by Justin Bourne

The psychology of choosing fourth line forwards


Recently, I wrote a post titled “From Prospect to Project: The thin line, and why some guys make the show and others don’t.” It looked at the reasons some junior and college hockey studs fall short despite gigantic pre-NHL numbers, and even larger expectations.

One of the things I briefly touched on was the concept of top six/bottom six forwards (top nine/bottom three on some teams), and how some forwards in the AHL are far more talented than those “bottom” line guys, but coaches and GMs prefer to have low-maintenance skaters who work hard, preserve the status quo and keep it simple. It can be frustrating for some, but most have accepted that it’s a reality that as skilled AHL forwards they aren’t trying to crack the big club’s top-12, they’re after the top-six. Really, it can be top-two at your position, if you’re adamant about playing one specifically. (If I can play Don Cherry for a sec, “KIDS, LISTEN UP – Do not pigeon-hole yourself to a particular wing, and learn to play center. You need to be a ‘forward.’”).

Kent Wilson of NHL Numbers (great site) and Flames Nation, like myself, studied psychology in University, and has a theory about how we’ve ended up where we’re at, with every team selecting a few lesser talented forwards for “intangible” reasons, or just straight physical play in lieu of skill. It really is incredible some team hasn’t tried to take a different course (top-12, all-skill), given Team Canada’s increased success after throwing away the idea of carrying a true “grind line” (reminder: Rob Zamuner was once on the Canadian Olympic team.)

Anyway, below is Kent’s theory in email form, which I’ll respond to it..

The issue of how and why certain players are consistently chosen for bottom-6 roles (particularly the 4th line) has been of interest to me for some time, especially since coaches/teams don’t seem to necessarily pick them based on strictly optimal or rational reasons (ie; players that are tough, big and ‘coach-able’ rather than players that can actually outscore the opposition).

Kent’s more into advanced stats than I am, but I did come to respect a few fancy-stat measures this season, one of which is Corsi, a measure which shows how much a given player “drives the play.” All pucks directed towards the oppositions net while a player is on the ice positively affects their Corsi, and pucks directed at their own net negatively affect it.

One thing it taught me this year, was that every single player on the Toronto Maple Leafs had a higher Corsi when they were on the ice with Mikhail Grabovski –  as in, he’s great at driving play.

A lot of these “lower line” gents do not have positive Corsis (but man can they bang the body!). It seems to me (and other relatively logical people) that the more guys you have who have the puck moving the right way, the more chances you’ll generate, and the better off you’re going to be. I don’t care how physical a guy is if the puck is moving the right way when he’s on the ice. I acknowledge that we’ve always done it the top-six/bottom-six way, but if I’m a GM, I’m paying less attention to hits, and more attention to the direction of play.

So my thoughts are many of those guys are chosen based on some of those attributes you note (particularly effort and personality) to help the coach and organization promote cohesion and fidelity, both to the team in general and coach in particular. Subconsciously, it’s easy to prefer guys you “like” and coaches will obviously like guys who skate through a wall for them and do pretty much anything they ask without complaint. In addition, having guys like that can act as a model for the coach to laud in an effort to exact both effort and obedience from other players, which in turn would act to legitimize the coaches authority over the group.

The last sentence makes perfect sense. Tim Jackman, who I’ve repeatedly used as the example for this role, is a leader in the dressing room too. He’ll repeat everything the coach wants done, and then he’ll speak with his actions too. It’s borderline inspiring – if that guy cares so much, maybe I should too?

There’s another reason for picking the guys they “like” too: money. Obviously, your elite players eat up the bulk of your salary cap, so you can’t afford to pay much to the bottom of your lineup. Given the volume of guys in the AHL who are willing to do whatever to make those NHL bucks (and how basically interchangeable they are), why grab a guy who’s going to complain about ice time, try to climb the ranks, verbally submarine teammates in the locker room…if we’re only spending 600k on this guy, might as well grab one who’ll know his place and stay out of the way. But Kent is getting to this.

Dan Arielly wrote about “social norms” and “market norms” in Predictably Irrational. These are two parallel yet mostly mutually exclusive ways of thinking that pretty much everyone engages in. When operating in “market norms”, people coldly weigh their options, calculate values and render decisions based on impersonal cost/benefit analyses.

When operating in “social norms” the effect of our actions on others and the importance of group cohesion, identity within the group and other pro-social phenomenon are weighted a lot more heavily. Of course, social norm thinking and market norm thinking can clash greatly when the line between the two is transgressed. This made me wonder if coaches have to perpetually fight to keep social and market norms separate in the dressing room. After all, pro hockey players get paid based on how much they produce, how much they play etc. So in fact the dressing room could hypothetically be a constant competition and struggle between the various players to gain more opportunity, more ice and therefore a bigger paycheck.

I liked that observation a lot. From the outside, the Chicago Blackhawks (for example) are The Chicago Blackhawks to the fans. They are pushing and pulling in the same direction, and trying to win the Stanley Cup. They will do whatever it takes for one another to get there.From the inside, a second line forward is  annoyed that the third liner they plunked in front of the net on what should’ve been the second liner’s powerplay keeps scoring. One missed zone entry equaled on missed PP in favour of the third liner equaled a goal for the team equaled more ice time for that guy equals “hate that guy”. The third liners value is rising. Both their contracts are up this year. Dammit, he scored again.There are plenty of times a d-man gets roasted and the healthy-scratched D-man celebrates in his head. Or a guy’s stick snaps on an open net, and a guy on the bench is happy. Teams are best when roles are clearly defined, internal competition is minimized (NOT eliminated), and the team is sincerely pulling the same direction.

On the other hand, the goal is to maintain a clear hierarchy and a cohesive team that can work together and effectively implement the coaches strategies. So the consistent inclusion of Jackman-type players on the bottom-end could be a cultural feature in the league that helps promote the social norms of hockey (self-sacrifice, team-first, do anything to win, etc.) ahead of market norms.

Yep. As much as it’s good to not have players get complacent in their roles, there’s usually enough motivation for professional hockey players to keep pouring it on. No one low on the depth chart is going to crack, say, the Penguins first powerplay unit, but guys still want to be the first fill-in if someone gets hurt. They have their contracts to worry about, they want to win…there’s plenty of reasons. So having someone like Jackman who will, as Wilson put it “promote the social norms of hockey” keeps things stable and organized.All this translates to the simple fact that coaches don’t always pick the best players for their teams. They try to build the best “team,” not collect the best available guys who are good at hockey. The Rock was wise when he advised that people “know their role.”

It can be frustrating, and it can be tough to explain to the outside world, but it’s just the way things have been up to this point. For hockey players, your choices are accept it, or try another profession.