Tim Jackman is one of the NHL's most hard-working, well-liked, low maintenance forwards.

Yesterday I wrote a post titled “From Prospect to Project: The thin line, and why some guys make the show and others don’t.” It looked at the reasons some junior and college hockey studs fall short despite gigantic pre-NHL numbers, and even larger expectations.

One of the things I briefly touched on was the concept of top six/bottom six forwards (top nine/bottom three on some teams), and how some forwards in the AHL are far more talented than those “bottom” line guys, but coaches and GMs prefer to have low-maintenance skaters who work hard, preserve the status quo and keep it simple. It can be frustrating for some, but most have accepted that it’s a reality that as skilled AHL forwards they aren’t trying to crack the big club’s top-12, they’re after the top-six. Really, it can be top-two at your position, if you’re adamant about playing one specifically. (If I can play Don Cherry for a sec, “KIDS, LISTEN UP — Do not pigeon-hole yourself to a particular wing, and learn to play center. You need to be a ‘forward.’”).

Kent Wilson of NHL Numbers (great site) and Flames Nation, like myself, studied psychology in University, and has a theory about how we’ve ended up where we’re at, with every team selecting a few lesser talented forwards for “intangible” reasons, or just straight physical play in lieu of skill. It really is incredible some team hasn’t tried to take a different course (top-12, all-skill), given Team Canada’s increased success after throwing away the idea of carrying a true “grind line” (reminder: Rob Zamuner was once on the Canadian Olympic team.)

Anyway, below is Kent’s theory in email form, which I’ll respond to in a sort of “FJM/MST3K” fashion.

The issue of how and why certain players are consistently chosen for bottom-6 roles (particularly the 4th line) has been of interest to me for some time, especially since coaches/teams don’t seem to necessarily pick them based on strictly optimal or rational reasons (ie; players that are tough, big and ‘coach-able’ rather than players that can actually outscore the opposition). 

Kent’s more into advanced stats than I am, but I did come to respect a few fancy-stat measures this season, one of which is Corsi, a measure which shows how much a given player “drives the play.” All pucks directed towards the oppositions net while a player is on the ice positively affects their Corsi, and pucks directed at their own net negatively affect it. One thing it taught me this year, was that every single player on the Toronto Maple Leafs had a higher Corsi when they were on the ice with Mikhail Grabovski – as in, he’s great at driving play.

A lot of these “lower line” gents do not have positive Corsis (but man can they bang the body!). It seems to me (and other relatively logical people) that the more guys you have who have the puck moving the right way, the more chances you’ll generate, and the better off you’re going to be. I don’t care how physical a guy is if the puck is moving the right way when he’s on the ice. I acknowledge that we’ve always done it the top-six/bottom-six way, but if I’m a GM, I’m paying less attention to hits, and more attention to the direction of play.

So my thoughts are many of those guys are chosen based on some of those attributes you note (particularly effort and personality) to help the coach and organization promote cohesion and fidelity, both to the team in general and coach in particular. Subconsciously, it’s easy to prefer guys you “like” and coaches will obviously like guys who skate through a wall for them and do pretty much anything they ask without complaint. In addition, having guys like that can act as a model for the coach to laud in an effort to exact both effort and obedience from other players, which in turn would act to legitimize the coaches authority over the group. 

The last sentence makes perfect sense. Tim Jackman, who I’ve repeatedly used as the example for this role, is a leader in the dressing room too. He’ll repeat everything the coach wants done, and then he’ll speak with his actions too. It’s borderline inspiring – if that guy cares so much, maybe I should too?

There’s another reason for picking the guys they “like” too: money. Obviously, your elite players eat up the bulk of your salary cap, so you can’t afford to pay much to the bottom of your lineup. Given the volume of guys in the AHL who are willing to do whatever to make those NHL bucks (and how basically interchangeable they are), why grab a guy who’s going to complain about ice time, try to climb the ranks, verbally submarine teammates in the locker room…if we’re only spending 600k on this guy, might as well grab one who’ll know his place and stay out of the way. But Kent is getting to this.

