When Mike Babcock put together his lines for Game One last night against Norway, players slotted in mostly as expected. Sidney Crosby and Rick Nash were on the first line. The three San Jose Sharks stayed together. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf remained a tandem, joined by Eric Staal. Players like Jonathan Toews, Mike Richards and Brendan Morrow rounded out the bottom of the roster.
The one decision that raised eyebrows was the other winger on the first line. Jarome Iginla was the obvious choice, but instead he started out at the bottom of the roster, while Boston Bruins centre and Team Canada depth player Patrice Bergeron was assigned to ride shotgun with Crosby and Nash. It sparked some debate here and undoubtedly elsewhere before the game.
I assumed that Babcock planned to use the Crosby line as his go-to group against tough opponents, but that only made a little bit of sense because while Bergeron is a fantastic defensive player Iginla isn’t exactly a slouch either. I didn’t realize what the real answer was until this morning when I read Scott Reynolds’ excellent recap of the game and reviewed his play-by-play notes. What follows is the illuminating paragraph:
Sidney Crosby moved around quite a bit more at [even-strength], sometimes because he has a tendency to take longer shifts and sometimes because the coaches were trying him with different guys. But for the most part he spent the first period and a half with Rick Nash and Patrice Bergeron and the last period and a half with Rick Nash and Jarome Iginla. The latter grouping seemed to work a lot better but I did notice that after the switch to Iginla the Nash-Crosby pair went out for only one defensive zone draw (that’s no sin, there weren’t many non-icing DZ draws) and Iginla was replaced by Bergeron (that’s the part I find interesting). As the tournament progresses I could see that becoming a pattern. Both Bergeron and Crosby are very good on faceoffs and using them together in defensive situations might be in the plans going forward. If so, Iginla becomes, almost exclusively, an offensive weapon. Now, this theory is based on exactly one faceoff plus the fact that they played Bergeron with Crosby for an entire period. But I think it’s a good idea. It plays both Bergeron and Iginla to their strengths and could work well as the competition gets tougher.
In hindsight it seems obvious, and makes perfect sense given that Babcock has an extra forward to work with. Like most coaches, he likes the idea of having two premier faceoff men on the ice for defensive zone faceoffs. Like most coaches, he wants his best players (in this case Crosby and Nash) out against the best opponents. Add in the fact that Bergeron is a supremely talented defensive forward, and the answer is simple: employ him as a defensive specialist with the top line, and when using the top line in offensive situations replace him with Iginla. The only hitch in the plan is that it limits Iginla’s ice-time, but that can be compensated for by getting him some shifts with the fourth line or possibly (I say possibly because Babcock hasn’t done it yet) subbing him in for Eric Staal on the Anaheim line from time to time.
Iginla’s hat-trick last night probably earned him continued prominence on the team, but I’d be very surprised if Bergeron didn’t continue to see some ice-time with Crosby and Nash, even if it’s only as a defensive specialist.