggs in one basket, so to speak. If all your top players are on one or two lines, secondary scoring will decrease dramatically. Just as dramatic an effect of adding Landeskog to the top line, it has perhaps an even bigger effect on the line he was removed from.

Relatedly, your top players run the risk of getting tired if they are out every other shift before killing a penalty and going on the power play. Obviously you want your top guys to get the most minutes, but it can quickly snowball if not watched.

Additionally, it can be very easy to match a strong defensive line against the first line, especially on the road. If an opponent has a good shutdown line, they can then attack aggressively with their other lines knowing that there is a lack of secondary scoring behind the first Colorado Avalanche line.

Lastly, just because players are the most skilled on the team doesn’t mean they play well together. You don’t want three Alex Tanguays on a line, even in his prime, because they would never take a shot. Similarly if you have three finesse players who don’t forecheck hard or go to the net hard it becomes harder to regain puck possession and the line will miss out on garbage goal opportunities.

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Distributing The Scoring

At the other end of the spectrum from stacking the first line we have what Roy is currently doing with the Colorado Avalanche — distributing the offensive talent pretty equally across three lines (you could even say four as John Mitchell is a pretty good 4th line center). Once again this philosophy has its benefits and it’s drawbacks.

First, and again the most obvious, it spreads out the threat of scoring across three lines. So instead of having one good line who scores most of the team’s goals and then three lines whose main job is not to get scored on, you get three lines that all have a chance of putting the puck in the back of the net. This also makes it harder for other teams to use their shut down line because they have to pick their poison in putting their defensive line out against MacKinnon, Duchene, or Landeskog.

It also keeps your best stars fresher, as instead of rolling two primary scoring lines you can roll 3 or even 4 lines that are all pretty equal. This means players don’t have to conserve energy thinking about their next shift in 45 seconds, and instead get a little extra breather on the bench.

Distribution also, theoretically, raises the contribution from all your forwards. The line of thought is you know Duchene is going to create great scoring opportunities and rebounds. You don’t need Landeskog in front of the net to pound home a rebound when it could be Grigorenko, thus allowing Landeskog to be the catalyst on his line.

For example, Jarome Iginla’s game winner could have been tapped in by anyone who could hold a hockey stick. What made the play was Grigorenko’s and Duchene’s great passing. If that was, say, MacKinnon on the right wing, you might say it’s a waste to have him simply holding a hockey stick out there instead of creating his own opportunities on a different line.

Lastly, splitting up the scoring gives the coach many different options when powerplay and PK time come. At any given time one of the lines is going to be fresh, so you’re guaranteed to have at least one elite player ready at all times. At that time he can pick and choose from the fresh players who he wants out there. Your power play line may not be as strong as if you had a stacked first line, but you’re more likely to have three good, fresh players ready to go.

However, there are certainly some drawbacks to distributing the talent, especially when it doesn’t drastically force players out of their comfort zone position wise. First it weakens the players your stars get to work with. Alex Tanguay is a great passer and Jack Skille has impressed in a 4th line role this season. However, they are not going to create nearly as many chances for MacKinnon or finish nearly as many chances as Duchene or Landy.

At the same time, when crunch time comes such as power plays or trailing near the end of the game, you want to have your “star line” (as NHL 03 used to call it). But if they’ve been playing with different players all game, it’s a quick transition with the game on the line. Plus at least one of them is most likely gassed from a recent shift.

Additionally, the Colorado Avalanche have Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene’s speed to think about as well. There are few skaters in the league that can keep up with those two, let alone aging veterans Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay. Yes it’s nice to have a veteran presence and the offensive instincts the two bring, but there is no way Tanguay is keeping within 5 strides of MacKinnon on a rush, let alone crashing the net ahead of him as the standard zone entry goes now.

Lastly, and this has already been touched on a bit, the Colorado Avalanche are not a quantity scoring chance team. They rely on getting their few high percentage chances a game and assume they’ll be able to convert enough of those to score a decent amount. It scares me when you’re putting the puck on Jack Skille’s stick for some of those precious chances as opposed to Iginla’s or Carl Soderberg’s stick.

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The Right Choice For The Colorado Avalanche

After all of these pros and cons, what’s the right way to go for the Colorado Avalanche? They’ve tried both at times this season and have had success with both at times. I think the trick is (like most things in hockey) finding the balance. A Landeskog-MacKinnon-Duchene line looks good on paper, but deprives them all of chances to make plays happen when they could. At the other end the current set up involves each star playing with at least one average forward.

In my opinion the Colorado Avalanche should go with two stacked top lines in which Landy and Duchene are on the first and MacKinnon centering the second. From there you can fill in the lines with Soderberg, Iginla, and Tanguay. But no matter how you combine the lines your star players are going to be surrounded by guys who finish well, and can move the puck also.

As cool as it sounds to have 3 lines with a top 3 draft pick on them, it really isn’t that practical in reality. It means that all 3 of your stars are going to see a dip in ice time, while average players such as Skille and Black Comeau get raises in their ice time. In addition I wouldn’t blame MacKinnon if we see him hanging on to the puck a bit more when his options are a journeymen 4th liner and an old veteran who he’ll outskate in a couple strides.

Regardless Roy has his lines for now and it worked against Montreal, but how would you like to see the Avs roll going forward?