Dan Arielly wrote about “social norms” and “market norms” in Predictably Irrational. These are two parallel yet mostly mutually exclusive ways of thinking that pretty much everyone engages in. When operating in “market norms”, people coldly weigh their options, calculate values and render decisions based on impersonal cost/benefit analyses. When operating in “social norms” the effect of our actions on others and the importance of group cohesion, identity within the group and other pro-social phenomenon are weighted a lot more heavily. Of course, social norm thinking and market norm thinking can clash greatly when the line between the two is transgressed. 

This made me wonder if coaches have to perpetually fight to keep social and market norms separate in the dressing room. After all, pro hockey players get paid based on how much they produce, how much they play etc. So in fact the dressing room could hypothetically be a constant competition and struggle between the various players to gain more opportunity, more ice and therefore a bigger paycheck.

I liked that observation a lot. From the outside, the Chicago Blackhawks (for example) are The Chicago Blackhawks to the fans. They are pushing and pulling in the same direction, and trying to win the Stanley Cup. They will do whatever it takes for one another to get there.

From the inside, a second line forward is fucking annoyed that the third liner they plunked in front of the net on what should’ve been the second liner’s powerplay keeps scoring. One missed zone entry equaled on missed PP in favour of the third liner equaled a goal for the team equaled more ice time for that guy equals fuck that guy. The third liners value is rising. Both their contracts are up this year. Dammit, he scored again.

There are plenty of times a d-man gets roasted and the healthy-scratched D-man celebrates in his head. Or a guy’s stick snaps on an open net, and a guy on the bench is happy. Teams are best when roles are clearly defined, internal competition is minimized (NOT eliminated), and the team is sincerely pulling the same direction.

On the other hand, the goal is to maintain a clear hierarchy and a cohesive team that can work together and effectively implement the coaches strategies. So the consistent inclusion of Jackman-type players on the bottom-end could be a cultural feature in the league that helps promote the social norms of hockey (self-sacrifice, team-first, do anything to win, etc.) ahead of market norms. 

Yep. As much as it’s good to not have players get complacent in their roles, there’s usually enough motivation for professional hockey players to keep pouring it on. No one low on the depth chart is going to crack, say, the Penguins first powerplay unit, but guys still want to be the first fill-in if someone gets hurt. They have their contracts to worry about, they want to win…there’s plenty of reasons. So having someone like Jackman who will, as Wilson put it “promote the social norms of hockey” keeps things stable and organized.

All this translates to the simple fact that coaches don’t always pick the best players for their teams. They try to build the best “team,” not collect the best available guys who are good at hockey. The Rock was wise when he advised that people “know their role.”

It can be frustrating, and it can be tough to explain to the outside world, but it’s just the way things have been up to this point. For hockey players, your choices are accept it, or try another profession.

Comments (17)

  1. Excellent, excellent piece.

  2. This was outstanding. Now I have an idea of why Krys Barch managed to stay with the Stars for so long instead of being sent down to the AHL.

  3. “…coaches don’t always pick the best players for their teams. They try to build the best team,…”

    True even at the lowerst levels of minor hockey. One added wrinkle for minor hockey, more than one player has missed the cut because of his/her parents and the baggage they can bring to a team.

    • For sure. I’ve seen plenty of talented (at that level) minor leaguers get shown the door because they had attitude problems or were not team players. Meantime, the grinder who is not a great skater and will never score sees ice time.

  4. This makes a lot of sense when you frame it in terms of cohesion over possession metrics. The Team Canada approach is nice for a short tournament against other All-Star Teams, and you can usually find enough “role-playing” stars – your Ryan Smyth and Brendan Morrow types – who can accept a lesser role and play it well for a half-dozen games for the greater good. Over the course of the 100+ games needed to win the Stanley Cup…yeah. That’s not gonna happen. No way an AHL star is going to be happy with fourth-line minutes for an entire year; they’re gonna get frustrated with the lack of opportunity to show their stuff, and so forth.

    • I would not include Ryan Smyth, based on his inability to actually accept lesser roles. See: Los Angeles.

