NHL Team Composition

As hockey season begins I thought it would be cool to discuss why your team has the players it does. The concepts behind team compositions and how the NHL builds their teams. I will be using the Pittsburgh Penguins as an example because they set the template that most teams use. 

This is an org chart I made for a friend and thought its a good place to start. It defines everyone’s roles on a surface basis, and what they mean to their team.

In general a hockey team has 20 players rostered. They traditionally are broken into three groups. Twelve forwards, six defenceman, and two goalies. There are times where teams will dress an extra defenceman or an extra forward, but normally the roster every night looks like that.

The identity of a first line in hockey is a collection of your most gifted offensive pieces who are built to score. The Penguins feature Sidney Crosby, and Jake Guentzel permanently on their top line. The reason they do so is because Crosby’s favored winger is Guentzel. The two play well together and have generated large point totals in their few seasons together. The third member of the line rotates depending on what the rest of the team needs, or what that line needs. 

Against certain opponents you can see guys like Patric Honrqvist inserted to help create room for Crosby and Gentzel while occupying the front of the net. Last season you saw Jared McCann and Bryan Rust get a lot of time in that spot. They provide a lot of speed, and are big bodies who can retrieve pucks for Crosby and Guentzel. However most of the time you will see Dominc Simon on the right wing for Sid. He helps drive possession numbers. He isn’t a guy who will blow you away with offensive talent, but he helps keep the puck in the Penguins hands longer than some of the other more offensive gifted counterparts.

The second line on the Penguins and most NHL teams is a mirror of the first line. Ment to score goals and help keep you team in control of the puck for longer. The Penguins have Evgeni Malkin centering this line. His tacked on winger this season is Alex Galchenyuk. The idea is that the pair will stay together with a rotating right winger, much like the top line. To start the season Patric Hornqvist and Jared McCann filled those roles. They both bring a gritty side to the line that Malkin and Galcheyuk are not known for. This allows them to go to the dirty areas of the ice to win puck battles and tip in shots.

The third line for the Penguins is built to be a swiss army knife. Centered by Nick Bjugstad with wingers like Dominik Kahun, Brandon Tanev, Jared McCann, and Dominique Simon. The goal for this line is to not get scored on. They want to keep possession of the puck, and wear down opponents. If they score it’s always a positive, but they aren’t built to. You also hear the third line as the place where utility players are. Guys who kill penalties, block shots, and have a special utility to them that gives their game something that most of the other players don’t have. The third line center is almost always the main center on the penalty kill, and a gifted man in the face off circle.

The fourth line for the Penguins mirrors that of the third line. Lead by Teddy Blueger this line is meant to not get scored on and serve as a place for utility players. Now the Penguins are one of the only teams who offer a fourth line that is similar to their third.

Most teams use this as what they call a grind line. A line of bigger players, who are there to hit and truly wear down teams. The perfect example of that is the New York Islanders 4th line. Matt Martin in crew simply dump the puck behind opposing defenses and bang bodieds for the entirety of their thirty second shift.

The Penguins defense will show some similarities to their offense. Where the top two pairings are built to score and the bottom pair is where the penalty killers and grinders live. What I want to focus on tho is the way the pairs play together. Because the stereotypes the Penguins defense cast is a good blueprint for the NHL.

The top pairing of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin is simple. Letang only plays offense leaving Dumoulin to play defense single handedly. Both gifted skaters, Letang will take more risks offensively knowing he has a guy who is so defensively minded in Dumoulin behind him.

The second pair of Justin Shultz and Jack Johnson is similar but with one very distinct difference. Johnson the veteran of the defensive group is there as a shot blocking machine. It is indeed his job to allow Shultz to jump in the rush offensive, but what Johnson does better then anyone on the Penguins is block shots. For a defenseman it is a thankless job, but one that can be the difference in close games.

The final pairing of Erik Gudbranson and Marcus Pettersson is built to not be scored on. They are also the top pairing on the penalty kill. Pettersson can be thought of as a Dumoulin in training. His ceiling is that of a first pairing guy who is built to allow his partner to play offense. Which Gudbranson really is not known for. Gudbranson role is to bring toughness to the team. We saw last year him flaten Tom Wilson of the Capitals to the delight of every Penguins fan. He is going to serve as that force this season for the Penguins.

Their goaltending is built similar to most in the league now. Instead of a clear starter and backup role there is a 1A and 1B type relationship between Matt Murray and Tristian Jarry. This allows them to more evenly disruptive starts between goalies. That allows the goalies to be better rested for each start, while cutting down on injuries.

This is not the only model in the league but it is one that is heavily followed. If this was interesting let us know we can do more hockey theory and strategy things as the season progresses. The concept is the more you know the less you will yell shoot the puck.

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