I don’t blame all the breathless Tweeting and posting from Kettler this week about how Bruce Boudreau is tinkering with possible line combinations. We’re all excited for the return of hockey and unless there’s an injury or trade there’s not much else to write about during a practice from training camp. Knuble’s on the second line? Johansson is still with Ovi! Ward could play first or third RW? Etc, ad nauseum.
But let’s face it, this is what Boudreau does. And this is what pre-season is for. Especially with all the new veteran faces out there, it’s a good time to mix things up and see who might be comfortable playing with whom. The big thing that Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward bring to this team — other than an innate toughness — is versatility. Both players have experience playing up and down the line up and on either wing and are defensively responsible. You could see either one of them playing comfortably on any of the top three lines. And during the course of an 82-game season, we probably will.
So what is the best combination of those lines? Who knows, really. Mr. Fancystats over at RMNB does a great job of number crunching and his research is a good place to start the discussion with. But Boudreau rarely sticks with line combinations longer than a few games, if that. Is it better to keep static line combos, or move players around giving opponents different looks all the time? It’s a fascinating question.
Recently, Boudreau has talked about staggering the power play personnel so that he can put a scoring line on the ice following the man-advantage. It’s an interesting theory to be able to roll out a scoring line while the opponent’s top defensive players are recovering from killing a penalty. But all things considered, wouldn’t just be more efficient to take advantage of the extra man?
It’s fun to pretend we’re the coach, doodling line combos on napkins at lunchtime. But ultimately, it’s the players who decide who plays where with their performance. Boudreau can do all the tinkering he wants, but eventually you have to dance with the date that brung ya. My bet is that at the end of the season, Ovechkin and Backstrom will still have played together more than any other combo on the team, despite all the pre-season juggling.