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Adapt or Die: Building a Successful Team in the Modern NHL (Part Two)

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Why playing youngsters works, how positional fluidity helps, and the role of physicality.

Carolina Hurricanes v Nashville Predators
Jared Tinordi has heavily struggled in all facets of the game since his introduction to the lineup, alongside a plummeting Dan Hamhuis and established parking cone Matt Irwin. Why aren’t we seeing Frédéric Allard or Alexandre Carrier in these roles?
Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

The NHL is a skill and speed league now. Despite what people may say about the “physical winning” pattern that teams like the Bruins and the Blues followed, the undeniable trend towards smaller, faster, and more creative players is there.

Though teams like Tampa, Toronto, and Carolina haven’t won anything of note in the postseason yet, they’ve effectively turned around their teams with rebuilding strategies predicated on acquiring playmakers that are overlooked for a variety of reasons. The top 6 forwards and top 4 defenders of any team in the league commonly contain players that would once have been considered undersized, which shows that at least most of the NHL recognizes the need for skill over everything in your key roster spots.

With that being said, there is a group in the NHL that remains mostly in the time of the dinosaurs, with the old-head mentality of toughness equating to ability. That group in question is the bottom of the lineup, who more often than not are just there to play on the penalty kill, bring a physical edge, and fill space on the roster. In a cap league, where depth is everything, why do teams continually fail to optimize their lineups? Why do players such as Matt Irwin and Austin Watson get relatively regular NHL time, while skilled youngsters like Frederic Allard and (previously) Yakov Trenin languish in the AHL?

Well, I aim to investigate both sides of the matter. In this two-part article, I want to explore how I think the modern bottom six and bottom pairing should be built, and why that’s the case. This is all so the reader can draw their own conclusions about their team’s cap structure, personnel management, and coaching. In my mind, when it comes to this debacle, there’s only one way to look at it: you either adapt to the modern game, or you die.

In the rest of this multi-part series, I’ll break down why some people feel that players who are commonly maligned are valuable, and where I find myself diverging from them and why.

Building In a Cap League: Part Two

I already went over my two keys to building a good foundation for your lineup in part one; making sure you have lines and pairs that can out-chance and out-possess the opposition is the key to winning a hockey game. If you’re taking quality shots (and lots of them), you’re going to eventually score goals, which turn into wins.

In this part, I wanted to look at how teams can do a better job of being efficient with the cap by using young players, how flexibility for forwards can help alleviate role and injury worries, and where physical presence ranks on my list of key components in a successful lineup.

Ingredient 3: Youth

Why is this important?

There’s been a lot of talk about how Boston and St Louis got to the finals this past season by their “grit and physical play.” I think an element about the construction of those teams that too often gets ignored is the youth providing skill and upside to the bottom of the lineup.

The Bruins are a perfect example; with so much cap invested in cornerstone pieces like Rask, Bergeron, and Pastrnak, as well as a couple of heavy veteran contracts in Krejci and Backes, there isn’t a ton of room to work with in the bottom of the lineup. So, what does Boston do? They have a bunch of kids play in reduced roles, where their skill and upside can potentially flourish to win much-needed matchups in playoff situations. Danton Heinen, Sean Kuraly, and guys who can be moved around like DeBrusk and Anders Bjork have all been key to Boston being an elite power in the East as of late. A lot of teams tend to want “safe” guys (i.e. known quantities) in their bottom-six that they think can be trusted to “not lose” the game. This is how contenders can play Austin Watson or Matt Irwin over Yakov Trenin or Frederic Allard. The experience argument doesn’t work if the player still sucks. Trust the youth and you win games.