  5. I know I’m a dinosaur when it comes to my opinions on the game, but a player like Jackman for me symbolizes everything that is great and different about hockey from other sports. In hockey and even at its highest level, there is a place for a guy that is not as talented but is bound and determined to play any part necessary to be a part of the game.
    Other sports don’t just don’t show me enough of the “I’ll walk through hell in a suit made of gasoline to be here” type of people; people that a lot of us in the “real world” can relate to (guys and gals).
    I’d love to see a whole team of the Jackman, Ryan Reaves, Ian Lapparrier type players. They may never win many games but I think as whole they could have a very supportive fan base.
    Must be why I like watching hockey from the 70’s and the 80’s, which I guess is weird for a guy that isn’t even 30 yet.

    • Yeah, I’m with you on that. There’s something great in hockey that doesn’t seem to exist in most other sports: That if you’re the least talented, but most hard working player on a team – you will get noticed and probably have a spot on the team. Players like these who are willing to block shots, take a hit and generally do whatever it takes are looked upon in a positive light in hockey. Baseball, baskeball, and to a lesser extent football just don’t have equivalents. Even where equivalents exist, they aren’t honored in the same way as in hockey. Think back to all the coverage of the Devil’s 4th line in the playoffs…yeah, they were on fire, but if you just looked at a stats sheet it wouldn’t appear to be anything special.

  6. “All this translates to the simple fact that coaches don’t always pick the best players for their teams. They try to build the best “team,” not collect the best available guys who are good at hockey. The Rock was wise when he advised that people “know their role. It can be frustrating, and it can be tough to explain to the outside world, but it’s just the way things have been up to this point. For hockey players, your choices are accept it, or try another profession.”

    Well said. I think what’s interesting to me is how, and if, the concept of what the “best team” may change in the future. If the goal of a team is to win, then building the best team should be focused on putting your team in the best position to win. One of the interesting aspects of new stats, and new ways of looking at sports in general (using continually advancing understandings of psychology, behavior, and physiology), is thinking about how our current and historical ideas of “best” might change.

    For example, lots of talk in this piece about the coach, and how players might be used to support and reinforce the coach. Well who needs a coach? What’s to suggest that you get to a point where you have a supercomputer running sophisticated modeling based on real time input?

  7. One problem is there is only so much puck to go around. To wit, as Justin points out, the guy on the 4th might feel that he deserves more ice time than the guy on the 2nd line who is going to massage his ego, smooth things over before giving him a chance? His teammates?
    I think where things might change in the future, is putting guys on the ice who contribute positives. Fact of the matter, not everyone can score, but some guys have the ability to handle the puck better than others or they have a better ability at limiting the possession of the opposite team.

    It’s easier for guys to buy in a short tournament or in the playoffs than it is during the regular season, especially when things are going well.

  8. Great piece, Justin/Kent. I happened to re-read your piece yesterday on the role of fear even at high levels of hockey, and they go together very nicely to help me start to get my possession-focused brain around this role in modern hockey. You and Kent do a great job explaining the normative role of this type of player.

    What I wonder about is this: are guys who are really good at hockey – top 1,000 in the world good – all wieners about it? Is Rich Peverly or Kyle Wellwood just a pain to have on the team and not worth the fact that they drive results and get 30-35 pts in 12 minutes a night? Is there no guy out there who drives corsi, is better than the Tim Jackmans and Zach Stortinis but is also a self-sacrificing, team first guy?

    I get that it’s a workplace and the players and coaches work insane hours in a high stress environment doing something that is ultimately out of their control in front of millions of people. The last thing you need in that workplace are people who only make it harder on everyone by whining. But has the NHL already absorbed all the guys out there who can score 35 goals in the AHL AND have a good attitude? Really? There’s not another 90 guys in other leagues who are better at hockey than the worst 90 NHL players AND would play 8 minutes with a smile?

    It feels like a familiarity bias somehow.

    That said, I get the playing with fear component (as a slight, skill player who tries too hard and thus gets chased around for the last two periods of every game by guys who don’t even wear face protection for beer league). And I hear your point that power forwards are already at maximum market value, with Lucic being consistently lauded despite clear deficiencies in this game (like using soft, heavy lead for skate blades, for one), and every coach ever screaming at Dustin Penner to hit people instead of drive possession.

