One of the most challenging tasks for a head coach is constructing the four forward lines and three defensive pairings. Coaches have to balance the lines for offensive output and defensive capabilities, which can often be difficult when battling through roster turnover as a result of injuries, suspensions, and the like. When coaches get the line combinations right, dividends are quickly realized.
Through four games this season, we’re starting to see some trends in terms of line performance. In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the forward lines that Head Coach Peter Laviolette has deployed thus far into the young 2022-23 season and propose new lines that match wingers to their optimal center match.
Recent line deployment performance
Here’s how some of the more regular lines we’ve seen so far this season have panned out in terms of shot attempt generation and chance generation:
There’s some good here, mixed with some paltry results. The Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Connor Brown line have actually done really well in terms of shot attempt generation, which isn’t something necessarily very new considering Ovechkin’s propensity to attempt shots at a high rate. The concern here is the vast negative differential in high danger chances (HDCF%), where that line only generates one high danger chance for every four chances they allow.
The Anthony Mantha, Dylan Strome, and TJ Oshie line has struggled, and there’s no real way to sugar coat that fact. That’s likely a line that doesn’t stay together long term, especially with a 0 HDCF% and a scoring chance for percentage (SCF%) of 20. They’ve struggled in terms of shot attempt generation as well.
A line that has really excelled during five-on-five play is the Marcus Johansson, Lars Eller, and Aliaksei Protas line. They’ve utterly dominated their competition in shot attempt generation, overall shots on goal percentage (SF%), and scoring and high danger scoring chances.
The fourth line of Conor Sheary, Nic Dowd, and Garnet Hathaway has really struggled through the first four games. Sheary has been able to find the scoresheet but has done so without Dowd or Hathaway on the ice with him. Part of this perceived underperformance is that this line is typically matched up with the opposition’s best offensive lines. On the other hand, the best way to defend against teams’ best offensive players is to keep them hemmed into their own defensive zone. This line hasn’t been able to do that so far this season.
Now, let’s take a look at how these lines fare when we compare goals for percentage (GF%) and expected goals for percentage (xGF%):
Although the Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Brown line performed rather well in terms of possession numbers, that hasn’t carried over to overall GF% and xGF%. Part of the sub-50% xGF% figure here is the fact that this line gives up a bevy of high danger chances against.
The offensive output of this trio hasn’t made enough of an impact to justify keeping these three together at this point, and since Connor Brown is now out long term with a lower body injury, we’re likely not going to see this line for a while.
The Mantha, Strome, Oshie line’s struggles continue here. They haven’t been on the ice for a goal for (or against) but see a minority of xGF while on the ice. This usually means that they’re allowing high quality shots and chances against while also not generating those at an equal level of their opponents.
Again, the Johansson, Eller, and Protas line has been dominant. They haven’t been on the ice together for a goal against and own nearly 60% of expected goals while on the ice. There’s not much more to say here other than this is a line that Laviolette should turn to when trying to keep a lead late in a third period.
We see the struggles of the Sheary, Dowd, and Hathaway line continuing here. If you’re hemmed in your zone getting barraged by shot attempts and scoring chances against, you’re not going to have a great opportunity to generate goals or chances.
Matching wingers to centers
Part of how coaches construct lineups is matching up wingers with the center they have the most chemistry with. I don’t have an insight into how close these players are in the locker room or during practice, but we do have the power of analytics to help us out here.
I went through each winger that has played so far this season (so no McMichael or Snively yet) and matched them with the center that they’ve played a reasonable amount with and also performed the best. Here’s how that panned out:
Zooming out for a second, it’s clear just how effective Kuznetsov has been analytically this season. He has yet to pot a goal but has four points in four games (including all four in the last two games). The interesting piece is that four wingers have Kuznetsov has their best match, where Eller only has two, and Strome and Dowd only have one best match.
Using these pairings (and sometimes having to use the “second best” option), we can start to construct a lineup. Here’s what I’d propose as a lineup to roll out for a game when Kuznetsov returns from his one game suspension:
The Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Sheary line was just too good in Monday’s comeback win over the Vancouver Canucks. They were absurdly brilliant and were a huge reason why the Capitals were able to complete the third period comeback.
Although Strome and Mantha only had a 33.33 GF% when on the ice together, they had a 53.39 xGF%. This means that they’re pretty unlucky when it comes to scoring goals and if they’re able to keep up the xGF pace, they should be relatively successful soon. Adding the possession monster in Aliaksei Protas into the mix on that line should help invigorate the Mantha and Strome duo.
The bottom six is where it gets interesting. I’d be totally on board with McMichael and Eller swapping positions here, but we’ve seen in the past that Eller and Oshie have rather good chemistry together. McMichael gets some veteran support on his line, which should put him in a good position to succeed.
On paper, Johansson gets a demotion to the fourth line. In actuality, he can help stabilize the fourth line and add some offensive prowess to the mix with Sheary moving up to the first line with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Johansson fits here because one, you don’t want to have one of your most NHL ready prospects wither away on the fourth line, and two, Johansson will still get power play time.
Four games are a rather small sample size of games in an 82-game season, but we can see the trends that start to arise. With a decent amount of roster turnover and new additions to the lineup, it can be difficult for a coach to find the right line combinations through a few games and the preseason.
We will most certainly see a bevy of different line combinations through the 82-game journey that is the NHL regular season. The best we can hope for is some consistent performances.
By Justin Trudel