Examples of players this is true for:

I know this may come through as some bias, but when I think of youth supplanting veterans and instantly making the roster better, I think of Travis Sanheim’s situation with the Philadelphia Flyers for the past few seasons. Sanheim, a first round draft pick and clearly a good defender, was juggled between the NHL and AHL jarringly for months on end, despite his pedigree and talent, for Andrew MacDonald and Brandon Manning, two borderline AHL defenders. Despite the need for strong defenders and a boost from young talent, the Flyers refused to trust Sanheim with a starting role on a consistent basis, due to some glaring mistakes he had made in the few games he was given. After the firing of the GM and coach who performed this little mishandling, Sanheim was thrown into the lineup and ended up finishing the year as the Flyers’ highest-scoring defender. I could name any of the other young talent that the team mishandled at points (Oskar Lindblom, Travis Konecny, Nicolas Aube-Kubel), but I digress. Another guy who jumps to mind is the Hurricanes’ Martin Necas. Necas is having a great first NHL season, and while he hasn’t been lighting up the scoreboard, he drives play, scores some, and brings undeniable skill and upside to an already stacked Canes unit. Normally your 3C isn’t going to bring anything special, but if you trust a young player to grow into the role, that can rapidly change (see Yakov Trenin, Colin Blackwell on the fourth line).

Trenin and Blackwell have been effective and even good 5v5 players, which agrees with my eye test when I watch them. They create chances and push play up the ice, in addition to their miraculous ability to actually break out of their own end.
Image via evolving-hockey.com (@EvolvingWild)
This stands in a nice direct contrast to our good friends Colton Sissons and Austin Watson, who can’t exit the zone to save their lives. Sissons at least has the semi-redeeming quality of being good defensively.
Image via evolving-hockey.com (@EvolvingWild)

Teams that do this:

The aforementioned Boston Bruins have a bottom six with no player older than 28. The current group features Charlie Coyle, Danton Heinen, Sean Kuraly, and Anders Bjork, who are 27, 24, 27, and 23 years old, a pretty young set of players that have been key on a championship-contending Boston team. While Bjork hasn’t been great, the others have flashed skill that changes the outcome of games for Boston, which we saw in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

When it comes to defensive pairings taking advantage of young players with upside and their cheap contracts, look no further than the Toronto Maple Leafs, who by necessity have Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren as their third pairing. With around $40 million in cap space wrapped up in four players (all forwards), the Leafs haven’t had a lot of room to work with when building deep lines and a strong back end, something that has plagued them. So, they rely on cheap young talent like Sandin (19) and Liljegren (20) to step in and win matchups on the third pair, which has been a resounding success so far. Sandin has looked great in 17 games played and brings hope to a blue line that looked cooked. These are the kind of contributions the Predators could be getting out of guys like Allard or even Carrier (who I’m not nearly as high on).

Ingredient 4: Versatility

Why is this important?

In the NHL, you’re never going to finish the year with the roster totally unchanged for the whole season. Injuries, call-ups and trades are an inevitability; the issue with this is that players can be forced to play out of position or up/down in the lineup in order to accommodate any of the above, hurting their production. This is why versatility is hugely important in the construction of the bottom of the roster; you need guys who can ultimately play well in any situation. If you have “middle six” players who can play center or wing, you ultimately have more freedom to make changes to the roster without potentially upsetting all the positives a line or player has going for them. This makes cap structure easier as well, with true centers and wingers becoming less of a need. Also, being able to play on the penalty kill and be effective is a useful trait for bottom-six player; it gives additional fluidity to your units and allows a coach some confidence to change things up if something isn’t working, rather than stick with the same PK group all year.

Examples of players this is true for:

To go back to a team I’m more familiar with, Scott Laughton has been the ideal Swiss Army man in his tenure with the Flyers. Laughton has played both wings as well as center, and was introduced to playing all three at the NHL level while still pretty young. While clearly a better winger, he’s been crucial with filling the gaps left by long term unexpected injuries to Nolan Patrick (3C) and Oskar Lindblom (2RW) until top prospects like Joel Farabee and Morgan Frost moved up into these spots (Frost temporarily), and has also been key in turning around the Flyers’ formerly abysmal penalty kill. If Laughton weren’t comfortable playing center, the Flyers likely would had to play Frost at 3C (not a bad option, but not what the organization wants to do concerning his development) or give up assets to acquire a player that fills a relatively short-term hole. When you’re cap-strapped like Philly is, the latter isn’t an easy option to opt for.

