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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

How should the Flames match up their lines and defensive pairings?

Sometimes it probably seems like being a National Hockey League coach could be easy. Occasionally I picture it like Mr. Burns telling the Major League Baseball ringers what to do in the classic Simpsons episode “Homer at the Bat” – Darryl Strawberry hits a home run and Burns smugly tells his assistant, “I told him to do that.”

But deployments, where and how you use your players to maximize results, are a challenging thing to get right. If you’ve been watching games this season, you’ve probably heard a familiar refrain (or shouted it yourself): “Why is the fourth line out there with the third pairing??

We dug into the deployment data for the first 12 games to see if that combination was in any way a logical decision.

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The assessment process here is pretty simple, and is based on a simple premise: getting the most out of the team’s best players. Starting with the top line and moving down to the fourth, what defensive pairing produces the best results? (Unless otherwise noted, all data here is five-on-five and was culled from Natural Stat Trick.)

The Monahan Line

Sean Monahan played 67:10 with T.J. Brodie (with a 46.38% Corsi For) and 63:37 with Travis Hamonic (50.00% CF), starting 70.27% of their shifts in the offensive zone. That’s basically what you’d expect and the heavy offensive zone tilt is consistent across the top line’s usage with all pairings.

Dougie Hamilton (56:31) and Mark Giordano (53:54) spent the second most time with the top guns, with markedly better results – 62.61% CF with Hamilton and 66.96% CF with Giordano.

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Michael Stone spent 27:58 with Monahan’s line and had a 48.7% CF.

The 3M Line

The team’s most dangerous quintet last season was Mikael Backlund’s line with the Giordano and Hamilton pairing, and that success has probably led to their heavy usage: Giordano (74:36) and Hamilton (72:16) have spent more time with the 3M Line than with any other forward group. The results are pretty strong (53.99% CF for Giordano, 55.69% CF for Hamilton), but you’ll also note that the top defensive pairing had similarly strong results with Monahan’s group.

Brodie (57:24) and Hamonic (53:07) have also spent a lot of time with the 3M Line, with good results as well – 58.72% CF for Brodie and 59.60% CF with Hamonic.

If you’re about to conclude that Glen Gulutzan can put anybody with the 3M Line, start ’em in the defensive zone and have success, you’re unfortunately wrong. Stone (24:33) has a woeful 37.50% CF with 3M with pretty similar zone starts to the Brodie/Hamonic pairing.

The Third Line

The third line is basically whatever group Sam Bennett is with. They have universally been given zone starts tilted towards the offensive zone. The third line has played fairly similar minutes with all three pairings, with fairly similar results:

  • 48:36 with Brodie (47.62% CF) and 44:31 with Hamonic (45.16% CF)
  • 45:31 with Stone (45.05% CF)
  • 35:21 with Hamilton (51.22% CF), 32:47 with Giordano (50.00% CF)

In short: seemingly it doesn’t matter who you put Bennett’s line with, because aside from a slight drop off with the third pairing, they’re similar with all three pairings.

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The Fourth Line

Using Troy Brouwer as a proxy for the fourth line, since he’s played in every game, we now come to our major question: why does Gulutzan keeping playing the fourth line with the third pairing? Well, of the three pairings that have played with the fourth line, Stone’s pairing has played the most by a slight margin (41:33) but also has the best results (51.19% CF).

Brodie (42:28) and Hamonic (41:07) have the second most minutes and the second best results (45.74% and 44.19% CF, respectively).

Giordano (28:14) and Hamilton (25:52) have the fewest minutes and the worst results (40.32% and 38.98% CF, respectively).

The majority of the fourth line’s shifts, regardless of defensive pairing, begin in the defensive end.

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What are ideal deployments?

If you’re trying to maximize puck possession, here are the best bets in terms of players to use without relying entirely on one group to play the entire game:

  • The top line with Giordano/Hamilton
  • The 3M Line with Brodie/Hamonic
  • The third line with a mixture of the top two pairings
  • The fourth line with the third pairing

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    Quality of competition is the big equalizer here. The 4th line survives with the 3rd pairing because that specific combination is likely only rolled out against the same type of competition on the other team.

