Earlier this afternoon in my “Thoughts on Thoughts” post, I gave my take on the Detroit Red Wings, and whether Gustav Nyqvist could still crack the big club even if he wasn’t able to crack the top-six forwards, slots usually reserved for those who capably create offense at the NHL level. My point (with fuel from @67sound), was that a huge number of successful Detroit Red Wings forwards, offensive forwards included, started on the bottom two lines until they rounded into form and climbed the depth chart.

The Wings have been the poster team for “an alternative route” of sorts – while other teams fill their bottom trios with “energy guys,” grinders and the like, the Red Wings have used it as a chance to give ice time – though not too much – to their up-and-comers. (As I noted in that linked post: Datsyuk, Filpulla, Hudler, Kopecky, Franzen, Williams, and Cleary all started as low-liners.)

Fans of all teams have some guy in the system that is probably ready for the NHL, but sees time in the AHL because the top-six spots are filled in. There are plenty of stories of teams properly developing young players by working them into a lower role (feel free to comment on who your team has developed this way), and even more of teams who’ve done it the wrong way, and platooned their prospects between the top two lines in the A and the NHL, leaving them either in over their head, or not challenged enough.

The Vancouver Canucks have generally done a good job developing from within as well. Consider: the Sedin twins came over from Sweden at a young age, and saw third line minutes as rookies with Trent Klatt. TRENT KLATT. They didn’t have the “man strength” necessary to be excellent at the NHL level, despite the fact that they possessed more than enough talent. Still, they didn’t get shucked on down to the minors. As the years went on, they were given more ice time at the NHL level, more capable linemates (they eventually joined Todd Bertuzzi), and their production sky-rocketed.

Ryan Kesler also saw ample lower line time with the Canucks before graduating into a top-six forward. And yet another decent NHL forward, Alex Burrows, was a lower-line player before being given the opportunity to climb the ranks. He’s hovered around 30 g0als between the Sedins in each of the past four seasons.

The whole idea that a group of forwards needs to made up of:

Great Player    Great Player     Great Player
Good Player     Good Player     Good Player
Energy Guy      Pretty Good      Energy Guy
  Grinder              Grinder            Grinder

…is old-fashioned.

there are too many talented players these days to waste spots on a guy just because he fits your pre-concieved notion of who should fill those spots. People used to want “reliable” from their bottom half. I say it makes sense to have hot and cold games from guys in those roles as they develop and improve.

You obviously want to keep the bottom portion of your 12 forwards affordable. You obviously want to develop your young talent, and let them get some NHL minutes. To me, it’s obvious that you should always have a few entry-level contracts on your third line (or fourth if you’re so inclined), to meet both your developmental and fiscal needs.

So many players are so good so young in hockey’s present era that in a salary capped world, your best bet of winning a title is to be a cap team with contributing cheap talent farther down the line. The Flyers are able to go in on nearly every available free agent big fish and stay stacked the last couple season because they still have guys like Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn on entry-level deals.

I’m sure that the Red Wings will allow Gustav Nyqvist, or Damien Brunner, or Tomas Tatar a roster spot, because they know how to develop from within, they know how to re-stock whenever you think they’re down and out, and they know how to stay a playoff team in a cap league.

Comments (13)

  1. Seems most of the time it was two scoring lines, a checking line, and an energy line. Now it’s getting closer to three scoring lines and an energy line, with one line being able to play competent defense against the top line.

  2. I wonder if that ties in with Detroit’s philosophy of drafting guys who are willing to accept any role given, and adapt to said role, and grow within that role.

    There’s also the question of development, especially for an offensively skilled player, in terms of minutes versus environment. Are you better off developing playing 20+ minutes a game, with power play time, getting as many touches with the puck as possible, but at a lower level, or playing 8-10 minutes a game, with no special teams time, and fewer touches with the puck, but at a higher level?

  3. I typically like seeing younger players, especially 1st or 2nd year guys staying off the 4th line in the NHL. If they can’t get more than 10 minutes a night in the NHL, they should be down in the AHL playing 20+ on the PP and PK.

    With two-way hockey being preached and taught all over the world now, there are more skilled players who can also play a shutdown/defensive role. When the Blackhawks won the SC they had Dave Bolland, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg as their 3rd line. They typically were up against the other teams top lines too, yet I don’t think anyone could deny those 3 of having average, if not above average skill (more so Ladd and Steeg).

  4. Also to go along with your point: just because someone is a top 6 player on one team doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a top 6 player across the league (organizational depth-chart-wise).

    If you look at the Bruins as an example: Michael Ryder played on the third line for most of his time there and became a top six forward for the Stars. Rich Peverley played a top six role in Atlanta before being placed on the third line in Boston.

    Jordan Staal would be another example of this. On any other team that doesn’t have Malkin and Crosby, he’d be playing top 6 minutes.

    • Staal’s average minutes in Pittsburgh:
      2011-2012: 20:03 Second amongst forwards.
      2010-2011: 21:21 Second amongst forwards.
      2009-2010: 19:24 Third amongst forwards.
      2008-2009: 19:51 Third amongst forwards.

      • Without Sid (3/4 last season), he was the #2 center with major PK time and some PP time. With Sid, he’s far less useful to the team, unfortunately.

        FWIW I think Brandon Sutter will fill in nicely. That trade was a win-win for sure.

      • Oops, ancient thread

  5. I think on the best NHL teams, the energy guys and grinders need to be good players in disguise. Their stats don’t reflect that because they’re used in heavily defensive/ non-offensive situations.

  6. On a side note, many have mentioned recently that the NHL over extended itself when it expanded to 30 teams and that it diluted the talent pool of good players. I’m curious, after stating “there are too many talented players these days to waste spots on a guy just because he fits your pre-concieved notion of who should fill those spots”, whether you think we have enough talent to fill 30 NHL teams with skilled players, or whether (as the argument made by others) that we see 3rd and 4th lines filled with “grinders” because there are too many teams in the NHL.

  7. Brad Marchand was a proud member of Boston’s fourth line (aka the “merlot” line, so named for the color of their practice jerseys) before moving to the second line halfway through the 2010-11 season. I’d say he used his fourth-line stint to good effect.

  8. While expansion may dilute the pool of genuine star players, expansion does not dilute the pool of good players. This has been demonstrated conclusively.

  9. If you want an example of a guy who succeeded as a Top-6 or nothing, a recent one could be MaxPac in Montreal. He was quite bad during 2 years in Montreal in the bottom 6, despite being quite good in the AHL. That could have been due to abnormally poor shooting luck.

    Anyway, on the 3rd year, the guys tears the AHL apart during the first two months, comes up to the big club, makes Gomez look almost like his old self, scores like 15 goals in 35 games before being nearly killed by Chara.

    • Was going to say the same thing. Montreal has a long and dark history of trying to force talented, young, offensive players to be grinders at the NHL level instead of playing on a top line in the AHL. It may work for some guys, but there are others who get destroyed by playing 8 or 9 minutes per night instead of learning how to properly lead a team in the AHL.

      The Brad Marchand’s of the world play chippy enough to get by until they develop. I’d say he’s stronger for having filled that role.. but I think of Sergei Kostitsyn or playing on the 4th line and think – what was the point of that? Especially if the guy is never going to be a physical player – you’re just making him look bad by giving him scrubs to work with, and exposing every defensive mistake, burning any confidence that comes from being an elite offensive player in the minors.

      I agree that you can save some money by bringing up a young guy, giving him experience but as a Habs fan I was so happy that they finally left Pacioretty alone, and let him come up once he had forced the issue. He was a legit scoring threat with the physical body to be competitive at the NHL level.

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