by Coach

SAINT-LAZARE, QC – “Change it up!!”

You usually hear coaches yelling this from their bench when they want to get fresh players on the ice. Although it seems like a relatively simple concept, changing lines while play continues, or “on the fly”, is one of the most difficult transitions players must make during hockey games. Knowing when to get off the ice is almost as daunting a task as recognizing how an given play develops, or what type of game plan your opposition wants to execute.

All coaches at every level of hockey recognize that an optimal shift for any give player is 30-45 seconds. While this length is ideal, there are situations that arise that can shorten or lengthen a player’s stay on the ice. Keeping shifts at optimal lengths increase a player’s ability to recover the anerobic strength and energy in the shortest period of time.

The rules that govern changing lines, as described in Hockey Canada’s Rule Book, are pretty simple.

1-     A player preparing to enter the field of play can only do so when their teammate is within five feet of their players’ bench.

2-     Once another player has entered the field of play, the player coming  off the ice must do so immediately, without engaging an opposing player or attempting to play the puck. Failure to do either of these actions may result in a minor bench penalty.

Easy, right? Not really.

One of the most important rules in completing a line change is how many players can change at a given time. While there is no rule against changing all five players simultaneously, it is one of those things in hockey you just shouldn’t do. The maximum amount of players that should change at once is three. It could be a combination of all three forwards or the two forwards and the defenseman closest to the bench. Once they are subsituted, then the remaining two player can change. Personally, I always change two forwards and one defenseman first.

A key part of changing up your lines is the proper use of a dump-in. Players must strategically try to place the puck in an area of the offensive zone, where it will take the opposing team the longest to regroup and counter-attack. Dumping the puck into the zone softly into the corner furthest away from your team’s bench is the best place. While doing this, you reduce the chances of the puck being played toward your bench, and you also take away any opportunity for the opposition’s goaltender to make a play on the puck. In my previously mentioned personal coaching philosophy, this strategy allows my three players closest to the bench to come off the ice, while the other two are on the strong side of the ice, where the puck is. This way my team can still apply some measure of pressure on the puck while I complete my changes.

While dumping in the puck also sounds relatively easy, how and when are probably the most important factors in a successful line change. The problem with many dump ins is the fact that the player executing it is normally ahead of the play, unsure of where some of teammates are relative to the bench. The player preparing to dump in the puck needs to make very important choices:

1-     Should I attempt to cut across the ice once I cross the red line, in an attempt to let my teammates catch up to me, and then dump the puck?

2-     Should I dump the puck in after I cross the opposing blue line and ensure my players can change without incident?

3-     Should I dump the puck into the offensive zone and chase it down to let everyone else change, and I’ll go once the first phase of the change is complete?

One of the most critical parts of line changes is player communication. It is the responsibility of the player on the ice to communicate their intent to come to the bench, and so quickly once they have decided to do so. It is also the responsibility of the player on the bench to be aware of what is going on on the ice, recognize that his counterpart is coming to the bench, and replace his teammate just as quickly. Fatigue also plays a major role in mistakes made in changing lines during the game. When overly fatigued, the attention span of a player is diminished, and can certain result in errors during substitutions.

In closing, I’d like to make a couple of observation to circumstances to have happened recently to the Montreal Canadiens. It seems that the Habs have had the most difficult time executing line changes properly, especially during the second period of games. Since the Canadiens’ bench is at its furthest point from the defensive zone, line changes have to be made more efficiently then in the first and third periods, when the bench is closer. In my opinion, the problem is that many of the Canadiens’ players often decide to change when the puck is in transition into the defensive zone. Often the result of extended stays in the offensive zone, this is one of the cardinal sins in hockey. Players are taught from a very young age that they should NEVER attempt to change when the puck is in the defensive zone. The NHL is no different.

Another observation I have made is that the Habs’ defenseman often lob the puck high out of their zone, in an attempt to give their teammates a chance to change. While this sometimes works, the logic behind this strategy is flawed. Although players seem to get more time while the puck is in the air to change, the inability to gauge how deep into the offensive zone the puck will travel can often result in misjudgement, and odd-man rushes against.

Line changes aren’t an exact science. There are a multitude of variables that must be accounted for in a short period of time. While a perfect substitution is flawless and beautiful, a mis-timed or mis-executed one can often cost a team a game.

(Featured image by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)