    So Tim Jackman gets a job as an inspiration to his team and a nuclear option. Ben Eager gets a job because he can skate pretty fast and is maybe a sociopath. Meanwhile, Patrick Thoresen rocks the KHL and Antti Mietinen can’t get an NHL job after 5 seasons with 30 or more NHL points against tough opposition

    It seems like the cup winner the past few years is the team that has 4 lines who drive possession, and they all bench their Westgarths and Scotts when the second season starts anyway. So, can all skill guys really be pushing market norms and not social or cohesive norms? I get why SOME teams would choose the team-first bruiser squad for their fourth line – no accounting for taste. But why does (almost) Every team do it?

  9. Well I agree that this explains a lot of why teams compose their teams irrationally, it doesn’t demonstrate that teams are making good decisions.

    That teams do this is clear. Providing a rationalization for this behaviour does not demonstrate that the behaviour itself is optimal to the only consideration that matters: winning hockey games.

    Even the admission that some teams have move from having top six forwards to having a top nine is an indication that this is not set in stone. Moreover, the teams that play top nine forwards are invariable better than teams that don’t.

    The first team that starts icing 12 “puck movers” will invariable have a competitive advantage over everyone else. Unless you believe that “driving play” is somehow correlated with “being a bad guy.” For instance, Linus Omark is outscoring a bevy of NHL stars in the Swiss league right now, despite not being given the time of day by the Oilers for precisely these reasons (being worse than Eberle=not good enough for NHL). However, I can’t believe that he wouldn’t rather have a chance as an NHL fourth liner than toiling away in the minors or in Europe. Instead, the Oilers iced a fourth line of guys who not only aren’t good enough for the NHL, they aren’t good enough for the AHL.

    I get that character matters, but if your team has players that are marginal minor leaguers you are doing something wrong.

    • That’s when the issue of money comes up as Bourne mentioned. Players like the Omark’s in the league are going to ask for more money than the 4th liners.

      Not to mention, the playoffs are a totally different game. A team of 12 puck moving forwards might not last in the playoffs, because teams are wearing them out by playing physcially. It happens all the time in the playoffs.

  10. Agreed Captain. My take wasn’t necessarily to argue that what is conventional is optimal, just that this is why it might have arisen.

  11. I may be biased, but I really like the way the Canucks built their fourth line recently, putting defensive specialists like Manny Malhotra and Maxim Lapierre on the bottom line and submarining their zone starts, starting them almost exclusively in the defensive zone. They have negative Corsi ratings, but mainly because of their defensive zone starts. They still very much know their role on the team, but are not useless players.

  12. This is a very nice read. I think this article really details at length the why to guys like jackman. There really the nhls trump card over other sports to me. All teams have that guy whos not particularly good at anything, but give it there all, all the time. For a fan guys like this you can identify with, you can almost see them in your shoes as a hard working person, who does whatever you can to try to make a go of things. All pro sports have there stars, there skill, there players in a certain posistion that everyone drools over. In hockey theres a little bit of everything for everyone.

    You have your stars who thrill you with spectacular plays, you have your aggresive guys yet talented guys, ie Morrow, who have good skill but heart and sole like no other, your tough guys to give you 2 mins of massive in rink excitement, and last but not least your sole guys, that guys that fans love and players hate, that guy that goes out there for 4-8mins a game to just mess people up, and simply put that is what I as a fan pay to see, a full orchestra of men battling for 2 points, respect, or a cup.

  13. Good article, except for the comment “given Team Canada’s increased success after throwing away the idea of carrying a true “grind line”.
    Here are Olympic & Canada/World Cup results:
    76 Gold 81 Silver 84 Gold 87 Gold 91 Gold 96 Silver
    98 4th with Rob Zamuner
    02 Gold 04 Gold 06 Seventh 10 Gold

    Post-Zamuner: Three golds in four tries
    Pre-Zamuner: Three golds in four tries (or 4 in 6).
    That’s “continued success” more than “increased success”.

    Furthermore, the 2004 team included Draper and Maltby, who were checkers/grinders, and certainly not scorers.

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