NHL Team Line Combinations

Any NHL player can be evaluated in a vacuum, both with traditional stats like goals, assists and plus/minus and with more modern metrics like Corsi, Fenwick, PDO and others. Those statistics can give you a pretty accurate idea of a player’s value, both in real life and in fantasy, especially over the course of an entire season. However, to truly capture a player’s impact on a given game, it’s necessary to understand where that player fits in within his team’s structure and game plan. In other words, you need to understand on what lines that player is being deployed. Line combinations are crucial to properly valuing players, and this is especially true for daily fantasy.

Basic Line Concepts

NHL teams universally deploy 4 lines for forwards, each of which traditionally has a slightly different role, and are usually made up of a different caliber of player. The first line generally has the most talented offensive players on the team, and is responsible for bulk of that team’s scoring. A first line also receives the most ice time. The second line is another offensive-minded line, made up of the next best offensive forwards. Teams with multiple superstar players face the choice of either stacking their top line or splitting their stars between the first and second lines. That kind of choice can vary from game to game. A prominent example over the last decade would be the Blackhawks, where coach Joel Quenneville would alternate between splitting Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane between first and second lines and pairing them on the first line. The third line is traditionally referred to as the checking line, and usually features forwards who are skilled at defense and limited offensively. The idea behind the classic third line is to match up against an opponent’s top line and frustrate them defensively. The fourth line is traditionally referred to as the energy line, and it receives the least ice time and tends to feature the least skilled forwards on the team. In years past, the fourth line is where low-skilled enforcers would play, though this is changing as the league grows away from that aspect of the game. In addition to the 4 line structure, teams feature lines which play on the penalty and to kill opposing penalties. Generally, the standout forwards from the first and second lines play on the power play lines, and gritty third liners can often feature on penalty kill lines.

Line Assignments and Daily Fantasy Hockey

Now that we’ve got the basics of line combinations down, what does that mean for daily fantasy hockey? Most daily fantasy hockey games feature a pretty simple scoring structure – players are rewarded for goals, assists, shots on goal and blocks, with goals and assists being worth the most points. There are a few other ways to score points, but that’s the basic framework of the game. You can immediately note that all these are volume stats. In other words, they correlate with playing time. The more time a player is on the ice, the more likely (in general) he is to rack up these kinds of stats. That being the case, pay careful attention to decisions coming from a team regarding changes in line structure. A demotion from the first to the third line, or from the second to the fourth line, likely means a significant drop-off in ice time for a player. This is almost always going to have an impact on daily fantasy stats. And the converse is true: If a player is promoted to a higher line, chances are his value has now improved by virtue of more ice time. But the impact of line shuffling goes beyond just increased/decreased ice time. Certain players elevate the stats of players sharing a line with them. A player playing on a line with Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos will always score more points than that same player playing with a lesser center.

So, a player dropping from a first line pairing with Steven Stamkos to a third line pairing with Cedric Paquette is a double whammy. Not only is he receiving less ice time, but he’s no longer benefitting from all the extra opportunities and assists that Stamkos brings to his line. Beyond where a player is being slotted into his team’s four lines, be cognizant of how much usage a player gets on the power play, and to a lesser extent the penalty kill. Power play minutes are pure gold, as over 20% of all goals are scored on the power play. Often daily fantasy leagues offer a bonus for any goals or assists scored while shorthanded, so penalty kill minutes can be a minor bonus. But the main point is that players on power play lines should be valued appropriately for their greater likelihood to generate scoring.

Not all Ice Time is Created Equally

The above is a solid guide to how to consider line combinations when trying to value players for daily fantasy hockey, but there’s one other consideration if you’re looking to properly judge players and their lines. NHL coaches aren’t just throwing their lines out on the ice in 1-2-3-4 order. They’re deploying them for specific reasons and in specific circumstances, and that strategy has a big impact on how much offense a given line or player produces. The two relevant ideas are Quality of Competition and Offensive/Defensive Zone Deployment. Simply put, some players and lines tend to be put on the ice against the opposing team’s best players, and some players and lines tend to either start their shifts more in either the offensive or defensive zones. All of these metrics are tracked and can be accessed on a number of NHL stats websites, and paying proper attention to QoC (Quality of Competition) and OZ% (Offensive Zone Deployment Percentage) can help you recognize which players and lines are being put in the position to score more or fewer points than their raw talent would otherwise dictate. Take a player like Vladimir Tarasenko and the St. Louis Blues’ top line. Tarasenko is getting nearly 70% of his non-neutral zone starts in the offensive zone. Further, in 2017-2018 Tarasenko’s line was being matched with opponents’ weaker lines more often than not. The combination of those two factors means that Tarasenko and his linemates are in an ideal position to deliver the daily fantasy goods more often than not. Conversely, a line with more defensive zone starts than offensive ones that is also being paired with an opponent’s top line isn’t going to produce very many points.

To sum it all up, the perfect player for daily fantasy hockey plays on the first line and the top power play line, is paired with talented line mates, gets playing time against weaker opponent lines and generally is deployed for offensive zone starts to line shifts.

The established stars in these situations are known quantities, and you’ll have to pay a premium for them. But keep your eyes open for changes in the usage patterns for players as the season progresses. A line shuffle or change in the OZ% for a player can mean that a lesser-valued player can suddenly begin to put up points like a top-tier star.