I've been a hockey fan for a long time now, and I don't remember ever seeing the obsession with line combinations and the hierarchy of lines as there is right now. Even the terminology has changed. In the past, when looking at a player's talent analysis or projected position on a team, we'd see terms like "checker" or "goal scorer" or "playmaker." Now it's all "third-line winger," "energy line player" or "first-line centre." Go to any fan site on the internet, and...especially when things are slow...you'll find armchair coaches by the dozen, projecting line combinations. "What if Mats Sundin signed with the Habs? Well, my line combos would be..." "Chris Higgins a first liner? No, a third-liner..." It baffles me because not only do fans have absolutely no say about what lines the coach chooses, but the coach, especially in Guy Carbonneau's case, often switches up the lines in mid-game anyway.
The funny thing is the obsession with lines has permeated the media's and players' mentalities as well. When Tomas Plekanec, Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn began to outperform Saku Koivu, Michael Ryder and Chris Higgins, Koivu found himself answering the same question repeatedly: "Are you unhappy about being demoted to the second line?" The question was valid only because of the pretige factor associated with line labels. On most teams, "first-line" players are the three best offensive players on the team, who get the most ice-time and are used in the most advantageous goal-scoring situations. "Second-line" players are responsible for pitching in a few goals here and there and get fewer minutes on the power play. So, when reporters asked about Koivu's "demotion," they were really asking him if he felt slighted because the coach, by using Plekanec's line in certain situations, had decided Koivu's most productive days were behind him. The "lines" are shorthand for where a player fits in and what he brings to the team...and the players know it.
I think the traditional line system has its roots in the earliest days of the pro game, when lines were set in stone to the point where they were given legendary names. The Production Line in Detroit, the Kraut Line in Boston and the most productive of them all, the Canadiens' great Punch Line of Richard, Blake and Lach. Those were the high-flyers...the ones whose role was to put the puck in the net and win games for their teams. In an era when teams played nine forwards and four defencemen in a game, the three best guys were seldom sent out with any but their usual partners. Teams had a scoring line, a secondary scoring line and a checking line. But when the game got faster and shifts got shorter, somewhere around the mid-to-late seventies, the need for a fourth line became apparent. Unfortunately, with the draft and the general dilution of talent in the face of expansion, NHL teams found themselves facing a sparsity of highly-skilled players to fill four lines. So inevitably, less-skilled players started to get NHL jobs, just to fill rosters and get enough ice time to give the stars a breather. The fourth line became a repository of goons, one-dimensional pluggers and young players who hadn't proved enough to get more than a few minutes of ice a game. With the addition of the "energy" line, the current hierarchy of first-line scorers, second-line backup scorers, third-line checkers and fourth-line chaff was born. That's the way it is still on most teams, and the minutes are granted the various lines accordingly. First-liners get twenty-plus minutes a game. Second and third lines get fifteen or sixteen each and the pluggers get whatever's left over.
The thing is, though, in Montreal the Habs don't really have a traditional line system at all. The players are grouped according to who plays best together, even if it means a guy like Latendresse goes from the fourth line to the first from one game to the next. If Plekanec, Kostitsyn and Kovalev are performing well together, they stay together. If not, Kovalev is just as likely to find himself playing with Lapierre and Higgins. Carbonneau uses his top nine offensive players so evenly, it's hard to assign traditional labels to a particular trio. Even the players who'd normally be classified as the "fourth" line and relegated to five or six minutes a game on other teams get double-digit minutes from Carbonneau. And he mixes the combinations so often, sometimes it's hard to say what three players even make a line at all. It's almost a revolutionary way of using the players.
Part of the reason for this may be the fact that there are certain roles that just weren't filled on the Canadiens this year. The traditional third line is a checking line that goes out against the NHL's best players. This season, the Habs had Bryan Smolinski centering that line. Now, Smolinski's best years were spent as a secondary scorer, contributing fifteen to twenty goals a season. He's never been the type of player who can grind the other team's best scorers into the ice. The Habs also didn't have a superstar...the type of player who scores so often and so dependably that he needs to be on the ice for more than twenty minutes a game. As a result, the chores...both scoring and checking...were more evenly spread out among all the players. Kovalev killed penalties. Smolinski got PP time.
I think the distribution of ice time so evenly among all twelve forwards was a big reason why the team avoided injury so well this year. No one was exhausted and making the mistakes that get tired players hurt. And I think players were less run-down than they get when they're tired and dehydrated playing big minutes every night, and got sick less because of it. Rolling four lines also helped the team keep its speed constant throughout whole games while other teams' top guys flagged at the ends of periods. There are definitely arguments to be made in favour of playing lines evenly, if a team has the people to do that without experiencing a huge drop-off in talent between one line and the next.
On the flip side, there are negatives inherent in line labelling. If Chris Higgins is expected to be a "first-line" LW, he's expected to be a different player than if he's called a "third-line" LW. He's still the same player, with the same amount of ice time; a streaky scorer who pots 27 goals while killing penalties and playing a strong two-way game. But if he's a first liner, people are disappointed in him this year. If he's a third liner, they're thrilled. Another risk of labelling is in player expectations. A "first-line" centre like Scott Gomez or Daniel Briere will get 8 million dollars next year, after seasons of 70 and 72 points respectively. On the other hand, "second-line" centre Mike Richards has signed a multi-year extension that pays him 5.4 million next season, after potting 75 points ths year. Amittedly, that's not exactly peanuts and Richards was negotiating from an RFA standpoint rather than as an UFA as the other two were...but there's definitely a pay difference in accordance with perceived status.
I'm not sure the Canadiens will move back to a system of traditional line combinations even if they get that checking centre and a big scoring star and are able to do it. And I think it's a good thing if they don't. Fans talk about Sundin signing with the Habs and the unavoidable question, "Where would he play?" comes up. The consensus among many is that he would obviously centre the first line, but that Koivu should play on his wing because the captain would be angered about being demoted to the third line behind Sundin and Plekanec. I think in Carbo's system, Koivu, Plekanec and Sundin would all get similar icetime. There's no shortage of strong wingers on the Habs, so no centre would be playing with inferior linemates. And players like Sundin and Koivu could very well benefit by playing fewer minutes and saving their aging bodies for the playoffs. The concept of three scoring lines and a checking line is one that could even be an attractive draw for an older player who doesn't want the pressure and expectations of being the first-line superstar, expected to play twenty-five minutes a game, anymore.
I think that's the way Bob Gainey is going. He's said he wants a fast, opportunistic team. He's not interested in one-dimensional players and he's not interested in goons. He wants players who bring more to the table and are able to contribute for ten or fifteen minutes a game. I hope this summer to see him add the pieces the team needs to roll those three scoring lines this year. With the likely departure of Michael Ryder, the team's top forwards are Plekanec, Koivu, the two Kostitsyns, Higgins, Kovalev and Latendresse. Gainey needs to add a centre and a winger to complete the set, whether through promotion from within or from the free agent market. I think Gainey knows today's NHL is making the traditional fourth line obsolete. High speed and the conservation of energy in rolling lines evenly seems the logical way to go. Hopefully, if it happens that way, the presitige and stigma of line labelling will start to disappear.
Unfortunately, it may take longer for fans to stop obsessively forming their own fantasy lines. Who knows? Maybe someday Carbo will be wondering where to play Latendresse and some fan's imaginary lineup will inspire him. I guess if it makes people happy to think that might happen, then good for them. In the meantime, the only important opinions are Carbonneau's and Gainey's. And I like what they're doing so far. Everyone else can get in line.