Three Thoughts On: Line Combinations

ANAHEIM, CA - NOVEMBER 09: Patric Hornqvist #27 of the Nashville Predators receives high fives from the bench after scoring a goal against the Anaheim Ducks in the first period at Honda Center on November 9, 2011 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

In an effort to keep my contributions more regular, I'm going to start some weekly columns. This week will be my test period for different ideas. This first one should be pretty self-explanatory. If you like a particular column idea, let me know in the comments or on twitter. If you don't like a column, please forward those complaints to my alternate twitter.

--Sam

1. The Wilson/Smith/Hornqvist line should stay, even when Legwand comes back: In an offensively challenged line-up, Colin Wilson and Patric Hornqvist have each spent the better part of a year as a man without a country, so to speak. Without a bevy of sniper-type teammates to benefit from his big-bodied playmaking, the only permanent home Willy found last year was in Barry Trotz's doghouse. Hornqvist, who looked like an elite shooter in the making, potted just 21 goals, without enough rebounds to stuff home. And to worsen matters, they hardly helped each other out. Wilson didn't shoot enough to make Hornqvist useful, and Horny didn't have the speed to chase Wilson around. 

Now, in Craig Smith, they've found a center that solves all these problems and makes the Predators' three most promising offensive players look like one cohesive unit. Smith's speed and finish ability makes him a perfect mate for Wilson. Meanwhile, he takes such a high volume of shots, Hornqvist is always busy. They've communicated well so far and have looked good cycling and in the transition game. Hopefully, they can bring out the first-line potential in each other.  

2. Trotz will need to chose between Fisher and Legwand...or not: If Craig Smith can force Trotz's hand and keep his top-line spot, one of David Legwand or Mike Fisher will have to accept the offensively inglorious spot between Jordin Tootoo and Jerred Smithson on the third line. David Legwand would likely be the one to do it, as Trotz has used him on that line before--Leggy played with Joel Ward and Smithson for most of 2009-10, when he scored just 11 goals. 

Still, that's not to say Trotz likes Fisher more than Legwand. Last year down the stretch, the Ward/Legwand/Erat line consistently drew opponent's top lines at home, while the Kostitsyn/Fisher/Hornqvist unit got the tougher matchups on the road. Trotz carried this preference for Legwand in the tougher minutes into the playoffs.

Part of that was because Trotz wanted to use Fisher in a more offensive role, but part of it was also Leggy simply outplaying Fish. In his second game with the team, Fisher functionally auditioned for Legwand's job, playing against Joe Thornton's line in a home game against the Sharks. It was a defensive disaster as the Preds surrendered 50 shots. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Fisher never matched up against an opponent's top line in any of the season's remaining home games. 

The easier minutes helped his performance. In 18 games on the second line, Fisher scored 11 points and was +7. In 9 road games, he scored a point and was -5. Legwand performed about equally well in either defensive capacity--actually scoring 8 points in his toughest 8 games by defensive workload. 

Those lines worked last season, however, because Ward/Legwand/Erat managed to lead the way offensively and soak up the toughest minutes. That allowed the Smithson, Fisher, and Geoffrion lines to focus on scoring. Exposing Wilson/Smith/Hornqvist to top opponents' lines seems risky. Maybe in an attempt to recapture last season's synergy, Fisher or Legwand could move to Wardo's old wing spot. Then Trotz could use Fisher/Legwand/Erat as an all-purpose line to protect the young guns. That kind of leaves Kostitsyn out to dry, but I'm just spitballing here.  

3. The Predators can't afford to have an incoherent fourth line: In a perfect world, Jerred Smithson, Nick Spaling, and friend would be the Predators' permanent fourth line. They could take defensive zone faceoffs and then just try to best other fourth-liners. Instead, Smithson and Spaling are along for the ride that is Jordin Tootoo. The actual Predators fourth line is currently an enforcer, an inconsistent-but-gifted winger with one foot out the door, and Blake Geoffrion, who looks more and more like a Ryan Jones clone every game.  

Enforcers are pointless. Mike Fisher and David Legwand both got taken out under Brian McGrattan's watch. That's not a knock on McGrattan--he can do little when he's not on the ice or doesn't have a fellow heavyweight with whom to fight. I'm all for fighting in hockey, but the sideshow of the enforcer is just that. It's not helping the Predators win games. 

Trotz and Poile need to shoot for making the fourth line a secondary offensive weapon, like it was last year. Bergfors-Geoffrion-Halischuk, for instance, could do some damage.

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