Lines and D-Pairs
First, let's define a line. In ice hockey, there are forward lines and defensive pairs. A forward line consists of 3 players; centerman, left winger, and right winger. A defensive line/pair consists of one left defenseman and one right defenseman. Most of the time, when a player or coach says "line", he's referring to the forwards. "D-pair" (defensive pair) and "defensive unit" are usually the terms used to refer to a defensive line.
A full roster is traditionally composed of 4 forward lines (12 players) and 3 D-pairs (6 players). Depending on the philosophical team strategy of the coaching staff and the players who are available on the roster, you may occasionally come across a team that dresses 7 defensemen and 11 forwards. In fact, the St. Louis Blues have been using the 7-11 design for their last few games, and it’s proven to be quite effective. But, the 12-F 6-D roster is still most commonly employed.
Now that we know what a line is we can talk about shifts. When you’re out on the ice you’re taking a shift. Your shift is basically just your turn to go out on the ice and play. A typical shift is 45 seconds to 1 minute long. Sometimes your shifts will be shorter or longer than average, for various reasons. You may get double-shifted from time to time, which means that you’ll stay on the ice for two consecutive shifts before coming to the bench to rest. This often happens when a team is missing a couple players from the roster, or when a key faceoff needs to be won and the team’s best centerman is already on the ice from his previous shift. These and other similar situations will inevitably arise and you’ll become more familiar with the strategies that are used to address them as they come up.
Unfortunately, sometimes you’ll get short-shifted because the player you’re waiting to sub in for, on the line ahead of you, is taking a longer shift than he ought to. Everyone gets short-shifted from time to time because of penalties, stoppages in play, and player matchups.
Part of being a team player is making a conscious effort to take shifts that are the proper length, as defined by your coach. And no, I'm not appealing to the "feel-good" crowd who places a greater emphasis on sharing, caring and "fairness" than they place on winning as a team. Rather, my point is directed at the players who come off when they feel like it, instead of following the system laid out by the team's coaching staff. Your coach may decide to play one of his defensemen for literally half of the game while he puts another defenseman in only once or twice each period. Usually, the coach has good reasons for doing the things he does. So, if you're the guy riding the pine, don't just sit there and complain - study the players who are getting significant ice time and try to figure out how to make yourself as valuable to your coach as they are.
We’ve covered lines and shifts already, so line changes should be fairly self-explanatory. But for the sake of being thorough, we’ll define line changes and discuss some of the nuances that persist. Line changes occur when the players on the ice come to the bench to be replaced by another line of well-rested players. In most cases, forward lines are assembled before the game and are defined as Line 1, 2, 3 and 4. Usually, defensive pairs are also determined before the game. Youth teams and less competitive adult teams usually run 4 lines all game. As you get older and play on more highly competitive teams, there’s a greater likelihood that your shift frequency will change based on the line that you’ve been assigned to.
Your coach will simply call out your line’s number or your centerman’s last name when your shift is up: "Line 2" or "Stastny line", for instance. You’ll hear terms like "change em up", "full change", "change up front", "change the D", and "on the fly". These are terms that you’ll become familiar with fairly quickly.
- Change em Up – A line change should be made
- Full Change – All players on the ice are replaced
- Change Up Front –The forward line is replaced
- Change The D – The defensemen are replaced
- Changing on the Fly – A line change made during the play, rather than during a stoppage of play
Making Good Line Changes
Ice hockey is a team sport, which means that every move you make affects the team. Making good line changes is a crucial aspect of team performance. To give an example, just imagine that your team has possession of the puck in the other team’s defensive zone, and you’ve all been on the ice for a fairly long shift. One of your players turns the puck over to one of the players on the other team and a breakout ensues. At this point, one of your defensemen decides he needs to rest, so he skates to the bench to make a change. This means that you only have 1 defenseman back to defend against the rush, creating a dangerous odd-man situation. This is a bad change. It’s bad enough that you’re tired from the long shift, but now you’re also momentarily shorthanded.
The best time to make a line change is when your team has possession of the puck entering the offensive zone. If you have possession in the neutral zone and you’re near the end of a shift, but you don’t have the energy to make an offensive play, just get to the red line and dump the puck into the other team’s zone and then quickly skate to the bench. Short shifts are always better than long shifts. Staying on the ice for a long shift will wear you down and make you virtually useless anyway, so it’s best to take shorter shifts so that you can avoid getting caught on a long, tiring shift stuck in your defensive zone.