  • Puckhead

    Wow, thank you for compiling this data. I openly questioned the deployment of the bottom lines at the same time and had no idea that the stats would come out this way.

    There were definitely a few shifts that I remember being brutal but overall I guess the Stone with Brouwer pairings make sense. I think Bart was part of the problem and if Kulak stays in hopefully the stats will steadily improve.

  • The GREAT WW

    If the Oilers keep losing I think we will see McDavid out of the lineup for long stretches of the season (injury, personal reasons, rehab…) the Oilers have “the tank” mastered!!!!!

    WW

    • Puckhead

      It looks like Nuge has been playing well. It’s probably a last ditch effort by him to increase his trade value and get outta dodge. Good luck Nuge…our hearts and thoughts are with you.

    • BendingCorners

      Stajan for Nuge? ChiaPet has a habit of trading downward and Chicken Nugget is a pretty good hockey player. Put him between Bennett and Ferland and waive Lazar/Brouwer to call up Mangiapane. Fourth line becomes Versteeg Jankowski Mangiapane
      all still under the cap. Four lines to roll with. Better stats for aĺl of them.

        • BendingCorners

          Comment showed up in the wrong thread. Here again:
          RNH is way better than Smid ever was. Surprised I received so many trashes. RNH > Stajan is an easy formula to understand. Mangiapane > ( Lazar | Brouwer ) is unproven but not unlikely. Unless the trashers figure Jankowski > RNH, which could be true but has not yet been demonstrated, and anyway if they’re on the same team just switch them.
          Whatever. The lineup tonight should be good enough to get a W, especially if Brouwer stays of the ice. Hope the third line scores a goal each.

    • BendingCorners

      RNH is way better than Smid ever was. Surprised I received so many trashes. RNH > Stajan is an easy formula to understand. Mangiapane > ( Lazar | Brouwer ) is unproven but not unlikely. Unless the trashers figure Jankowski > RNH, which could be true but has not yet been demonstrated, and anyway if they’re on the same team just switch them.
      Whatever. The lineup tonight should be good enough to get a W, especially if Brouwer stays of the ice. Hope the third line scores a goal each.

    • Off the wall

      Haha Cheeky, no comparison I would think. I think that’s why Pike omitted him.
      Bartkowski is that bad, Kulak looks like Bobby Orr compared to Bart. Sorry Bart, but you didn’t make the grade.

  • OYYC

    “Why is the fourth line out there with the third pairing??”

    Slightly off topic – it isn’t so much why is the 4th line out there with the 3rd pairing? It is more like why is the 4th line out there at all (with whichever defensive pairing) when you are down a goal with two minutes left in the game? That’s the baffling thing.

  • Alberta Ice

    If this team plays like last Sunday evening, they can beat anybody. Here’s trusting that Kulak and Jankowski keep trending upward in their play as they get more comfortable with their line mates. That’s a reason I am more optimistic that a big corner has been turned. GFG

    • Skylardog

      3 days to make changes to the PP. Will Brouwer remain on PP1, or for that matter, on any PP line. No excuses for GG if Brouwer touches the ice with JG and Mony. No goals while he has been out on the PP is unacceptable.

  • Squishin

    Great article. The rationale behind some decisions is a bit clearer now. Of course, that’s only if you trust Corsi For to be the sole indicator of success.
    What baffles me is Glen Gulutzan putting the first line out with the 3rd pairing. That should never happen again. It’s a terrible combination, especially considering how poor the first line sometimes plays in the d-zone, combined with the weaker d-men (especially Bartkowski).
    Like some of the previous posters above, I am also confused as to why he puts Stajan out for an o-zone draw when we’re down a goal with 2 minutes remaining in the 3rd. Inevitably, ol’ Staj gets tossed from the circle, we lose the draw, and then lose the game. Really? Come on.