Laughton has been a good penalty killer this year, and from this heatmap it isn’t hard to see why. The “home plate” area is practically a black hole. In addition to his strong isolated impact numbers, youth, and positional fluidity, this makes him a great asset for the bottom six.
Image via Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath)

Another player who fits this bill is Nick Schmaltz of the Arizona Coyotes. Schmaltz has been juggled around from the top six to the bottom six, and has played the wing at points in his career. Having pieces that can move up to fill in for injuries (say Phil Kessel goes down) is necessary for a team to be a sustained contender through anything that chance can cause, as GM John Chayka knows.

Teams that do this:

The Coyotes, Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, and Flyers all employ a lot of multi-positional players. Columbus and Arizona have built identities this year by having a few top end players complemented by three lines of extremely adaptable skaters and strong goaltending, which has been more than enough to bring some good success this year. Both are respectively impressive for different reasons; Columbus was left for dead after losing Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel this offseason, yet with strong coaching and savvy roster building, they’ve remained in the playoff race. Arizona hasn’t been to the playoffs in a long, long time, but Chayka has constructed a roster that plays solid defense with positionally flexible veterans and young players providing a backbone to build upon.

Ingredient 5: Physicality

Why is this important?

While some people who love advanced stats completely eliminate this factor, I don’t think you really can take the physical element all the way out of your consideration of how the game works. The psychological impact of not having anyone who can respond to abuse of teammates might not seem like a big deal, but I’d like to think that a big hit or the occasional fight can juice the team up. The issue is that all too often, teams place physicality at #1 on this list and use it to ignore all the other weaknesses of a player, resulting in garbage bottom-six groups and awful third pairings. It used to be that you could get away with having a pure enforcer on your team, but in a world where contract inefficiency and roster management matters significantly more (due to the introduction of the salary cap), you need players to be good first and physical second. This becomes even more important when you look at the league’s trend away from slow-paced play and towards skill and speed. Having a guy who drives play, creates and can skate is about all you want, but having one or two dudes who can create big hits and do all the rest of that stuff is helpful too.

Examples of players this is true for:

I’d like to talk about one of my favorite young players in the league, who you’ll likely hear more about in part three of this series. Nicolas Aubé-Kubel is a 23-year-old winger on the Philadelphia Flyers, and he’s basically the ideal bottom six forward. He has all the needed qualities: cheap ($700K AAV); drives play (see below chart); solid defensively; can penalty kill, fight, and lay big-boy hits. NAK has been one of the standout additions to an injury-riddled Flyers team because he’s a largely break-even or positive player at 5v5 with a nice shot and some great defensive awareness for someone his age. But in addition to all this, you can find him slamming a guy into the glass or chirping the opposing team on almost a nightly basis. This is the kind of player that can actually provide you some “juice,” rather than a guy who gets pummeled from a actual performance standpoint every time he hits the ice.

Aubé-Kubel hasn’t been with the Flyers for long, but he’s registered eight points and been a key contributor in the bottom six.
Image via evolving-hockey.com (@EvolvingWild)
Aubé-Kubel’s isolated impact. Keep in mind that the Flyers as a team have an offensive impact of -1%.
Image via hockeyviz.com (@IneffectiveMath)

Teams that do this:

Every bottom six has physical players in it. The issue is, how many of them feature physical players that meet the rest of these criteria? Well, going back to viewing this through a Predators lens, Yakov Trenin is a great example. While he has some defensive deficiencies, Trenin is excellent about playing the body, and his offensive instincts and talent balance out or eclipse his occasional lapses in his own end. When put on a line with a savvy and defensively-aware player like Colin Blackwell, Trenin thrives, as we’ve seen in his stints on the fourth line. Vince Dunn is a defender who exemplifies all of this stuff; he lays huge hits while being an amazing player, rather than just the former.

Conclusions

This is personally the way I feel a roster in the current league needs to be built. The hard part of running an organization should be finding and developing top end talent for a roster, not building a group of largely shifting and replaceable players who can pretty easily be analyzed. I hope you enjoyed this piece; be sure to leave some feedback on it. Go Preds.