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Is Pete DeBoer Line Change Happy?

Throughout the 2013-2014 season, it seemed the New Jersey Devils had a tough time finding static forward lines for their top 9 that allowed the players to gel. Was head coach Peter DeBoer altering lines too often? Or is that a fallacy? Let's see.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout this past season, it seemed to many watching the New Jersey Devils play that their top three forward lines were largely fluid.  Even the CBGB line was split up for part of the year as Steve Bernier spent time on the second and third lines.  The only real solid foundation, it seemed, was the stalwart connection of Travis Zajac and Jaromir Jagr, who combined to make magic happen on many nights.  Jagr himself became rather frustrated with the lack of a third static line mate, noting the lack of consistency as an issue with building chemistry.  The question is, did DeBoer change the team's line combinations so much that the team could not develop chemistry?  Or did the Devils see a comparable amount of line changes as compared to other teams in the league?

What The Data Says

Fantasy hockey has become much more popular in recent seasons.  Websites have been created that are devoted to keeping track of statistics necessary to make relevant lineup changes for fantasy team owners.  Thankfully, one website devoted to fantasy hockey, Left Wing Lock, has kept track of the frequency of line combinations for each of the 30 teams in the NHL.  Using this data, we can compare the frequency of the top Devils' lines with other competitors in the league.  If DeBoer is indeed line change happy, the frequency rates for New Jersey should be at least somewhat lower than those of other teams. (Note: this study will only look at even strength line combinations.  Special teams line combinations, while also important, is a topic for another day.)

During the season, as an avid fan may have guessed, the most frequent line on the ice for the Devils was the top trio of Jagr, Zajac, and Dainius Zubrus, who were out there together 13.39% of the time.  There was a fairly long stretch during the season when those three were kept together night in and night out.  And they played fairly well together, with Zubrus finding a good niche next to the other two.  The interesting thing, however, is that the duo of Zajac and Jagr are also near the top of the list two more times.  Those two also played with Tuomo Ruutu for another 3.79% of the time, and Patrik Elias for 2.02% of the time.  Clearly, Ruutu played a decent amount of minutes on that top line once coming over from Carolina, and Elias was sprinkled in when Zubrus and Ruutu were elsewhere.

The line with the next highest frequency was the CBGB line of Bernier, Stephen Gionta and Ryan Carter, who were on the ice together for 9.07% of the time.  Considering that this is a fourth line, that seems like a large number.  But after that, the numbers begin to slide.  Adam Henrique shows up next centering Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder, the "Newfoundline."  This line was together 7.38% of the time, not an insignificant amount of ice time.  Henrique and Ryder show up again with Elias at 2.04% of the time.  Every other line on the list comes in at under 2% of the time, and interestingly enough, Elias is represented quite often.  Clearly, Patrik was asked to move around quite considerably throughout the season, lining up with at least seven other Devil's forwards for more than a trivial amount of time.

When all added up, the top 10 line combinations for the Devils accounted for 44.96% of all time on the ice.  That means for just over 55% of even strength time, DeBoer was rolling a line that rarely played together.  Some of that is normal, as it accounts for injury call ups, fliers, trades, and "5th liners" such as Jacob Josefson, Rostislav Olesz, Mattias Tedenby, and others.  More of it, however, was simply Pete DeBoer changing lines in an attempt to find a spark.  While the intention is good, too much line changing can be an issue as players cannot develop chemistry together.

The interesting thing is that when compared to other top teams in the league, the Devils' lines were not seemingly more fluid.  The following list showcases the overall frequency percentage of the top 10 lines of some of the best teams in the league this past year.  It also lists the top line for each team in terms of frequency played together, and what percentage that was.  The teams chosen below all made the playoffs, and are also top teams in Corsi For and Fenwick For.

  • Los Angeles Kings: 40.86%. Top line - Dwight King, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter: 7.15%
  • New York Rangers: 50.83%. Top line - Rick Nash, Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan - 12.71%
  • Chicago Blackhawks: 47.64%. Top line - Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp - 15.15%
  • Boston Bruins: 72.57%. Top Line - Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Jarome Iginla - 25.8%
  • San Jose Sharks: 45.91%. Top Line - Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton - 11.44%
  • St. Louis Blues: 39.88%. Top Line - David Backes, Alexander Steen, TJ Oshie - 7.89%
  • New Jersey Devils: 44.96%. Top Line - Jagr, Zajac, Zubrus - 13.39%

Looking at that list, the only real outlier is the Boston Bruins, who kept really static line combinations.  Their top line of Lucic, Krejci and Iginla were on the ice together for over a quarter of the whole team's season, and their top 10 line combinations combined for over 72% of all time on the ice for Boston.  Every other team came in with similar numbers to the Devils.  The Blues were on the opposite end of the Bruins, with their top line of Backes, Steen and Oshie only accounting for under 8% of all Blues time on ice.

What Does This All Mean?

Well first off, it must be prefaced that this study is far from an end all be all.  The information used was far from complete.  Further study can be done on how many forwards each skater played with, for how long each skater played with the others, and use this chart in comparison with every other team in the league.  The more skaters that someone played with would mean more line alterations, especially if that forward played with all of his teammates for a similar number of minutes.  There is a possibility that these numbers might show something different than what the information I used showed me.

Another quick qualifier is injuries.  Teams might not have been able to roll similar lines because players got injured, not because coaches were altering line combinations.  In the end, however, I feel like this is somewhat minimized, as all teams suffer injuries, and these will affect line combinations for each and every team.  To fully negate the injury aspect, a study would need to be done on line frequencies over the course of several years.  And the last qualifier that needs to be brought up is trades.  Players that join a team mid-season will affect line combinations.  Tuomo Ruutu is a great example for the Devils, as is Marian Gaborik for the Kings.  Gaborik was on a line with Kopitar and Justin Williams for just 5.2% of the season.  Considering that he was traded to the Kings in early March, however, this is a fairly high percentage.  It just doesn't look like that because he was not with the team from October through February.

Given those warnings, the information that I used revealed that DeBoer was not particularly line change happy, at least in comparison to the other top possession teams in the league.  In fact, the line of Jagr, Zajac and Zubrus played a relatively large amount of minutes together, especially in contrast to the top lines of the Kings and Blues.  Even the Newfoundline had a pretty decent amount of time together as compared to these other teams.  The one player that really seemed to be moved around consistently was Patrik Elias, who did not stay on one set line for more than 2.04% of the season.  But considering that he still managed to put up 53 points in 65 games played, he did not seem to suffer all that much by it.

Still, next season I would like to see more consistent lines.  That would mean that the team is avoiding the injury bug, and it would also mean that lines are gelling together quite well and producing much needed goals.  But knowing the information that I know now, I would not call DeBoer line change happy.  In fact, I would say that he does a fairly good job of altering lines, especially in comparison to other quality teams in the NHL.  There were times during the season where it felt he was really drawing at straws to find something that worked, but overall I feel like I can't complain.  To me, this is just another study of why DeBoer is a quality coach, one that is right for the New Jersey Devils.

Your Thoughts

Now that you have read the data and heard my opinion, what do you think?  Do you think DeBoer was line change happy this past season?  Would more static forward lines be better for this team, or were the more fluid line combinations a better way to success?  What line combinations could you possibly see working for the Devils this upcoming season?  Please leave your comments in the section below, and thank you for reading.