Coaches must consider domino effect when top players return to lineup

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The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2021-22 NHL season by former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher.

In this edition, Dave Barr, former assistant with the Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres and San Jose Sharks, goes over the coaching decisions related to bringing top players back into the lineup.

There is always a lot for coaches to consider when they have to work a top player into the lineup.

The Tampa Bay Lightning did it last week with right wing Nikita Kucherov. The Pittsburgh Penguins will likely be doing it this week with center Evgeni Malkin. The Vegas Golden Knights will be doing it soon with center Jack Eichel.

These may seem like seamless, easy transitions working talented, impactful players like Kucherov, Malkin and Eichel into the lineup, but there is a domino effect to each decision with players who may have been performing well having to take on a different role.

Coaches must consider more than just the player they’re bringing in, and in the cases of Kucherov, Eichel and Malkin, it looks like a good problem to have.

 

KUCHEROV EFFECT

The Lightning brought Kucherov back against the Calgary Flames on Jan. 6 after the forward missed 32 games with a lower-body injury. He played his usual spot at 5-on-5 and on the power play. 

Ondrej Palat played well in Kucherov’s place with the man-advantage. He had to drop down to the second unit with Kucherov’s return to the top unit with forwards Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Alex Killorn, and defenseman Victor Hedman.

Palat’s ability to step up in Kucherov’s absence from Oct. 17-Jan. 5 helped the Lightning maintain their strong play at 5-on-5 and keep some semblance of their power play. He scored 25 points (10 goals, 15 assists) without Kucherov and five points (one goal, four assists) on the power play, which went 19.0 percent, 17th in the NHL during that span.

No one can replace Kucherov on the power play, where he has to be one of the top two or three players in the NHL. The plays he can make are pretty hard to replicate. They’re plays he practiced in his rehab before coming back into the lineup.

Kucherov played a lot of small-ice games during his on-ice recovery. That was a big part of his getting his timing, execution and quickness back because it forced him to make fast plays in tight spots, a lot of what he does on the power play.

Palat proved he can do it too. 

It’s not easy to play that role on the flank of Tampa Bay’s power play because Hedman is always standing in the middle on the blue line almost all of the time. Most defenseman will go to the boards to give relief when the puck is on the half wall, but Hedman is always in the middle, so whoever is playing on the flanks has to figure out a way to get the puck to him likely through a penalty killer. 

Palat handled that. Now that Palat had to go to the second unit, the Lightning’s power play is that much deeper.

Forwards Mathieu Joseph and Ross Colton got extra 5-on-5 minutes in Kucherov’s absence and proved they could handle the additional load. Some guys can’t handle those minutes because they’re prone to lapses, but that wasn’t an issue for Colton and Joseph, and now the Lightning feel they can go deeper into their lineup at 5-on-5 through a game. 

Their third line with Pat Maroon, Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare has also been rock solid, the kind of third line you need to have that’s contributing offensively, bringing energy to the lineup and very consistent. 

The Lightning didn’t change anything with Kucherov out of their lineup. They found other ways to win, going 20-7-5 without him, including 11-2-1 without Brayden Point too. They filled in and they’re better for it.

 

EICHEL’S PENDING IMPACT

The coaching staff in Vegas should be planning for Eichel to join their lineup in the next month. 

The most likely position for him will be to play between Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, who is out of the lineup following wrist surgery. 

That line would have size, scoring, speed and the overall ability to dominate a game. It would, or should, instantly become one of the top lines in the NHL.

But if Eichel plays on that line, Chandler Stephenson, who is having a career season, will take on a different role, likely in a bottom-six spot because the second line of William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault has chemistry that shouldn’t be messed with.

The Golden Knights shouldn’t be concerned about Stephenson. He won the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018 playing a fourth-line role. He knows the impact he can make and the importance of a bottom-six forward on a team that has Stanley Cup aspirations like Vegas.

Stephenson could still play on the top power-play unit depending on the setup. They could use Pacioretty and Eichel each on the one-timer side and Stone net front. Stephenson might be perfect as the man in the middle with defensemen Alex Pietrangelo or Shea Theodore up top.

The point is Stephenson has played on the power play and penalty kill and has done very well for himself. The Golden Knights coaching staff has a lot of options with Stephenson. He’ll still get his minutes and make a difference when Eichel is there.

The other two players who have proven themselves to be key contributors for the Golden Knights are forwards Nicholas Roy and Keegan Kolesar. So if they have to make a trade for NHL salary cap reasons to add Eichel, they should feel confident they have the depth to not be hurt by it.

 

MALKIN ABOUT READY

One of the best things the Penguins have going for them with Malkin nearing his return is the season that forward Evan Rodrigues has been having.

Rodrigues has scored 15 goals, six more than his previous NHL career high he set with the Buffalo Sabres in 2018-19. He has scored 30 points in 34 games, also an NHL career high. He could play right wing on Malkin’s line with Jason Zucker at left wing and the Penguins should feel great about it because he has stepped up, earned the extra minutes, provided extra offense and proven he can play with top players.

His versatility also gives coach Mike Sullivan the option to put Rodrigues at center on the third line if he wanted to utilize Jeff Carter as the right wing on Malkin’s line, assuming the top line remains Sidney Crosby with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust.

Sullivan and his coaching staff have learned enough about Rodrigues now to know they have a lot of options with him like the Golden Knights do with Stephenson.

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